Ladies First

By Lisa A. Alzo Premium

“I can put the wash on the line, feed the kids, get dressed … and get to work by five of 9, ’cause I’m a woman…” Thus sings the attractive blonde dressed in business attire, a bathrobe, then an evening gown as she moves seductively through the classic 1970s Enjoli fragrance commercial. The lyrics selling “the 8-hour perfume for the 24-hour woman” captured the image of the quintessential professional woman who was still a good wife and mother (Getting misty-eyed for the ’70s? Reminisce to a clip of the spot on YouTube <×4MwbVf50A>.)

When you think of your own mother, grandmothers and great-grandmothers, the Enjoli image of the woman who does it all may not immediately come to mind. Yet many of our female ancestors played multiple roles in their families: wife, mother, financial manager, teacher, disciplinarian, even breadwinner. They also served their communities through church groups and women’s clubs.

Makes you wonder, then, why it can be so difficult to trace women in genealogical records. Prior to the 20th century, most historical records were created for and about men. Property was usually listed under the man’s name, and men ran businesses and the government. Meanwhile, a woman typically changed her name each time she married, and, of course, children carried men’s surnames to the next generation. Add a seeming shortage of written documentation by women themselves, and you see why the perceived silence can seem so deafening. If finding the females in your family tree has you singing the blues, get back in sync with these eight research strategies.

Know your names.

You expect to find women recorded under different surnames when they marry, but they might’ve used variations of their first names, too. Write the full names, maiden and married, of the women you’re seeking.  Add nicknames and variations for their first names, such as Mary, Maria, Mamie or Mattie; Betty or Liz for Elizabeth; Sally for Sarah. 

Note the names of each woman’s husband, children and siblings. Pay attention to an unusual middle name, which could be a female forebear’s maiden name (for example, Evelyn Vallis Neville). Naming traditions may hold clues, too. Some cultures name the first daughter after her mother’s mother, the second daughter after her father’s mother, and the third daughter after her mother.

Make a timeline.

A timeline puts your ancestor in historical perspective and lets you identify cause-and-effect situations — for instance, you might observe that the Great Depression or World War II propelled your mother or grandmother into the work force. It’ll also point you to genealogical records.

Begin the timeline with the woman’s birth and end with her death. In between, write everything you know about her including her marriage date and children’s birth dates and places. Add life events, such as migrations and hospitalizations, as you uncover them. Include significant national events, such as wars and epidemics, and local events you glean from county histories (look for them at libraries and online bookstores). Web sites such as <> and our women’s history timeline at <> will help, too.

You can set up your timeline as a Microsoft Word or Excel document, use your genealogical software to generate one, or employ a utility such as Genelines <>. If you’re lucky enough to have a photograph of your ancestor, add it to your file on her. Keep notes on her distinctive physical features (dark hair, fine eyebrows, high cheek bones) to help distinguish her from other relatives in pictures.

Ask around.

Women are often the “communicators” in families, so as soon as you’re finished reading this article, contact your older female relatives and schedule a visit to talk about your family. Ask each woman about her mother’s maiden name, how she met her husband, what motherhood was like and favorite family recipes. For interviewing tips and more questions, see <> and consult Record & Remember by Ellen Epstein and Jane Lewitt (Scarborough House). While you’re there, see if your relative has saved any bridal books, baby books, receipts and other nontraditional but genealogically valuable records.

Missed your chance? Interview your ancestor’s children — typically, people have unique insight into their mothers because of women’s traditional roles as the primary caregiver. Also talk to grandchildren, other relatives, friends and neighbors. Even someone in your own generation may recall details you don’t. Pay attention to names, dates, places and unusual occurrences that could point your research in a particular direction. You can use a digital recorder during the interview and upload the file to your Web site.

Take time to learn about what your more-recent female ancestors’ lives were like, too, by listening to audio clips at StoryCorps <> (run a search on women) and <>.

Explore records.

Since no magical record set focuses on females, researching them in genealogical documents is more about strategy than anything else. To determine which records to look for, examine your ancestors’ timelines and note events that may have generated records. For example, your grandmother may have voted after the women’s suffrage amendment passed in 1920, so you could contact the board of elections in her county to ask about old voter registration records. Weddings mean marriage records; children may have birth and baptismal certificates; migrations could lead to land records.

