A widow is a woman whose husband has died. A man whose wife has died is a widower. The state of having lost one's spouse to death is termed widowhood or (occasionally) viduity. The adjective is widowed.
The economic position of widows has been an important social issue in many societies. In societies in which the husband was typically the sole provider, his death could plunge his family into poverty. This was aggravated by women's longer life spans, and that men generally marry women younger than themselves. Many charities existed to help widows and orphans (often, not children without parents, but children without a contributing father) in need.
However, even in some patriarchal societies, widows could maintain economic independence. A widow could carry on her late husband's business and consequently be accorded certain rights, such as the right to enter guilds. More recently, widows of elected officials have been among the first women elected to office in many countries (e.g. Corazon Aquino).
There were implications for sexual freedom as well; although some wills contained dum casta provisions (requiring widows to remain unmarried in order to receive inheritance), in societies preventing divorce, widowhood permitted women to remarry and have a greater range of sexual experiences.
In some other cultures, widows are treated differently. For instance, in India there is often an elaborate ceremony during the funeral of a widow's husband, including smashing the bangles, removing the bindi as well as any colorful attire, and requiring the woman to wear white clothes, the colour of mourning. Earlier it was compulsory to wear all white after the husband was dead, and even Widow burning (sati or suttee) was practiced sometimes. However in modern-day culture this has gradually given way to wearing colored clothing. Sati practice has been banned in India for more than a century. The ban began under British rule of India owing to the persistence of social reformer RajaRam Mohan Roy.
In other cultures, widows are required to remarry within the family of their late husband; see widow inheritance. This started as a custom to ensure that no widow could be kicked out of her home and face a life without financial provision, but it can also be used to keep money within the family. In addition, it is an important factor in the transmission of HIV within certain communities, e.g. the Luo, and is being challenged on human rights grounds.