Learning about female ancestors can be difficult and challenging, but not impossible. Women are often difficult to trace because records in the past weren't kept for them as they were for men. The identities of women who lived prior to the 20th century are often tangled in those of their husbands, both by law and by custom. Trying to find details about these female ancestors can become an exercise in frustration. But with a little creative research, it doesn't have to be.
In many places, women weren't allowed to own real estate in their name, to sign legal documents, or to participate in government. Men paid the taxes, participated in the military, left wills, and wrote the histories. And children carried the man's name into the next generation. As a result, female ancestors are often neglected in family histories.
The biggest obstacle to even finding women ancestors is that most changed their names when they married, but part of the difficulty also arises from a woman's legal and social status at various times in history.
The best place to locate a woman's maiden name is on a marriage record. If that's not available, other vital records may have the information, although this is usually the case only with more modern records, such as birth certificates of her children, her death certificate, her husband's death certificate, or the baptismal, marriage or death certificates of her children–but not those over 100 years old.
Another possible source is a woman's obituary, which might mention surviving brothers. Likewise, obituaries of sisters or men who might be brothers offer possibilities. This also applies to the death certificates of a woman's parents. More often than not, it was a woman who provided the information and sometimes these documents show her relationship to the deceased. Will from likely relatives may also mention a woman's maiden name.
The best place to locate a woman's maiden name is on her marriage record. Marriage information can be found in a variety of records–marriage banns, marriage licenses, marriage bonds, marriage certificates, marriage announcements and civil registration records. Unfortunately, marriage licenses are hard to find since they were often given to the couple being married and have been lost. But the paperwork generated by the application for a marriage license has usually been preserved in church and public records and may provide some clues to a female ancestor's identity. Marriage registers and vital records, found in county courthouses, are usually the most common and complete records of marriage.
Marriage records can also be found in churches, as well as state offices of vital records and boards of health. It's important to first discover which office holds the marriage records in the locality where the couple was living at the time of their marriage. In some areas all documents generated by a marriage will be found combined into the same record. In others, they're listed in separate books with separate indexes. Also, after the Civil War, some counties had separate marriage books for blacks and whites.
Because cemeteries keep records of those buried there, they're one of the best places to find proof of the existence of a female ancestor. This is especially true if she died young and left few official records of her existence. After finding a woman listed in burial records, it's necessary to visit the cemetery to see the tombstone. Often family members were buried in the same row or in neighboring rows. This is especially true if the woman died early in her marriage, or if she died in childbirth, then she can usually be found buried next to her child.
Women generally came under the protection of their fathers until they married and then their husbands during the 18th Century. A woman's legal position was quite different than it is today.
So the possible records–especially earlier ones–that show a lot of details of a woman's life are limited.
Of all the historical documents at the disposal of family historians, diaries can offer the most useful information about a woman's life. They give a first-hand account of what it was like to live during a given time period and at a particular place.
But diaries and journals are often confused. Although family historians use these terms interchangeably, diaries tend to record people's feelings while journals are more likely to tell about activities and events. These accounts are the autobiographies of ordinary women and may be the only existing records of their personal lives. Diaries give family historians a glimpse into someone's daily life, thoughts, and attitudes. Many women often recorded their feelings on national events, such as a war or its impact on her, her family, and the community.
Historically, it was more common for women to keep diaries than men, but women tended to do so only during periods of emotional stress–times of war, when they moved away from family and friends, or when their spouse left for war or to find gold in California or Alaska. Some women may have kept their knowing that one day they'd be read by others, such as those kept by women who traveled the Oregon Trail or through continental Europe.
Letters and diaries written by an ancestor's relatives, friends, and neighbors may also contain information about a female ancestor. These give a family historian a glimpse into what their ancestor's life was probably like, since relatives, friends, and neighbors probably came from the same socioeconomic background.