Saturday, September 14, 2019

Off the Shelf:
Tracing Your Female Ancestors

Not too long ago, a woman from our county's Commission on the Status of Women approached me to ask if our genealogical society was planning any special event to commemorate the hundred year mark for this country's passage of the nineteenth amendment granting women's right to vote. Immediately, what flew into my head was the many ways women have proven to be nearly invisible to family history researchers, juxtaposed with the voter records we've resorted to in seeking information on any of our ancestors. There are so many classes we could offer to genealogists on how to find those invisible women, voting being only one aspect in which they began to show their faces in public.

Just before some society board members and I met with this Commission representative to plan our role in the special commemorative events for 2020, I happened upon a newly-offered book from Great Britain: Adele Emm's Tracing Your Female Ancestors. The source for this introduction was John D. Reid's book review in his blog, Canada's Anglo-Celtic Connections. Though I can't say his review was a glowing endorsement, I considered myself forewarned and bought the book anyway. I wanted to see what insights I could glean from this new resource.

Given that recent discovery of such a new resource, you can't exactly say, as would be noted of most other books featured in this column, that this one had been languishing on my bookshelves for decades. It is fresh off the press and barely cracked open. But it is timely, and I am racing the clock. Landmark anniversaries don't happen just any day, you know.

The basis for this commemorative push is the year in which the nineteenth amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, granting women the right to vote. The final state, of the bare minimum required, to ratify the amendment did so on August 18, 1920. Of course, that is a moot point for those of us living in California, where our state government had given women the right to vote, back in 1911. Still, in solidarity with the rest of the nation, we'll celebrate like it's 1920.

And so, I go buying books like Adele Emm's tightly-packed two hundred twenty pages on everything a family historian would want to learn about how to find their frustratingly invisible female ancestors. Ms. Emm goes far afield of what might have been expected for a genealogy guide. She covers every aspect of the feminine experience of prior centuries, giving the reader a solid grounding in what it meant to be a woman in nineteenth century (or earlier) Great Britain. Of course, in many situations, that will not be what a woman in America might have experienced—talk of governesses or the "cotton famine" seeming somewhat removed from life in California, for instance—but in so many other aspects, her examination of the minutiae of women's experience seems enlightening.

Yet, being a book produced in England—it was published this year by Pen and Sword Books of Yorkshire—the style of presentation is much more sedate than an American reader might expect. I find myself reacting to the tone of this book much as I did when reading another of the publisher's titles—Tracing Villains and Their Victims—seeking the will to complete the material, rather than the joy of being led along by a fascinating narrative. On the other hand, the life of a woman in prior centuries, no matter how pampered or deprived, gave enough reason to consider the less pleasant aspects of reality. (Literate women of childbearing age, for instance, would sometimes compose a "fond farewell letter" to their husband, in the event the birthing experience claimed her as one of the daunting statistics of childbirth in those earlier years.)

Likewise, this book delves into many aspects of life in the British Isles for women that we might not have considered as we wonder whatever became of our beloved female ancestors. The guide includes sections on education of women, occupations taken up by women, daily life experiences for a wide variety of classes of women, and even provides a chapter on crime and punishment and the shadier aspects of the female experience.

I can't say the book will help me find my mystery female ancestors—I don't really have roots in England—but the narrative serves to open the researcher's mind on what life was really like for those ancestors, especially the women who came before us. For a family historian with the overarching goal of going far beyond the routine reporting of BMD—birth, marriage, death statistics—this is the type of examination of the nitty gritty of daily life which transforms our great-greats from mere names and dates to real, living, breathing people.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing! I love the female ancestor driven research techniques!

    1. Hopefully, 2020 will bring on a year of women-focused research ideas.


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