In genealogy research, finding the female always presents special problems.
Of course, the primary problem is that women usually change their names
when they marry, but part of the difficulty also arises from a woman's
legal and social status at various times in history. While there have
been some matriarchal societies, most of our history has seen women as
being subject, to a greater or lesser degree, to the control of men.
Finding a maiden name is almost always essential to further research
on a particular line. Naturally, the best place to locate a maiden name
is on a marriage record. If that is not available, other vital records
may have the information, although this is usually the case only with
more modern records, not those over 100 years old. These include birth
certificates of her children, her death certificate, her husband's death
certificate, or the marriage or death certificates of her children. This
is by no means standard and is only a possibility. Baptismal records may
also contain the mother's maiden name, even in older church records.
Another possible source is her obituary, which might mention surviving
brothers. Also look for obituaries of sisters or men you believe are her
brothers. If you have found a person that you think might be one of her
parents, it is worthwhile to check the death certificates because a family
member, perhaps your ancestress, usually provided the information on the
death certificate and sometimes her relationship was given. Also look
for wills from likely candidates a woman may be mentioned in her
father's or mother's will.
Without direct information, you sometimes have to resort to indirect
clues. Look for the repetition of certain given names in the family. If
she named her son Hezekiah, Rudyard or some other uncommon name and there
was an older man of that same name in the vicinity, that may be her father.
Look also for surnames being used as second names for her children. A
woman often gave her child her own maiden name as a middle name. In the
census, look for older people living in the same household or nearby.
They may well be the woman's parents.
There are many sources where you might find information about a woman
and it is worthwhile looking at any record where she is mentioned. However,
it is also important to know where you won't find anything.
In many cases a married woman was subject to her husband and the record
would be in her husband's name. For example, prior to 1850, the U.S. census
only listed the head of the household by name so you will not find any
information about a woman if the husband was still alive. If the woman
was a widow and the head of the household, then she would be listed in
Wills are wonderful sources of information so you might think that a
woman who died in 1730 at the age of 60 would have left a will dividing
her possessions amongst her several children. However, there is very little
likelihood of this as married women were not allowed to write wills at
that time. Everything they owned automatically went to their husbands
so there was no need for a will. Although genealogists also know that
land records can be an important source of information, in the early days
of our country married women usually could not own land, so you might
not find much help in land records.
Military pension records are a great source of family information, but
women were not allowed to serve in the military until 1890 when nurses
joined during the Spanish-American War and eventually received pensions
based on their own service. However, ever since the Revolutionary War,
widows of soldiers have been eligible for pensions so all men's pension
records are a good source for information on the women in the family.
New Reference Emphasizing Women
Is this getting confusing? Actually, it is much worse than it seems because
each state had different laws about what women could and couldn't do.
In one state a woman might be able to run a business, own property in
her own right and write a will, whereas in other states all of these activities
The recently published book, The
Hidden Half of the Family by Christina Kassabian Schaefer (published
by Genealogical Publishing Co., Baltimore), looks at genealogy from the
point of view of women's records and explains what you can expect in each
state at any point in time. The author points out that in several European
countries, including France and Italy, women frequently used their married
names on legal documents. In many localities the death records for German
and Polish Catholic women recorded only their maiden names while in Scotland
widows reverted to their maiden names. In some countries (Wales, Scandinavia
and the Netherlands), married women often retained their maiden names.
The Hidden Half of the Family
The introduction to the book gives an overview on records generally and
how they apply to women. It includes information on U.S. government records,
as well as other records that are the same in most states. It is quite
a good guide to many types of records which also apply to men, but with
special emphasis on what they might contain about women.
In the 18th century and earlier, women generally came under the protection
of their fathers until they married and then their husbands were responsible
for them. According to Schaefer, a woman's legal position was quite different
depending on whether she lived under civil or common law. In this country,
civil law applied in areas settled by the French and Spanish but was phased
out when these states joined the U.S.
In civil law a husband and wife were considered co-owners of community
property which was managed by the husband. A married woman could manage
and control her own separate property. In common law, which originated
in England, a married couple was considered one person and the husband
controlled everything. It did not matter if the woman had been given money
by her father, inherited it or earned it herself. The husband had the
right to dispose of it. A law stating this was passed in South Carolina
in 1712, in Rhode Island in 1719 and in Pennsylvania as late as 1833.
If a husband died intestate (without making a will) a wife was entitled
to one-third of her husband's personal estate and, in some states, one
third of his real estate (land and property). The interest in the real
estate, called the "dower right," was usually only for her lifetime.
Once a widow inherited money, possessions or property, she could then
manage them herself.
One wonders why women ever remarried under these circumstances, but if
she only received one-third of the estate, it probably wasn't enough to
live on. Connecticut passed a law in 1769 stating that the heirs of an
estate were liable for the support of a widow if the dower was inadequate,
but she was at the mercy of the rest of the family, often her own sons
or her husband's sons by an earlier marriage. A 1683 New York law stated
that the widow could stay in her husband's home for only 40 days after
his death. After that she had to make do with her dower.
