Perhaps thatís all you know about her. If youíre luckier, maybe you have her death date, but nothing else. Want to know more about her? Well, researching female ancestors is uniquely challenging, but the task, though daunting, is not insurmountable. There are two important research books which are invaluable to your research of the women in your tree, and I highly recommend getting both of them: A Genealogistís Guide to Discovering Your Female Ancestors by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, and The Hidden Half of the Family: A Sourcebook for Womenís Genealogy by Christina Schaefer.
The two major research problems when searching female ancestors are as follows:
- women usually changed their surname when they married and
- women had few legal rights until recently and thus had no individual identities.
For centuries women were not allowed to own property in their own name, sign a deed, devise a will, or enter into contracts. This sounds so familiar when considering many of the countries of the world today.
Without finding the womanís maiden name, research on a particular line often comes to an abrupt halt. Naturally, the best place to look for a maiden name is on a marriage certificate. Other vital records may have the information, though not those more than 100 years old. These include her death certificate, her husbandís death certificate, birth certificates of her children, or the marriage or death certificates of her children. Another possible source is her obituary, which often mentions surviving brothers. Also look at vital records, etc. of the people you believe might be her siblings or parents. For example, a woman may be mentioned in her fatherís will by her married name.
Guessing who a womanís brothers and sisters or parents might be is not as far-fetched as it sounds. It is a well established fact that you must study womenís relationships with men and with other women and research everyone associated or connected with your female ancestor. You may never find the magic document that conclusively identifies your female ancestor, but you can certainly build a case based on the evidence you are able to find. As Carmack says in Discovering Your Female Ancestors, you need to
- identify all reasonable possibilities,
- eliminate all but one of the possibilities, and
- identify and strengthen links to support the remaining possibility.
If you are dealing with a female ancestor where you have two possible sets of parents for her, do the following:
- Set up folders for both (or all) of the possibilities.
- Assemble family group sheets.
- Try to locate every source of information that you possibly can.
Think carefully about what you find. If a daughter is listed as married in her parent's will, you can be sure that she was married to someone by that last name at the time that the will was written. Even so, she could have been married to someone else earlier and may have married someone else later so don't write her off as a possibility until you have checked other records.
That she wasn't listed as married in a will doesn't mean that she wasn't married. Her parent may have just left out the name of her husband, or may not have liked her husband.
After eliminating the usual genealogy resources (vital records, census records, etc.), itís time to turn to the lesser-known sources, many of which pertain specifically to women - letters and diaries written by women; sources created about women like church or court records; sources for ethnic women; medical records which include doctors' and midwives' journals, insane asylums and tuberculin sanitariums, Woman's Suffrage and Voter Lists; Women's Organizations; Women's Prisons; and Women's Seminaries and Colleges. Carmackís book covers all of these and more.
Then itís time to turn to Chris Schaeferís "Hidden Half of the Family." Schaefer has compiled a Federal and state by state listing of exactly when laws were enacted which allowed women to own property, devise wills, enter contracts, etc. This book will save you so much time and effort, as obviously thereís no point looking for a certain document if such a document couldnít have existed at the time. Each section tells you where and, more importantly, WHEN to find records for marriage and divorce records, property and inheritance, suffrage, citizenship, censuses, and precisely what each law allowed women to do (or not). Example ó wills are wonderful sources, so you might think that a woman who died in 1730 at the age of 60 would have left a will dividing her possessions among her several children.
However, there is very little likelihood of this as married women were not allowed to write wills at that time. Everything they owned automatically went to their husbands so there was no need for a will. Keep in mind that each state enacted different laws and different times, so while in one state a women might be able to run a business or own property, in another state at the same time these activities were forbidden.
Finally, in addition to looking at unusual resources and figuring out when resources came into being, one needs to look at both history and social history. Besides helping you to understand your ancestorsí actions and motivations, social history will augment and supplement what you find in the historical documents on your women. It can also fill the gaps left by records or where there are no records of your female ancestors. What did she wear? What did she eat? What kind of house did she live in? What kind of household utensils were in use then? How many children did she have? How many of them died in infancy?
History, of course, means studying the area and time frame in which she lived as well as researching her neighboring families for clues. The more complete a picture you can bring together of your female ancestor, the more likely you are to find her ancestry.
For further interest, visit
Notable Women Ancestors