Right now I’m thinking about widows–not for personal reasons but in reference to The Book.
I’ve been looking at the concept of the widow’s walk to power: think Corazon Aquino or Sirivamo Bandaraniake, who campaigned as the “weeping widow” to become the world’s first female prime minister in 1960 after the assassination of her husband. I’ve read about widowed queens who serve as regents for their underaged sons* and women who inherited armies and Mad Ann Bailey who put on men’s clothing, learned to shoot a rifle, and volunteered as a scout in the American Revolution after her husband’s death. I’ve learned about widows who joined religious communities–Buddhist as well as Catholic, voluntarily and under pressure. I’ve struggle with the question of how the custom of widow burning (sati) relates to Hindu ideas about female power (shakti).
And occasionally, when the work goes particularly well, I consider celebrating with one of my favorite widows, Veuve Clicquot–though I really need to be a bit further along before I pop a cork.
It turns out the widow behind the bottle was a corker in her own right. (Sorry.)
Barbe-Nicole Clicquot was the 27 year old mother of a young daughter when her husband died in 1805. She found herself in control of Maison Clicquot, a company that had its fingers in lots of economic pies, including a growing business in champagne production. She could have turned things over to male relatives or managers. In fact, society expected her to turn things over to some man: women may have run small family businesses but they didn’t run international companies. She didn’t. Under her leadership, the company focused on champagne. She invented at least one device, the riddling table, that made mass production of champagne possible, created the first blend of rosé champagne, produced the first identified vintage, and added distinctive labels to her bottles to discourage fraud. During the Napoleonic wars, she defied the blockades and embargoes that kept her from shipping her wine, using clever (i.e. Illegal) ruses, such as packing champagne bottles in coffee barrels.
When Madame Clicquot died in 1866, she had grown the annual production to 750,000 bottles–more than seven times what it had been when she inherited the company–and Veuve Clicquot was a major player in the business.
She may or may not have been a merry widow, but she certainly caused merriment in others.
*Not all of whom made it to their majority. Maternal feelings don’t necessarily come with maternity.