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Finding Female Ancestors

by Donna Przecha
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The Hidden Half of History
When you can't look up a female ancestor by her maiden name (or you don't know what it is), what do you do? Donna Przecha has the answers.
In genealogy research, finding the female always presents special problems. Of course, the primary problem is that women usually change their names when they marry, but part of the difficulty also arises from a woman's legal and social status at various times in history. While there have been some matriarchal societies, most of our history has seen women as being subject, to a greater or lesser degree, to the control of men.

Maiden Names

Finding a maiden name is almost always essential to further research on a particular line. Naturally, the best place to locate a maiden name is on a marriage record. If that is not available, other vital records may have the information, although this is usually the case only with more modern records, not those over 100 years old. These include birth certificates of her children, her death certificate, her husband's death certificate, or the marriage or death certificates of her children. This is by no means standard and is only a possibility. Baptismal records may also contain the mother's maiden name, even in older church records.

Another possible source is her obituary, which might mention surviving brothers. Also look for obituaries of sisters or men you believe are her brothers. If you have found a person that you think might be one of her parents, it is worthwhile to check the death certificates because a family member, perhaps your ancestress, usually provided the information on the death certificate and sometimes her relationship was given. Also look for wills from likely candidates — a woman may be mentioned in her father's or mother's will.

Without direct information, you sometimes have to resort to indirect clues. Look for the repetition of certain given names in the family. If she named her son Hezekiah, Rudyard or some other uncommon name and there was an older man of that same name in the vicinity, that may be her father. Look also for surnames being used as second names for her children. A woman often gave her child her own maiden name as a middle name. In the census, look for older people living in the same household or nearby. They may well be the woman's parents.

Non-Productive Sources

There are many sources where you might find information about a woman and it is worthwhile looking at any record where she is mentioned. However, it is also important to know where you won't find anything.

In many cases a married woman was subject to her husband and the record would be in her husband's name. For example, prior to 1850, the U.S. census only listed the head of the household by name so you will not find any information about a woman if the husband was still alive. If the woman was a widow and the head of the household, then she would be listed in the census.

Wills are wonderful sources of information so you might think that a woman who died in 1730 at the age of 60 would have left a will dividing her possessions amongst 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. Although genealogists also know that land records can be an important source of information, in the early days of our country married women usually could not own land, so you might not find much help in land records.

Military pension records are a great source of family information, but women were not allowed to serve in the military until 1890 when nurses joined during the Spanish-American War and eventually received pensions based on their own service. However, ever since the Revolutionary War, widows of soldiers have been eligible for pensions so all men's pension records are a good source for information on the women in the family.

New Reference Emphasizing Women

Is this getting confusing? Actually, it is much worse than it seems because each state had different laws about what women could and couldn't do. In one state a woman might be able to run a business, own property in her own right and write a will, whereas in other states all of these activities were forbidden.

The recently published book, The Hidden Half of the Family by Christina Kassabian Schaefer (published by Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore), looks at genealogy from the point of view of women's records and explains what you can expect in each state at any point in time. The author points out that in several European countries, including France and Italy, women frequently used their married names on legal documents. In many localities the death records for German and Polish Catholic women recorded only their maiden names while in Scotland widows reverted to their maiden names. In some countries (Wales, Scandinavia and the Netherlands), married women often retained their maiden names.

The Hidden Half of the Family

The introduction to the book gives an overview on records generally and how they apply to women. It includes information on U.S. government records, as well as other records that are the same in most states. It is quite a good guide to many types of records which also apply to men, but with special emphasis on what they might contain about women.

In the 18th century and earlier, women generally came under the protection of their fathers until they married and then their husbands were responsible for them. According to Schaefer, a woman's legal position was quite different depending on whether she lived under civil or common law. In this country, civil law applied in areas settled by the French and Spanish but was phased out when these states joined the U.S.

In civil law a husband and wife were considered co-owners of community property which was managed by the husband. A married woman could manage and control her own separate property. In common law, which originated in England, a married couple was considered one person and the husband controlled everything. It did not matter if the woman had been given money by her father, inherited it or earned it herself. The husband had the right to dispose of it. A law stating this was passed in South Carolina in 1712, in Rhode Island in 1719 and in Pennsylvania as late as 1833.

If a husband died intestate (without making a will) a wife was entitled to one-third of her husband's personal estate and, in some states, one third of his real estate (land and property). The interest in the real estate, called the "dower right," was usually only for her lifetime. Once a widow inherited money, possessions or property, she could then manage them herself.

One wonders why women ever remarried under these circumstances, but if she only received one-third of the estate, it probably wasn't enough to live on. Connecticut passed a law in 1769 stating that the heirs of an estate were liable for the support of a widow if the dower was inadequate, but she was at the mercy of the rest of the family, often her own sons or her husband's sons by an earlier marriage. A 1683 New York law stated that the widow could stay in her husband's home for only 40 days after his death. After that she had to make do with her dower.

