Genealogy Research & the Female Line: Women's History Month

Genealogy research is often challenging, and one of the biggest stumbling blocks that researchers face is tracing female lines.  In order to research further back in a female ancestor’s line, you need to discover her maiden name and her parents’ names.  This is difficult because, especially the further back in history you get, few transactions, legal or commercial, were recorded in a woman’s name.  Vital records, often the most revealing sources of direct evidence in genealogy research, were not typically required to be recorded across the U.S.  until the early part of the 20th century, as you can see if you consult this list of links entitled “Where to Write for Vital Records” compiled for each state by the CDC.  Those records that were recorded prior to this time were typically done at the local level or by a church (i.e. baptismal records). 

If you’re not convinced that researching the female branches of your family tree can be a challenge, just think about trying to research your great-grandmother when you have no idea what her maiden name was, what the names of her parents were, where she was born or when and where she and your great-grandfather were married.  If you can’t find a marriage record for your great-grandparents and if you either have no death certificate for her or her parents’ names were listed as “unknown” then two of the best ways to discover her maiden name are eliminated.  If there is no obituary for her, or it does reference any information about her parents because nobody who was still alive knew anything about them at the time it was written, there’s another source down the drain. 

Census records from 1790-1840 only list the names of the head of household and then the number of males and females in each age range that live in that household (i.e. 2 females under age 5, 1 male over 60, etc.).  The 1850 Census is the first one to list the names of all the people in one household, and it’s not until the 1880 Census that we learn how all the people in that household are related to the head of house (and indirectly learn how they’re related to each other).  Women went from their father’s household to their husband’s with few records to look at in which they might be mentioned.  Once names of all household members are recorded on the census, you might find an elderly, widowed parent living with their daughter and son-in-law that could give you a clue. 

Due to the challenges encountered when researching female lines, you may have to use what Emily Ann Croom refers to as “cluster genealogy” in her book Sleuth Book for Genealogists.  She defines cluster genealogy as “the ideas that ancestors did not live in a vacuum but in a cluster of relatives, neighbors, friends and associates.”  For an excellent video on researching females and further explanation of cluster genealogy, check out Ancestry.com’s 1 hour webinar entitled “Finding Females in Your Family Tree” from May 12, 2010.  Cyndi’s List has also compiled some resources worth checking out regarding female ancestors and women in history.  The National Archives has a page on their web site that discusses women and the naturalization process as well as more links on researching women in American history using National Archives resources. 

Learning about what life would have been like for your female ancestors at the time and in the place that they lived should lead to a more successful search because you’ll know what kind of sources in which you might find her mentioned.  For an idea of what daily life has been like for women in America in the past, it’s worth taking a look at some of the Library of Congress’ digital collections, in particular the American Memory Collection.  Check out this Library of Congress link to learn more about Women’s History Month.  Have fun researching your female ancestors!