Finding the women in our histories

Suffragette being arrested

There is a saying out there that says “Well behaved women never make history.” It’s been attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, Marilyn Monroe, Anne Boleyn and other women throughout history. And to some extent this statement is true. Well behaved women usually aren’t recorded in histories, documents, and records where we, as genealogists can find them.

The 1841 censuses for Great Britain, Wales, and Scotland was the first to record the names of everyone in the household; including the women. The U.S. finally caught up in the 1850 census.

You would think birth announcements in newspapers and christening records would always have the mother’s name recorded, but you would be wrong. Children were often recorded as “Abraham son of James Smith” in the parish records. When and where the mother’s names were included depended on the clerk of the parish and how enlightened he was.

So where can you, the family historian find the women in your life?

  • Marriage records always recorded the brides names. These records include marriage bonds, where the prospective groom promised money that would be forfeit if he did not marry the woman named in the contract. The marriage license giving the couple the legal right to marry and certificate of marriage will have the brides name and sometimes her fathers name.
  • Wills usually name the wife of the deceased along with any money or property she receives.
  • Land and property records may contain a woman’s name especially if she was the seller, or the property was part of her dowry or marital assets.
  • Legal notices in newspapers regarding marriages, divorces, and debt responsibility.
  • Diaries, cookbooks, household account books were the “business records” kept by women and often contain details about daily life that make them come alive.
  • Citizenship and naturalization records can be a goldmine of information about women. Depending on the year married women automatically became citizens along with their husbands so be sure to search for him as well as her.
  • Criminal and trial records named everyone involved in the cases; witnesses, defendant, judge, jury members and anyone else involved. Often physical descriptions were included in the records.

Now go find both the well behaved and the wild women in your family