Note social or religious groups, or fraternal benefit societies a woman might’ve belonged to through her church or community. Contact the group’s main office to ask about historical records. If the organization no longer exists, a historical society, library or other archive may have its files. Try running a Google <> search on the group name or browsing the Cyndi’s List: Societies and Groups page <>.

You’ll find more places to look for records in Christine Kassabian Schaefer’s book The Hidden Half of the Family: A Sourcebook for Women’s Genealogy (Genealogical Publishing Co.). It contains a state-by-state resource guide with important dates, laws governing your female ancestors’ lives, and advice for finding records they left.

Investigate her associates.

Since women weren’t subjects of official documents as often as men were, you’ll find yourself looking for your female ancestor’s name in records of her husband, father brothers and other men she’s associated with. So when your search hits a brick wall, research a woman’s family and neighbors — she may show up as a household member godparent, heir or in-law. In particular, witnesses to a woman’s or her family members’ marriage licenses, naturalization papers and baptismal records may be related to her.

Search databases smartly.

Online genealogy database sites such as FamilySearch <>, subscription site < > (a version called Ancestry Library Edition is free at many public libraries) and HeritageQuest Online <> (also free through many libraries) will no doubt figure prominently into your search. Look for both maiden and married names, since women in some cultures used their maiden names on official records. A woman also may appear under an initial or nickname, and not necessarily the same nickname in every record. Use your name list and look at other details in the record, such as age, birthplace and husband’s name, to determine whether she’s your ancestor. As with any search, try alternate name spellings and different combinations of search parameters.

Pay attention to surname patterns: For Slovaks or other Eastern Europeans, try adding the suffix -ova, often part of daughters’ surnames. For Scandinavians, try -datter. If a woman has an unusual first name such as Geraldine or Verona, search on just the first name and a location or year if the site permits it.

Can’t find your female ancestor in a census or immigration database? Search for her children. And look for people who appear with her in other records — they might be relatives or friends she traveled with and settled near, and her name could be barely legible on the next line.

Read her diaries and letters.

According to one mid-16th century proverb, “Silence is a woman’s best garment.” Unfortunately, this rings true in many cases, as men’s deeds are most often recorded in history books. But women may have “spoken” their thoughts in a diary and in letters to distant relatives and soldier sons. If you’re fortunate enough to have these writings among your family’s treasures, they can provide both genealogical details and great insight into female ancestors’ lives.

Journals and correspondence of other community members may mention your female ancestor. Search for them in the local library, historical society or museum. You’ll also find memoirs — perhaps even a relative’s — cataloged in American Diaries: An Annotated Bibliography of Published American Diaries and Journals from 1845 to 1980 by Laura Arksey (Gale Group).

Even the writings of unrelated ordinary and famous women, in the absence of records on your own ancestor, will help you tap into her daily life. If your aunt, for example, was a WWII “Rosie” or planted a Victory Garden, learn what her life may have been like from the transcribed essays at <>. See’s free Women of the Century database < db.aspx?dbid=2039> for short biographies of prominent women such as Susan B. Anthony and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Tell her story.

Consider how your ancestor’s ethnic background or cultural surroundings influenced her personal choices or position in society. While researching my maternal grandmother for my book Three Slovak Women (Gateway Press), I discovered how subservient women were to men in Slovak culture. Two of my grandfather’s favorite sayings were “I’m the boss” and “You do what I say.” As a result, my mother and her siblings viewed their father with a mix of fear and respect.

To learn more about the role cultural practices played in your grandmothers’ and great-grandmothers’ lives, borrow library books on the era. You’ll find recommendations in the Library of Congress’ American Women Research Guide <>.

Then share your ancestor’s story by writing a biography or short profile about her. You don’t have to be a professional writer. Simply jot down some answers to basic questions such as: What did she look like? What was her personality like? Was she a good cook? What special meals did she prepare? What other special talents did she have — was she an artist, crafter, dancer or singer? Illustrate your story with photographs.

You can learn more about tracing women from Carmack’s and Schaeffer’s books. Sure, researching and writing about your elusive female ancestors may seem daunting. But whatever roles she played — wife, mother, breadwinner, community volunteer, social maven — you have the power to ensure that she’ll no longer be the silent voice in your family’s story.

From the January 2008 issue of Family Tree Magazine