Women and the Law

In The Hidden Half, the chronology shows that gradually laws changed and married women were allowed to own and manage land in their own right and write wills disposing of personal possessions and property. Eventually, a widow's share in most states consisted of one-third or more of both personal and real property which were hers permanently.

Any study of law will bring to light some rather incredible statutes. Here are some mentioned in the book:

  • In 1924, one state (not named) still had a law that allowed a father to will a child (born or unborn) away from the mother!
  • In 1895, Louisiana prohibited the defendant in a divorcee from ever remarrying.
  • In 1660, Connecticut required all married men to live with their wives.
  • In 1895, in 14 of 46 states, a wife's wages still belonged to her husband.
  • In 37 states a married women had no legal right over her children.
  • In 1932, The National Recovery Act limited the number of federal workers in a family to one, causing many women to lose their jobs.


The section on divorce shows that, surprisingly enough, it is not a recent invention. In 1682 Pennsylvania allowed divorce on grounds of adultery. The Puritans viewed marriage as a civil contract, not a sacrament, and therefore dissolvable. The first divorce in Connecticut, in 1655, was granted for desertion. In 1656, the New Haven (Connecticut) colony stated that in a divorce, the innocent party would have liberty to marry again. In 1804 Congress endowed the District of Columbia District court with the power to grant divorces (but in 1901 amended the law to grant divorce only on the grounds of adultery). In 1838, Iowa passed a divorce law. The introduction to the book summarizes grounds for divorce in 1895, residency requirements for obtaining a divorce, restrictions on remarriage, dates for earliest state and county marriage divorce registration, and recognition of common law marriages.

Minority Women

Ms. Schaefer also takes a special look at minorities such as Native Americans, African Americans, and Asian Americans. Chinese were restricted from emigration at one time and the requirements for bringing in Chinese and Japanese wives was, until recently, much more strict than for other nationalities. There are several unique sources mentioned for Asian immigrants. She discusses the status of Native Americans both in and outside of the white man's law and mentions many sources for research as well as helpful Web sites.

Schaefer's information on manumissions would be very helpful for both male and female slaves. She gives dates when manumissions were allowed and what was required. Many states required that any slave given freedom had to leave the state. For this reason, freedom could also mean sorrow if the freed slave had to leave family behind. It also could be quite terrifying for a man or woman who had never been able to make any decisions about his or her personal life to suddenly have to move to a strange place, find a place to live and a way to earn a living. Ms. Schaefer points out, "Ironically, one of the few legal inheritances that passed from a mother to a child was that of enslavement."

Federal and State Information

The Hidden Half also gives a useful summary of the different Federal census returns, their National Archives reference numbers, how to use Soundex, what abbreviations you will find for women in the Soundex (Hsi = half sister, Gml = grandmother-in-law), special censuses and other references that might be especially helpful — such as an index of Revolutionary War pensioners. Sources that don't have a National Archives number will have a film or fiche number for the Family History Library, where available.

Moreover, this book examines Federal Land Records. In 1841, widows, but not married women, could apply for federal land. In 1862, the land acts included women who were single and over 21 or heads of household or a wife who had been deserted by her husband. There is an extensive list of military records and how these applied to women, either in their own right or as a widow of a veteran. She also explains naturalization laws and indicates the times when a woman acquired and lost U.S. citizenship based on her husband's citizenship.

After the introduction, each state is treated individually with respect to important dates in history, marriage and divorce, property and inheritance, suffrage, citizenship, census information, other information, bibliography and other resources (including web sites) for women's history. The author does not do a county-by-county listing of records and dates, which are covered in other reference books. She indicates whether marriage and divorce records have generally been filmed, and also points out special indexes, collections, or publications that might be helpful for that state (including film numbers and web sites). The book is worth its cost just for the bibliographies. Each state averages a full page of articles and books about women's history in that state.

Interpreting Laws

Trying to understand what life was like at any one time based on the laws is a bit tricky. A law is usually passed by a legislative body (which is supposed to represent the people) because they want to change a current law or codify and clarify common practice. If a law is passed making 16 the minimum age for a bride, it could mean several things, such as: 1) the minimum age is now 14 and it is being increased, 2) the minimum age is 18 and it is being lowered, 3) a lot of girls are being married off at 12 and 13 and people want this stopped, or 4) there is no minimum but a small group is pushing for a minimum at 20 so the legislature passed the age 16 minimum to thwart them.

A law stating that a woman could own land may not indicate that previously there was a law stating she couldn't. It may have just been common practice not to allow it. (The local recorder may have had a personal opinion that a woman's place was in the home and simply informed her that when she found herself a husband or her daddy or brother would come in and sign for her, he would register the land.) The law simply established her right to own the land in spite of the beliefs of local officials.

However, from the chronologies, one can see that women began gaining more rights in the first half of the 19th century. The first women's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848 and changes came more swiftly after that. Congress passed a law in 1879 permitting women to practice law in all federal courts and all women gained the right to vote in 1920.

Ms. Schaefer has done a great deal of research on women's genealogy and her book should help you in locating your "hidden half of the family."

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