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A dowager is a widow who holds a title or property, or dower, derived from her deceased husband. As an adjective, "Dowager" usually appears in association with monarchical and aristocratic titles.
In loose popular usage, dowager as a stand-alone noun may refer to any elderly woman, especially one who is wealthy or behaves with dignity.
In the United Kingdom, the widow of a peer may continue to use the style she had during her husband's lifetime, e.g. "Countess of Loamshire", provided that his successor, if any, has no wife to bear the plain title. Otherwise she more properly prefixes either her forename or the word Dowager, e.g. "Jane, Countess of Loamshire" or "Dowager Countess of Loamshire". (In any case she would continue to be called "Lady Loamshire".)
China recognized Empress dowagers and Grand empress dowagers.
Queen Dowager is used in the United Kingdom and several other countries.
In the fallen Russian imperial family, the term "Dowager Empress" was used to describe the wife of a deceased emperor.
Following the annulment of her marriage to King Henry VIII of England, Katherine of Aragon was styled either "Princess Dowager of Wales" or "Dowager Princess of Wales" in consequence of her previous marriage (1501) to Henry's older brother, Arthur, Prince of Wales (died 1502).
Cixi was referred to as the Empress Dowager of China.
Helen E. Hokinson, a cartoonist for the New Yorker, was best known for her sketches of American dowagers from the 1920's though the 1940's.
Following the death of Edward John Spencer, 8th Earl Spencer in 1992, his widow, Raine, ceased to use the style Countess Spencer, becoming Raine, Dowager Countess Spencer. Her stepdaughter-in-law, Victoria, became Countess Spencer.
In the 1997 movie Anastasia, the term is said many times to address the Dowager Empress Marie, Anastasia's grandmother.
In the Princess Diaries books Mia's grandmother is the Dowager Princess of Genovia, although she is simply known as "the Queen" in the films.