The world has come a long way in the past third of a century or so. In 1975, Robin Lakoff's book Language and Women's Place had the following to say about widows and widowers:
Surely a bereaved husband and a bereaved wife are equivalent: they have both undergone the loss of a mate. But in fact, linguistically at any rate, this is not true. It is true that we have two words, widow and widower; but here again, widow is far commoner in use. Widows, not widowers, have their particular roles in folklore and tradition, and mourning behavior of particular sorts seems to be expected more strongly, and for a longer time, of a widow than of a widower. But there is more than this, as evidenced by the following:
- Mary is John's widow.
- *John is Mary's widower.
Like mistress, widow commonly occurs with a possessive preceding it, the name of the woman's late husband. Though he is dead, she is still defined by her relationship to him. But the bereaved husband is no longer defined in terms of his wife. While she is alive, he is sometimes defined as Mary's husband (though less often, probably, than she is as "John's wife"). But once she is gone, her function for him is over, linguistically speaking anyway.
As of this morning (at the latest), this is no longer true. Here is today's New York Times reporting on yesterday's election in Pakistan:
Bhutto’s Widower, Viewed as Ally by U.S., Wins the Pakistani Presidency Handily
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of the assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto who has little experience in governing, was elected president of Pakistan on Saturday by a wide margin.
We talk about "sexist language," but, as Lakoff's book made clear, it's not really the language that is at fault. The sexist asymmetries in our language merely reflect, and to some extent reinforce, the sexism that is present in our society. (The words governor and governess, for example, were once about as parallel semantically as they are morphologically; that they have drifted apart is merely a reflection of the fact that society generally assigned men to govern states, and women to govern children. This pair, I think, is unlikely to swing back into sync; Sarah Palin is not the governess of Alaska.)
Zardari is described as "Bhutto's widower" for the same reason that so many women over the centuries have been described as somebody's widow: because the deceased spouse is more prominent in the speaker's mind than the surviving one. All it took to make the construction in Lakoff's (24b) grammatical was the remarkable career of Benazir Bhutto. If we want to change the language, all we have to do is change the world.