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Conventional interpretations explain the prevalence of female-headed families among nineteenth-century Irish immigrants in the United States as a sign of social failure attributable to Irish men's high mortality rates and propensity to desert their wives. This article argues that women's different maternal strategies and styles of mothering better explain ethnic patterns of female family headship. This exploration of the Irish pattern points to broader generalizations about all women's lives during the Gilded Age. This study challenges two common assumptions about Victorian social realities: that there was a simple and direct relationship between marital disruption and female headship of families, and that female-headed families betokened social failure.