Women and the Law
In The Hidden Half, the chronology shows that gradually laws changed
and married women were allowed to own and manage land in their own right
and write wills disposing of personal possessions and property. Eventually,
a widow's share in most states consisted of one-third or more of both
personal and real property which were hers permanently.
Any study of law will bring to light some rather incredible statutes.
Here are some mentioned in the book:
- In 1924, one state (not named) still had a law that allowed a father
to will a child (born or unborn) away from the mother!
- In 1895, Louisiana prohibited the defendant in a divorcee from ever
- In 1660, Connecticut required all married men to live with their wives.
- In 1895, in 14 of 46 states, a wife's wages still belonged to her
- In 37 states a married women had no legal right over her children.
- In 1932, The National Recovery Act limited the number of federal workers
in a family to one, causing many women to lose their jobs.
The section on divorce shows that, surprisingly enough, it is not a recent
invention. In 1682 Pennsylvania allowed divorce on grounds of adultery.
The Puritans viewed marriage as a civil contract, not a sacrament, and
therefore dissolvable. The first divorce in Connecticut, in 1655, was
granted for desertion. In 1656, the New Haven (Connecticut) colony stated
that in a divorce, the innocent party would have liberty to marry again.
In 1804 Congress endowed the District of Columbia District court with
the power to grant divorces (but in 1901 amended the law to grant divorce
only on the grounds of adultery). In 1838, Iowa passed a divorce law.
The introduction to the book summarizes grounds for divorce in 1895, residency
requirements for obtaining a divorce, restrictions on remarriage, dates
for earliest state and county marriage divorce registration, and recognition
of common law marriages.
Ms. Schaefer also takes a special look at minorities such as Native Americans,
African Americans, and Asian Americans. Chinese were restricted from emigration
at one time and the requirements for bringing in Chinese and Japanese
wives was, until recently, much more strict than for other nationalities.
There are several unique sources mentioned for Asian immigrants. She discusses
the status of Native Americans both in and outside of the white man's
law and mentions many sources for research as well as helpful Web sites.
Schaefer's information on manumissions would be very helpful for both
male and female slaves. She gives dates when manumissions were allowed
and what was required. Many states required that any slave given freedom
had to leave the state. For this reason, freedom could also mean sorrow
if the freed slave had to leave family behind. It also could be quite
terrifying for a man or woman who had never been able to make any decisions
about his or her personal life to suddenly have to move to a strange place,
find a place to live and a way to earn a living. Ms. Schaefer points out,
"Ironically, one of the few legal inheritances that passed from a
mother to a child was that of enslavement."
Federal and State Information
The Hidden Half also gives a useful summary of the different Federal
census returns, their National Archives reference numbers, how to use
Soundex, what abbreviations you will find for women in the Soundex (Hsi
= half sister, Gml = grandmother-in-law), special censuses and other references
that might be especially helpful such as an index of Revolutionary
War pensioners. Sources that don't have a National Archives number will
have a film or fiche number for the Family History Library, where available.
Moreover, this book examines Federal Land Records. In 1841, widows, but
not married women, could apply for federal land. In 1862, the land acts
included women who were single and over 21 or heads of household or a
wife who had been deserted by her husband. There is an extensive list
of military records and how these applied to women, either in their own
right or as a widow of a veteran. She also explains naturalization laws
and indicates the times when a woman acquired and lost U.S. citizenship
based on her husband's citizenship.
After the introduction, each state is treated individually with respect
to important dates in history, marriage and divorce, property and inheritance,
suffrage, citizenship, census information, other information, bibliography
and other resources (including web sites) for women's history. The author
does not do a county-by-county listing of records and dates, which are
covered in other reference books. She indicates whether marriage and divorce
records have generally been filmed, and also points out special indexes,
collections, or publications that might be helpful for that state (including
film numbers and web sites). The book is worth its cost just for the bibliographies.
Each state averages a full page of articles and books about women's history
in that state.
Trying to understand what life was like at any one time based on the
laws is a bit tricky. A law is usually passed by a legislative body (which
is supposed to represent the people) because they want to change a current
law or codify and clarify common practice. If a law is passed making 16
the minimum age for a bride, it could mean several things, such as: 1)
the minimum age is now 14 and it is being increased, 2) the minimum age
is 18 and it is being lowered, 3) a lot of girls are being married off
at 12 and 13 and people want this stopped, or 4) there is no minimum but
a small group is pushing for a minimum at 20 so the legislature passed
the age 16 minimum to thwart them.
A law stating that a woman could own land may not indicate that previously
there was a law stating she couldn't. It may have just been common practice
not to allow it. (The local recorder may have had a personal opinion that
a woman's place was in the home and simply informed her that when she
found herself a husband or her daddy or brother would come in and sign
for her, he would register the land.) The law simply established her right
to own the land in spite of the beliefs of local officials.
However, from the chronologies, one can see that women began gaining
more rights in the first half of the 19th century. The first women's rights
convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York in 1848 and changes came
more swiftly after that. Congress passed a law in 1879 permitting women
to practice law in all federal courts and all women gained the right to
vote in 1920.
Ms. Schaefer has done a great deal of research on women's genealogy and
her book should help you in locating your "hidden half of the family."