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Archived Articles
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Published August 27, 1999

Women in Your Tree, Part I - The other half of your family
By Sandra Devlin

This nine part series was the winning entry in the 2000 Online Columns/Articles category of the Council of Genealogy Columnists (since renamed the International Society of Family History Writers and Editors). The award was presented at the National Genealogy Society annual convention in Providence, Rhode Island, USA

We often give up too easily on the women in our pedigree charts. Tracing the family surnames by the male lines is a project only half done ... like an August apple pie without sugar or a half-blacked out photograph shot at the wrong shutter speed.

This column is the first in a series dedicated to encouraging genealogists to focus a concerted effort to include their women ancestors, as well as the male lines. The general principles discussed about avenues to search for female ancestors -- conventional and otherwise -- will apply nationwide, not just to Maritime families. Even the references in the final segment will be more general than usual, although some will be specifically Maritime.

Perhaps my inner, not-often-very-active feminist voice is motivating me to write this series. I have been putting it off for some time, promising Sandra Roberts who initially suggested the topic that I would eventually get around to it.

The truth is, researching the women whose characteristics and traits contribute half of our genetically inherited personalities and talents IS more difficult than tracing the male lines. Traditional resources we use in genealogy research are based on men as the heads of households, men in positions of authority and men as the progenitor by surname: census records, property transactions, directories, electoral lists, taxation rolls, military musters and so on.

In a book at the New Brunswick Archives (Fredericton) entitled A History of Surnames of the British Isles (1968), I recently ran across a fascinating thought expressed by the author C. L'Estrange Ewen.

"In these days of equality of the sexes, what is to be done to preserve the married woman's surname? It has been suggested that if John Smith married Mary Brown, the male children of the union should be called Brown-Smith, and the females Smith-Brown. But what is to happen when a young Brown-Smith espouses a White-Taylor? One or other name would have to be dropped, and the attempt to perpetuate the family appellatives of both parents fails. The only workable plan seem to be that when Mr. Brown weds Miss Smith, the parties should retain their own names, being further described in formal documents as husband or wife of so-and-so as the case might be, and colloquially as the Smith-Browns or Mr. and Mrs. Smith-Brown, or vice versa, if preferred. Sons of the marriage would be surnamed Brown, and daughters Smith, both names being perpetuated, the one in a line of males, the other in a line of females."

Reaction to the preceding paragraph will probably be diametric opposition. And I venture to guess that the side which refuses to even consider such a move is of the male persuasion, even thought it would more closely reflect modern society's customs than our archaic patriarchal naming tradition.

Perhaps I am judging the men too harshly or unfairly. I would be delighted to be proven wrong by a flood of e-mails from men who would support the approach of a male line and a female line, each with different surnames within one family group. I would be equally happy to hear from my women readers who oppose such a naming pattern. From either, I am eager to hear alternate suggestions, with detailed explanations of how they might work to perpetuate the female contribution to the gene pool in an enlightened age. Sufficient response will make great fodder for a future column. Perhaps we will start a naming revolution.

Whether or not the patriarchal surname tradition ever undergoes a metamorphosis in the future; it is firmly entrenched in our past and it leaves us with often-complex challenges when we attempt to uncover the female threads in the genealogy tapestry.

In case you think I swallowed a lexicon of metaphors before sitting down to write, I assure you that the rampant metaphors have been intentional and meant to subtly illustrate two of the prime rules necessary in researching for female ancestors.

Prime Rule #1 - You must always be prepared to read between the lines and be open to discovering obscure clues in non-traditional places.

Prime Rule #2 - You must accumulate clues, analyze clues and follow the paths to which these clues lead until at last you have gathered enough clues to deduce the logical answer.

Actually once you get the hang of it, searching for female lines is a lot of fun and the reward of finding a surname after months or even years of searching is ever-the-more sweet for the agony and frustration experienced along the way.

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