Our female ancestors’ stories can be harder to tell. Census records reduce their lifetimes into who they married, how many children they bore, and the ubiquitous “keeps house.” It’s work to discover their maiden names, much less their narratives.
As a result of historical records favoring prominent males, so do our stories. In addition, many family storytellers gravitate towards stories of momentous accomplishments. The stories of the poor farmers who eked out a living are few and far between. And that story of his wife? The “relic” of another man?
Sadly, those women’s stories—our female ancestors’ stories – are largely one-dimensional, when they exist at all.
In How Telling Women’s Stories Shapes Generations and Builds Resilience, Alexandra Madhavan explains why that’s a shame.
Women’s narratives are often overlooked, underappreciated, and undermined. Women often bear the silent workload, the unseen labor. Women carry the hopes of generations on their backs, with the hope that things will be better for their kids. While women’s stories in the media are often one dimensional, women’s stories that are handed down through family are rich and complex. That’s why it’s so important to pass these narratives on to your children.
How to tell female ancestors’ stories
1. Put her in socio-historical context
What else was happening that would explain her circumstances? What choices did she have? For instance, was she likely to have been able to choose her husband or would her marriage have been arranged? Was she educated?
2. Look at records of her contemporaries
Diaries and letters from women in similar circumstances provide clues to what her life might have been like. Of course, you can’t project things like whether or not her husband was kind or her kids well behaved. However, you can get a taste of what daily chores were like, what her social life likely consisted of, and how the family traveled.
3. Study for clues in photographs
If you follow Maureen Taylor (aka the photo detective), you know that studying photographs can give you hints about the subject. This goes beyond deciphering the date. With a little research, you can ascertain if the clothing was more representative of a working class or upper society. Many times, you can also identify the background and get a taste of the family character.
4. Preserve stories in recent memory
Your grandmothers will be the next generations’ ancestors. Interview and research these women’s stories. What events in history did she witness? What was her take on it then? How does she feel about it now?
You can also connect her oral accounts to history. For instance, a “Rosie the Riveter” who worked at the Willow Run Bomber Plant, might only describe her job. However, when you look at the plant’s production of 8, 685 bombers, you see her contribution in context.
If you’re looking for interviewing tips, listen to Michigan Radio’s July 29, 2013 interview with former Rosie, Emma Rancour.
5. Tell varied stories.
Of course, I’m by no means implying a Rosie’s story matters more than any other woman’s experience. The diversity of our female ancestors’ stories makes a beautiful quilt of women’s history.
How will you tell your female ancestors’ stories? Which stories will you tell?
- Headline graphic: Underlying image by John Vachon, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print.
- Photograph of four friends, @ L Hedgecock, used with permission.
- Photograph of Rosies, @ Laura Hedgecock, 2015, used with permission.
- Pinnable Graphic: Underlying image by Louise Rosskam, “Oldest Woman in Lincoln County,” Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division