The world’s first female prime minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike of what was then Ceylon, is the archetypical example of what political scientists sometimes refer to as the “widow’s walk to power,” in which a woman steps into a position of political power after the often-violent death of her husband.The assumption is such women will carry on the same policies and protect the same interests as the men whose size elevens they try to fill.
Her husband, S.W.D. Bandaranaike, was a national hero who democratized Ceylon’s government after it gained independence from Great Britain in 1956. A Buddhist monk assassinated him three years after he was elected; his death left a power vacuum not only in the Ceylonese government but in the political party that he founded. After several months of bitter infighting, several key party members asked Bandaranaike to run for office in his place, assuming she would be a political placeholder.
Bandaranaiake was the visual embodiment of what her society expected from a widow, from the dark shadows under her eyes to her white mourning sari. She played tapes of her husband’s speeches at every campaign stop. The press called her the “weeping widow.”
In fact, Bandaranaiake was not the political innocent expected by both her supporters and detractors. In addition to the political education she received as the daughter and wife of important politicians, she had years of experience as an leader in Ceylon’s largest Buddhist women’s organization. Prior to her first election, she worked to improve economic and social conditions in rural areas, focusing on rice yields, women’s education, and access to family planning—all political hot buttons at the time.
Her widow’s walk was the first step in a forty-year career in national politics. She served as prime minister three times for a total of eighteen years and became a dominant figure in Sri Lankan politics. A weeping widow, perhaps, but not a wimpy widow.