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Archived Articles
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Published September 24, 1999

Women in Your Tree, Part III - An overlooked goldmine of female ancestor research
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

This is the third in a series of columns (click here for Part I), (or here for Part II) about researching women in your pedigree charts.

To begin this column: An invitation to readers. Please share with me and fellow readers success stories about searching for your female ancestors. Serendipity or just plain dogged hard work -- through your story, someone else may be inspired or be able to use what you learned along the way.

There is a subtle, personal feminist cry in this series on behalf of the gender which worked hard as equals from pioneer times to the present, and deserves the recognition too often denied them in genealogy charts.

I have a friend who shall remain nameless for reasons which will become obvious at the end of this paragraph. This friend is searching his rare surname to the exclusion of all else. (Nobody with a surname like Smith would ever be caught up in a one-name search, methinks.) This preoccupation with his surname, automatically excludes his daughter, his two married sisters, his nieces and nephews (children of his sisters), all of his married aunts and countless other female relatives and ancestors. And, while he excludes those closest to him, he gets prickly heat over some obscure person he finds in a telephone directory in the United Kingdom.

I find myself losing interest quickly in his research stories, as I imagine his female relatives do, too. I suppose there is a lot of fun in one-name searches. But, they grate against the grain of my female protective instinct.

As family researchers, we are often tempted to begin with our most ancient-known ancestors and work toward the present. For the female half of your genealogy, however, I suggest you begin with the most recent and work from there. I suggest this for three reasons: 1. You will have more success with more-recent generations. 2. You will exponentially accumulate more female lines along the way. 3. You can learn more than simple vital statistics about your current and most recent female relatives.

In the most-recent times, you can interview living relatives -- some before it is too late -- and learn first-hand about their lives.

I came across a delightful little booklet being sold in novelty shops which encourages relatives to jot down memories -- based on suggested topics -- every day for a year. A collection of these will be priceless to our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

More-recent records also tend to include women and preserve pertinent details. Women in the 20th Century have been writing their own wills, transacting land deals, getting an education, running for public office, writing their biographies/memoirs, having independent careers and a whole myriad of other activities which leave paper trails. Government record keepers have also been keeping better track of females by their maiden names through birth, marriage and death records. Ditto for cemetery record keepers, as well as newspaper obituary write-ups, marriage and birth announcements. The same is true of city directories, church directories/records, education records and published family histories. Constructing an accurate and complete record of your female lines back one, two or three generations offers an opportunity for a good success rate. And, it will create a foundation for your descendants when one or more of them take over the family history project in years to come.

For that reason alone, if for no other, be sure to explicitly detail your reference notes.

Another fantastic product of the 20th Century is the establishment of Women's Studies departments at major Canadian universities. There are no fewer than 17 universities in Canada offering graduate programs in Women's Studies and scores more offering undergraduate programs.

There is a gold mine of solid research already done in these departments and more in progress, much of it reaching back into the 19th Century and earlier.

One of thousands of examples is Separate Spheres, Women's Worlds in the 19th-Century Maritimes, (1997) edited by Janet Guildford and Suzanne Morton. Acadiensis Press, University of New Brunswick. ISBN 0-919107-41-9.

In 10 essays, collected over seven years, this book deals with a wide variety of topics dealing exclusively with women in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia.

If you have a Rose Hughes from Fort Augustus, P.E.I. in the mid-1830s in your tree, you will be delighted to learn that she was a feisty opponent of the Escheat movement who had many friends willing to come to her rescue, by physical force, when necessary.

In New Brunswick, in the 1840s, your female ancestors may have shown up on Temperance petitions presented to the Legislature.

In Nova Scotia, your female ancestors may spring to life from the SPC records. You may think of the SPC as an organization which provides protection to animals today; but between 1800-1900 in Halifax, its prime function was the provision of marriage counseling and legal aid for estranged couples and harassed spouses, usually at the instigation of the wife.

