Here we have another term with a long history, one in which the sense that it conveys has changed over time, but today it is a phrase languishing in some obscurity. When it is used nowadays it generally refers to a woman whose husband has gone away or who is divorced. Even from the time it first appeared, in the 16th century, the one constant in its meaning was that the woman’s husband was not dead.
The first recorded usage of the term was in a religious treatise penned by Sir Thomas More in 1529. There he wrote “for then had wyuys ben in his time lytel better than grasse wydowes be now.” Even if you didn’t know the precise meaning, from the context you could deduce that it was a rather pejorative term. Grass widows were not respectable women, either a discarded mistress, an unmarried woman or a single woman who had cohabited with one or more men.
It is thought that the grass referred to temporary or impromptu bedding which may have been the lot of a mistress who was involved in a furtive assignation with her beau. There was an equivalent term in German, strohwitwe, and around the turn of the 15th century, in Chemnitz, brides who were married whilst expecting a child were known as straw brides, strobrute. By 1580 to give a woman a grass gown was to roll her playfully on the grass and presumably have their wicked way with her.
According to the town records of Stoke-by-Nayland in Suffolk from 1582, “Marie the daughter of Elizabeth London graswidow” was buried. Elizabeth was an unmarried mother and this usage was helpfully confirmed in the anonymous B.E’s A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew from 1699 where a Grass-widow is defined as “one that pretends to have been Married, but never was, but has Children.” Brooklyn Daily Eagle referred to Maria Fitzherbert, George IV’s bit on the side, as a “grass widow” while the Glossary of Yorkshire Words and Phrases in a characteristically blunt northern way as “a female of easy virtue, a prostitute.”
But by the mid 19th century grass widow was being used in another context, to denote a wife whose husband was absent. Ellen Clacy in her A Lady’s Visit to the Gold Diggings of Australia, published in 1853, noted that the menfolk’s obsession with pursuing gold nuggets resulted in many deserted wives; “the wives thus left in town to deplore their husbands’ infatuation are termed grass-widows.” In the British Raj women were often left to their own devices while their hubbies administered India. As John Lang noted in his Wanderings in India, published in 1859, “grass widows in the hills are always writing to their husbands.” Conversely, the arrival of their wives to India engendered great excitement amongst their husbands who had been keeping the Empire going as Lady Dufferin noted in 1889 in her Viceregal Life in India; “expectant husbands come out to meet the grass widows who have travelled with us.” There is no hint of impropriety or condemnation in these usages.
However, there is clearly a hint of disapproval in Hobson-Jobson, an Anglo-Indian dictionary compiled by Henry Yule and Arthur Burnell and published in 1886. There a grass widow is a term used to describe wives stationed up in the hills during the summer whilst their husbands sweated it out in the lowlands and, the lexicographers note, it is used “with a shade of malignancy.” The inference is made but not substantiated. Perhaps it notes a transition between the earlier and later usages.
And then there is grace widow. This is a relatively later term, defined in Edward Moor’s Suffolk Words and Phrases of 1823 where it is defined as “a woman who had a child for her cradle ere she had a husband for her bed.” The rather puritanical lexicographer notes in a rider “it ought rather to be grace-less,” rather missing the point of its development over the centuries.