Researching female ancestors can be challenging due to several factors.
First, most women take their husband’s surname when they marry. This makes it tricky, although not impossible, to learn about your female ancestors’ lives before marriage. If you can’t find your female ancestor’s maiden name, that maternal line can become a brick wall in your research. Look for marriage records at city halls or marriage registrations at you ancestor’s church.
Second, there is the historical fact that women have lacked equal rights to men thus leaving much shorter paper trails. For example, if a woman couldn’t legally own property in her lifetime, it’s unlikely you’ll find her name on any deeds or that she will have left a Last Will and Testament of her own.
One way to learn about your female ancestors’ lives, though, is to really read the records you can find for them, like census records. We’re often so excited to find their names listed on a record that we don’t really read the full record.
The 1900 and 1910 U.S. Federal Censuses both offer interesting glimpses into the lives of our female ancestors through fields known as the “fertility questions.” In both censuses, women were asked how many times they had given birth and how many of their children were alive. This was done in an effort to learn about the rate of infant mortality. This information can help you discover children in your family history who died between the censuses. It can also help you to gain a deeper appreciation for the struggles your female ancestors endured. Note that these questions were asked of all adult females regardless of their marital status. Many researchers might be surprised to see how many single-parent households existed back then.
In the case of my own great-great-grandmother, the 1900 census indicates that she had three children, two of which were alive at the time. In the 1910 census she was recorded as a widow; having given birth five times, she had three living children.
Armed with this information, I was able to search for those children’s’ birth and death certificates. I learned the names their mother gave them, the dates she gave birth, the causes of their early deaths, and the cemetery where her children are interred. I can only imagine the impact these losses had on great-great grandma and the extended family.
I also learned from the 1910 census that as a single mother of three, she took a job at the Aqueduct Raceway in Queens, New York. I don’t know exactly what she did there but I sure hope she bet on the ponies once or twice and won.
So I recommend you read census records closely and maybe you too can gain a clearer picture of what life was like for your foremothers.
If you need help, don’t hesitate to contact our reference desk to schedule an appointment with one of our Genealogy Consultants.
Happy Heritage Hunting!