With a dearth of records about female ancestors, it can be difficult to ferret out stories that highlight the women in your family tree.
As Lisa A. Alzo points out in her article Strategies for Finding Female Ancestors for FamilyTree Magazine:
Prior to the 20th century, most historical records were for and about men. Property was usually listed under the man’s name, and men ran businesses and the government. Meanwhile, a woman typically changed her name each time she married, and children carried men’s surnames to the next generation.
However, for our grandmothers, many of whom were born on the dawn of the 20th century, details can be hard to come by. If they were not influential, there’s no record of how they met the man they married, what grades they made in school, ….
Highlight a Walk in her Shoes
Highlight the women in your family tree by illuminating what their life might have been like.
1. Tell what you know in terms of her circumstances.
What were her circumstances? Was she an immigrant? Rich or poor? What type of man did she marry? If she had children, how far apart were their births?
2. Examine a timeline of events that happened in her lifetime.
If you already have this ancestor in a FamilySearch or Twile family tree, those sites will show you a timeline. If you don’t (yet) use genealogy sites, you can go to OurTImeLines.com and enter their birth and death dates.
Of course, you can make your own. The advantage here is that you can include family events, emotional benchmarks, and historical events. Here’s a quick and dirty one I made for my maternal grandmother’s first 20 years of life.
3. Dig deeper for context.
Background information about a time and place can give you a plethora of information. Crops grown in an area. The climate. Clothes that were worn. Care of animals. Common diseases. Infant mortality. All these things can help you describe a rich setting for your story.
4. Highlight the women in your family tree by explaining difficult emotional context.
In some of my talks, I like to use my great-great-great-great grandmother, Verlinda Carmichael Wilkinson, as an example. If all I knew about her came from census records, I would see that when her husband, William marched off to serve in the Civil war, he left the farm and five children, three of who were under five years old, in her care.
So even though I’ve found nothing more spectacular than the fact that she kept those 5 children alive and maintained possession of the farm through the Civil War, I have a story.
But that story begs for more context, such as first-person accounts from women in similar situations.
Since Verlinda lived in Pittsylvania County, Virginia—near Danville, Virginia, I turned to the Library of Virginia.
The LVA website explained their holdings:
The majority of the Library of Virginia’s holdings that pertain to white Confederate women’s involvement in the Civil War are letters and diaries. These sources provide information on an individual woman’s opinions on the war, involvement with the war effort, and description of the fates of family and friends…
Glancing through their collections, I found something research-trip worth:
Carmichael Family. Letters, 1862–1864, 1908. Accession 24459.
Letters, 1862–1864 and 1908, of the Carmichael family of Danville, Virginia, consisting of letters from Mary C. Carmichael (1810–1866) to her son Lieutenant Charles C. Carmichael (1839–1905) of Company C, 30th Virginia Infantry, Gorse’s Brigade, Pickett’s Division. …
Yes, that’s her family. I won’t bore you with the details, but I believe I’ll get great insight into the Verlinda’s life.
As Judy Russel, the Legal Genealogist, points out, your ancestor’s legal context is critical to understanding them. (I interviewed her in February, so that will be an upcoming post.) How did the laws of the time restrict the decisions they could make? Actions they might take? Their control of their circumstances?
5. Highlight decisions she made.
Once you have deeper context, write about the choices your family member made. Did she join a guild? Did she divorce her husband?
6. Get personal.
What about this woman’s life resonates with you? Explain your connection to her? Does she inspire you? Do you look upon her life as one of those “But for the Grace of God…” situations? How would you have fared in her shoes?
Underlying images of graphics: Courtesy of Library of Congress. By Rothstein, Farm Security Administration, Women picking carrots. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.print