The women in your past have stories to tell, but sometimes they get overlooked because men often take center stage in the records. Here are some tips for coaxing the stories of your unsung heroines out of hiding.
Get a Woman’s Perspective
Make a deliberate effort to look at records you have through her eyes. For example, what did it mean to a wife whose husband went to war? Did she take over the family business or farm? How old were her children? Did she move?
Make a Timeline
When was she born? Who did she live with and where? How old was she when she got married? Began having children? Lost her husband? A timeline will help you organize what you know and reveal questions you want to answer.
Look for Her in Census Records
Depending on the year, a census might list number of children born and number still living, education, whether she could speak English, year of immigration, value of real estate, and whether she owned a home, among other things.
Remember, the stories lie not only in the details recorded but also in the changes that took place between censuses. For example, in the 1855 New York State Census, Eliza Doner is living with her husband and five children, ranging in age from 1 through 14. By the 1860 U.S. Federal Census, both her husband and youngest daughter are missing. Did she lose a child and a husband in the span of five years? Now you have a story to look for.
Learn About Her Community
What was her hometown or neighborhood like? Where did people work? Go to school? Attend church? Local histories, city directories, and newspapers can provide color and sometimes mention life events.
Find Her Maiden Name
Women are sometimes tough to track because they took on their husband’s name at marriage. Here are a few clues for finding a woman’s maiden name.
Vital records: Birth records typically include the mother’s maiden name. Marriage records typically list the bride’s maiden name and often the names of her parents and sometimes her mother’s maiden name. Death records will typically list parents’ names, revealing a maiden name.
Records of siblings: If you’re not finding a maiden name on her records, try side-stepping to a sibling.
Middle names: Maiden names may appear as the middle name of one of her children. Some women used their maiden name as a middle name after marriage.
Obituaries: Even if her maiden name isn’t stated explicitly, the names of surviving relatives may reveal it.
Cemeteries: The woman you’re looking for may be buried in the same plot as her parents or siblings or in a nearby plot.
Home sources: Look through family memorabilia. You may find a maiden name on the back of a photograph, in a scrapbook, on a funeral memorial card, or in an old address book.
Military pensions: Widows had to provide proof of marriage when they applied for a pension. That proof often included a maiden name.
Are you ready to get to know the women in your past? You’ll find even more ideas in this free guide from Ancestry. Or see what you can find with a 14-day free trial on Ancestry with access to more than 15 billion records online.