This book will wipe away any romantic notion that your female ancestors quietly occupied themselves solely in cooking, cleaning and child-bearing.

If you stop at just this book you will be doing a great disservice to your potential success in learning more about your female ancestors and their lives and times. But if you read only this book, you will have a rich experience through both the actual words and by noting the extensive bibliography and footnotes -- as fodder for further places to seek out and find.

Two more examples of the fruits of Women's Studies publication include:

  • Changing Roles of Women Within the Christian Church in Canada editors: Elizabeth Gillan Muir and Marilyn Fardig Whiteley; University of Toronto Press, (1995) ISBN: 0-8020-7623-8 paper. Seventeen Canadian scholars tell the stories of individuals who have worked in traditional and non-traditional roles, alone and as members of groups, both within and outside church structures.

  • Canada Dry, Temperance Crusades Before Confederation by Jan Noel. University of Toronto Press (1995) ISBN: 0-8020-6976-2 paper. Noel examines the forces which created the temperance movement and the effect it had on work, women, children, religion and social structure.

Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax has instituted, maintains and continues to develop a library and archival collection for women's studies.

Women's Studies, however, are not the only university departments publishing works of help to researching women:

  • Dr. Margaret Conrad of the History Department at Acadia has written many excellent books and periodical articles, many focussing on women, including co-authoring with Toni Laidlaw and Donna Smyth: No Place Like Home, Formac Publishing Ltd.(1988). ISBN 0887800661.

  • Dalhousie University historian Judith Fingard bursts more romantic bubbles of history in her book The Dark Side of Life in Victorian Halifax, Pottersfield Press (1991, second printing) ISBN: 0-919001-58-0. Fingard skilfully and sympathetically delves into the lives of a "gallery of jailbirds" including several women of the so-called lower classes in Halifax during the mid- to late-1800s.

  • Wives and Mothers, School Mistresses and Scullery Maids, Working Women in Upper Canada, 1790-1840 by Elizabeth Jane Errington. McGill-Queens University Press. ISBN 0-7735-1310-8 paper . Arguing that the role of Upper Canadian women in the overall economy of the early colonial period has been greatly undervalued by contemporary historians, the author illustrates how the work women did, particularly as wives and mothers, played a significant role in the development of the colony.

In addition to academic research, there is also an upsurge of interest in printing commercially viable books on women's place in history. With the help of the Ontario Arts Council, Carol Bennett McCuaig, a prolific author of history and genealogy books about regional Ontario, has most recently produced Invisible Women (1999), ISBN 0-919137-34-2.

Of prime interest to Ontario researchers, this book can help Maritime researchers by outlining places where information can be found, outside some of the places one might think to look: military records - Boer, First and Second World wars - where women served often as nurses; Victorian Order of Nurses, Women's Christian Temperance Unions, National Council of Women, Women's Institute, Girl Guides of Canada and sports associations like local figure skating clubs. Other examples:

  • Blackouts to Bright Lights, Canadian War Bride Stories - editors: Barbara Ladouceur and Phyllis Spence.Ronsdale Press (1995) ISBN: 0-921870-33-7. Oral histories of 36 Second World War, war brides.

  • Atlantic Hearth, Early Homes and Families of Nova Scotia by Mary Byers and Margaret McBurney. University of Toronto Press (1994) ISBN: 0-8020-7762-5 paper, Tracing the links between home, culture and history.

  • Eleanora's Diary by Caroline Parry. Scholastic Canada (1994). ISBN 0-590-74096-8 Based on the actual diary of a young girl of the 1830s, this book charts a family's progress from an English vicarage to a settler's cabin in Simcoe County, Ontario.

In the best of these are bibliographies and reference footnotes which are valuable clues in themselves to archived documents at various repositories.

For New Brunswick researchers, a booklet has been produced entitled Cartographies of Silence, an Annotated Bibliography of English Language Diaries and Reminiscences of New Brunswick Women 1783-1980, by Joanne Ritchie, Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women (1997). ISBN: 0-919653-73-1.

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