Abstract Widows in contemporary and past societies are normally portrayed as passive individuals needing to be cared for by their children or relatives, the community, or the state. This article challenges this assumption by documenting the extent and range of the participation of widows in the labor market and the number of dependents for whom they were responsible. The introduction discusses the longstanding image of the widow and the attempts made to coerce widows to behave in accordance with the image. The reasons for the high degree of regulation and supervision, particularly of sexuality, are discussed. The image and associated regulations are then contrasted with the reality of the widows' struggle to survive. It is argued that many widows perceived their age and widowhood as less of a burden and more as a form of liberation from the social and economic constrictions of married life. As widows developed strategies to reorganize their lives, friendships with other women were often decisive.