After all, women are included in family trees, aren’t they? They get married and they’re on the records and certificates. They give birth to children, and are included on the birth certificates and baptismal records. They appear on census records alongside men. We trace their families back to find their origins in the past. Don’t we?
Well, they’re there certainly, but how much do we know about these women and their lives compared to their menfolk? What’s their story?
This question isn’t intending to do down the traditional approach, as there are obvious benefits in looking at our male ancestors and how they make us who we are, and the binary approach to gender we get from history should carry equal weight on both sides. But what can taking a look at women’s lives specifically bring to our understanding of family lineage?
When our families are traced, and we start our genealogical journey, the first place we might look to go back through generations is almost certainly our name.
What’s in a name?
Family name – or surname – is the obvious key to tracing lineage back through the records. It’s an identifier, as well as being a moniker, and collectively links us both to our living and loving relatives and our ancestry. However, in the West, our family name is a patronym – it is inherited from our father, and then if a woman marries she may well take her husband’s name in time-honoured tradition. Today we might make a choice to preserve a woman’s maiden name as a child’s middle name, or double-barrel it, but this was rare in history. And if a traditional Western naming pattern is followed, at no point does that name come from a woman, or reflect her female ancestry. When we think about our personal identity, often both parents play an equal part in that – but yet our mothers’ identity is often buried or not marked, reflecting the old idea that women were property first of their father and then their husband.
The dearth of women’s family names – and let’s not forget that a mother’s name is still not required for UK marriage certificates here in the 21st century – makes women harder to trace. Not impossible, but certainly harder. And if you can’t identify who she married, or even if she married, the trail goes cold. To go back via the matrilineal line – looking at someone’s mother, then her mother, and then her mother – rather than going to the distaff line, which invariably looks at a mother’s family through her patronym, should be an equally valid view of lineage and one that can open and validate another wider view of history.
Women weren’t as interesting as the men though…
“There’s a misconception that women were much weaker in those times”
Caitriona Balfe, actor, Outlander
Well, if you believe what’s written – or left out – on the census forms, then of course they weren’t interesting. They might have a job in early adulthood, but once married their profession is invariably left blank or sometimes crossed out, and all we get from them is their age and where they were born, and eventually an increasing line of children. But the blankness of their records doesn’t necessarily mean that they weren’t interesting, just that society at that time considered their lives to be inferior to those of their menfolk.
A woman married to a farmer would undoubtedly have worked on the farm too, and had her own jobs on the land. But would not have been considered a farmer in her own right until widowhood – if it occurred – as she was property of her husband until that point and the profession was his. A woman whose husband made shoes would probably at the very least have helped out with lasts and leather if not stitching footwear alongside him, but this would not have been acknowledged on an official record. Middle class women would sometimes keep the books for their husband’s business – today that would be called a bookkeeper and recorded as a profession, but back then it was ignored. Upper class women would live on their own means, on inherited money or investments. On many census returns, if a wife has said that her profession is a coachbuilder’s wife or a shopkeeper’s wife to the enumerator, some higher authority has come along and crossed this out. Those who did not marry often have a more varied and nuanced tale to tell, much more than being “a spinster left on the shelf”.
So, it’s not necessarily that they weren’t interesting, it’s that the society they resided within considered them to be of less value than their menfolk, and treated them accordingly. And because there is often nothing written about them we perceive that they had nothing to give us.
But most of them are permanently pregnant and attached to the house. That isn’t very inspiring…
Or is it? Imagine that exact idea – permanently having a bun in the oven, another baby on the hip, more crawling or running around your feet, for year after year. No chance to leave and go out to work because married women didn’t. No birth control to stop it happening. No bottles of formula to enable you to outsource the feeding. No labour-saving devices to make housework easier. And the constant threat of childhood illness that might carry one or more of your children off, or that you might yourself pass away during another childbirth. A life like that puts our 2.4 children with a washing machine and a vacuum cleaner and a 4×4 on the driveway into stark contrast. These women had it tough, and they were tough. The traditional women’s role of raising children and keeping house – perhaps because so many women did it and it was therefore commonplace – was undervalued then and is still undervalued now. The fact that they kept going, year after year, is inspiring.
And if a woman breaks this mould and achieves more than the pathway expected for her, all the better.
So, what can women’s history teach us about times past that we can’t get elsewhere?
Lots. The very fact that the bulk of women didn’t go out to work puts them at the heart of the family structure, and their stories can be more personal and tell more of the human condition. This can be endless births, the stigma attached to illegitimate children and the lengths gone to to avoid it, not-talked-about children lost to miscarriage or stillbirth or childhood illness, a maiden aunt bringing up a clutch of children after her sister had died. Unwed sisters tend to live together in a way that bachelors do not.
Female nurturers – be they our mother, aunt, older sister, or godmother – are often our first teachers, from using a tool to feed ourselves to tying shoelaces, and, from a certain point in history, learning to read and write. That early nurturing care and unconditional love sets the foundation for both adult personality and how we treat each other within the home and in wider society – and that’s just as true in the Victorian era, or earlier, as it is today.
Women will often pass on family legends and stories that a more stoic father might not, thus preserving the oral history of a generation that goes beyond official documents. That oral history can add colour and humanity to someone’s story, and is therefore extremely valuable to a genealogist.
There tends to be more movement from women too, both geographically and socially. Whereas men in the past would often follow in their father’s footsteps, learning his skills and taking on his business when he retired or died, women invariably do not marry a man in the same profession as their father. A weaver’s daughter might marry a shoe maker, or a needle maker’s daughter might take up with the son of a coach builder who eventually will inherit his father’s business. Women navigate the subtleties and fluidity of the class system, far more marked in the past than it is today, in a way that men often did not as it was rare for a man to take on the profession of his in-laws. The professional experience learned in childhood – it was common for a whole family to be involved in a man’s profession in a myriad of small ways – would be combined with experiences gleaned from working alongside a woman’s husband and therefore add to the skill set she used every day. And if she’s able to use that skill set to successfully take over a business once she’s widowed, all the better.
And let’s not forget that before the advent of the science and technology that brought us the DNA test, the one piece of definite genealogical knowledge we had was whose womb we sprang from. That said though, whether we were brought up by our birth mother, grandmother, adoptive mother, aunt, sister, step-mother, nurture plays an equal part to genetics, perhaps more so in some cases, in terms of who we are, what we value and how we behave – and in the past this role would more often than not have fallen to a woman.
Who are The Women Who Made Me?
This project seeks to bring the lives of real women from the past into focus, against a genealogical background traditionally populated by their male contemporaries, teasing their stories out from the records left to us and validating a swathe of history that otherwise could be lost to us. Their stories are brought to a modern audience to give a record of ordinary women’s experiences at different times through history.
Some stories come from my genealogy research at www.onceuponafamilytree.co.uk while others are submitted. All are true.
To include the life of a woman in The Women Who Made Me, there has to be a story to tell beyond the bare details that she was born, she married, she died. The barest oral details of her life, or facts identified from records, can flesh out her story and bring her life into focus, be she your mother, aunt, sister, daughter, second cousin once removed, godmother or family friend.
Exact identifying details are blurred (no surnames, exact addresses, exact years of birth or death) to protect the data of living family.