Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Decrying Invisible Women

Consider this a post in which I go off on a tangent and harangue the centuries-old tendency to put women in a place so unobservable, so unrecognizable, so completely camouflaged as to render them not much more than people who never existed.

But you know they had to have been there. We become their evidence. Sometimes, we are their only testimony.

In genealogy research, I generally have been able to produce a paper trail on the women I’ve studied—back to a point. Usually that point is about 1850, the last jumping off place for census records that actually acknowledge that these invisible people actually possessed a name.

In the case of my shadow family tree (that of Timothy Kelly of Fort Wayne in the late 1800s), I am pressing up against the turn of the century into a brave new, thoroughly modern world—and I still can’t figure out what became of Timothy’s oldest two daughters. Not to mention, I can’t find any explanation for who the suddenly-appearing Margaret might have been—or where she went, following her appearance in the 1900 census in the Kelly household.

Admittedly, not every document is now resident online. There are also many documents which, already included in an online repository, lack proper indexing—witness the discovery yesterday of the Kelly household under the heading, “Kellog.”

Perhaps a quick trip to Fort Wayne might remedy some of my complaints. But I doubt it.

Where, for instance, can I find any paper trail for those two missing Kelly daughters, Catherine and Mary? Apparently, neither of them is listed in the burial records for the joint Kelly family plot at the Catholic Cemetery.

Keeping in mind the alternate spellings—Kelly and Kelley for the surname, plus several nickname iterations for Catherine’s first name—it took quite some time to verify that Catherine had, evidently, died shortly after the 1880 census. I owe that discovery entirely to the free databases available through the Genealogy Center at the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, where I found, under “Kelley,” a church burial record for a twenty year old Kate dated April 16, 1882. A corresponding transcription of the pertinent points of what must have been a very brief—and after-the-fact—funeral notice in the newspaper confirmed that “Katie” was daughter of Timothy "Kelly." Thankfully, a confirming address was given to leave no doubt who that Timothy might have been.

As for second daughter, Mary, I’ve had not even that much success. There are no civic death records, neither under Kelly nor under Kelley. Though there are many Marys of either surname buried at the Catholic Cemetery, none fitting Mary’s age appear for either Kelly or Kelley.

And yet, we already saw that Mary Kelly, daughter of Timothy, was in the household in 1880, but not in 1900. Could she have gotten married? Or taken a position somewhere else as a domestic servant? Those are possibilities. Admittedly, I haven’t performed what you know would have ended up being an exhaustive search for any marriage record of a Mary Kelly or Kelley, but by using indexed online databases, I haven’t seen anything promising appear so far.

These other possibilities, however, don’t seem all that likely, though. As we’ll see tomorrow, when I cut to the chase and produce father Timothy’s own obituary, neither Catherine nor Mary were mentioned among the surviving relatives. Considering Timothy died in 1901, the lack of records under his surname—either spelling—seem to indicate that either Mary died, having a different surname, or she died outside the Fort Wayne area.

That doesn’t even begin to address the difficulties I’ve had, pursuing the other mystery woman in this 1900 household: Margaret. As you’ll see in a few days, Margaret had listings under three different possible surnames. And yet, I have not found much more for her life’s story, either.

It might have been easier to find information on these three young women if the history writers of that era didn’t persist in listing the surviving wife in an obituary as “the widow.” Or leave blanks where a mother’s maiden name should have gone in an official document. Or wipe clean any of the other telltale fingerprints from the slate of these invisible women’s stories.

For, you see, these census takers, county clerks and recorders, and yes, even newspapermen were that century’s history writers. They were that society’s first line of defense in insuring that subsequent generations would be equipped to remember those people and uncover the contemporary narrative of what their lives were like. When euphemisms and labels supplant the use of given names—in the name of “being proper”—they steal the identity of the real people we seek to discover from our past.


  1. I think they all should have added their maiden name to their married name, it would have made things so much simpler. Even early donations to the museum were Mrs. John whoever...eventually I will have researched all their first names:)

    1. That "Mrs. Husband's-Initial-Initial Surname" format was definitely an aggravating social device of that time period. I'm not sure I buy into the hyphenated surname approach (as someone has quipped, what becomes of their children upon their marriage--do we draw the line at four hyphenated appendages?!) but it would be nice to have such details recorded in legal documents, at the least. I go ballistic when, after a long search, I find a document in which the designated fields for mother's maiden name are left blank. On the other hand, I've met people who don't even know their own grandparents' names. Clue: "Grandma" isn't a name, I scream with my inside voice...

  2. Since the earliest of times, women have been important, Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, and Eve come to mind, and it is truly baffling to me how the "white male anglo" of the 1700-1800s did not recognize how important their mothers were to them and to society as a whole. Their immense bigotry (and racism) have caused the world a ton of grief.

    The chest thumping "I'm going to protect my woman" thing is so caveman.

    1. Well...I am glad I have my own chest-thumping caveman willing to "protect my woman"... ;)

      On a more serious note, Iggy, you have a valid point, though I suspect those women throughout history who have been remembered may have gained that place by virtue of the men who gave them credence.

      I'm hoping that the current revival of interest in family history will inspire a generation of avid citizen genealogists to connect those disparate strands into a coherent public re-cataloging of civilization's family units--including women with their own names and ancestor lines.

  3. I have nothing to add except to commiserate. I really stopped in just to say I have finally caught up on the Kelly posts -- I got terribly behind when I was away for awhile. (I'm sure you missed me - HA!) I had finally sorted out John Kelly and John Kelly Stevens and now have to grapple with the Timothys. Ooh boy ~

    1. WENDY!!! Yes! I missed you! And I commiserate with you, in turn, over having to wade through all these Kellys--AND keep separated all the mentions of John Kelly from those about John Kelly Stevens! If you can get through all that, there is no Timothy too tough for you!


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