Our female ancestors

Sometime in the early 1970s my mum decided she wanted a sewing machine.  I went with her to one of the big department stores, where a very knowledgeable woman showed us a few models and demonstrated the features.  Having decided on a particular machine, my mum went over to the cash desk.  She wanted to pay on HP (‘Hire Purchase’) over several months.  That was when the fun started.  My mum, aged fortysomething and in full-time employment, was not allowed to sign the HP contract.  Since she was married, only her husband could sign.  I was too young to understand the implications of all this, or of course to know the long history of women’s place in society, but I could tell from the combination of frustration, anger and embarrassment writ large across my mother’s features that it wasn’t a good thing.  There was nothing to be done though.  We had to go home, and my dad had to go into town later that afternoon to sign the documents and bring home the machine.

Yet only a hundred years earlier the lot of a married woman had been much worse.  It was only during the lifetime of my mother’s grandmother that women started to make gains.  Before the Married Women’s Property Act of 1870 married women were not allowed to keep their own earnings, while prior to the 1882 Married Women’s Property Act all of a woman’s property and possessions passed to her husband when she married.  Before the 1882 Act, the only way a woman could retain property and finances was to remain single or, after the death of her husband, to avoid remarriage.  Even then she didn’t necessarily have the final say in decisions relating to her children, and of course she didn’t have the right to vote.

I’ve traced approaching 240 direct ancestors in my family tree.  Almost half of these are women.  And yet I know far less about these grandmothers of mine than I do about their husbands.  Even if the mother is named on the baptism record, it’s the father’s occupation that is recorded, while census records list the occupation of most women as ‘Unpaid domestic duties’.

I’d been thinking about this for a while.  It seemed the only way I might ever know more about my female lines was to read about social history, and to apply what I learned to my ancestors, based on what I knew of the occupation and social status of their husbands.  So I was interested to find two books dedicated to female ancestors:
Margaret Ward’s The Female Line (2003) focuses on women’s lives 1800 to 1950.
Adèle Emm’s Tracing Your Female Ancestors (2019) deals with the period 1815 to 1914.

Both, then, cover the perfect period for the genealogist who has used census and civil registration records to trace their ancestors back to the beginning of the 19th century, and would now like to get to know these ancestors a bit better, before perhaps taking the plunge and learning about the earlier records needed for the Georgian period and beyond.

The Female Line has information arranged over eight chapters, each ending with a ‘finding out more’ section with ideas for further research, including the whereabouts of records, further reading and other ideas.  Chapters include photographs and fashion; marriage; widowhood and remaining single; politics and the vote; charitable work; crime; work and war.

Tracing Your Female Ancestors has information arranged over six chapters, including birth, marriage and death; education (for all classes of society); crime; daily life (including housing, recreation, illness); work and emancipation (including the general opening up of options for women).  Links to various sources are found throughout the text, and each chapter ends with a bibliography.

Both books end with a very useful timeline of key events impacting on women’s lives.

Clearly there’s a lot of overlap in topics covered, and inevitably much of what is written is about the generalities.  For example regarding fashion and dress, even without photos of your ancestor you can still get an idea of what a woman of her time, class and occupation might have worn by looking at books and photos.  Similarly, unless your ancestor’s marital relations were recorded in newspapers, court records and the like, then the best you can hope for is an understanding of what being married meant for her in terms of autonomy, finances, etc.

There is also the issue that ‘woman’ is not, and never was, a homogenous group.  There was a world of difference between the life and expectations of a wealthy woman, a middle class woman, the wife/daughter of a skilled tradesman and a pauper.  Equally, some of the facts of a woman’s life applied equally to her husband, father and male children – living accommodation, the penal process, Education Acts and Factory Acts, for example.  So what both writers try to do is to highlight the issues and then to draw out of these the particular impact upon women and their daughters.  Some crimes, for example, are more likely to be committed by a woman, whilst others that are more likely to be committed by a man will nevertheless impact greatly on his wife and family if he is imprisoned or transported.

Regarding work, the point is made by both authors that our female ancestors were unlikely to be described in the censuses with reference to any paid employment, even if they were enormously successful, or if the household depended on their contribution.  A gentleman ought to be able to provide for his wife and family.  Hence Elizabeth Gaskell, by then a successful and accomplished author for two decades, was described in the 1861 census as ‘Wife’.  Lower down the social scale, our foremothers may have been written off on successive censuses with the term ‘Unpaid domestic duties’, but unless she was middle class or had a private income, chances are that she would have done some work alongside that, either full or part time, and either within or outside the home.  Prior to the industrial revolution, women and children would all have a part to play in supporting the husband-father in his cottage trade.  A husband might be a fully trained weaver but his children might card the fleece, and his wife might spin the yarn.  Later, women might be employed in the local mill or factory – so location will be an important factor – cotton mills in Lancashire, lace in Nottingham, mining in Wakefield, agricultural work in rural areas, and so on.  And of course there is always cleaning to be done in a wealthier person’s house.  Sometimes wives whose husbands had a family business, like a draper’s shop or a grocers would be listed on the census as Assistants or ‘Helps out in family business’.  Women might take years out to raise children, or work fewer hours when the children went on to school, but the idea that our great grandmothers only ever took care of home and family in the form of ‘Unpaid domestic duties’ is inaccurate.  Whatever they did, though, they would never earn as much as men doing the same work.  These are the kinds of issues raised in the chapters of these two books.

These are not intended to be books that will answer all our questions.  As family researchers, we might find some of the topics irrelevant to our own research.  However, both books are a good introduction to a lot of topics, and packed with ideas for general reading and sourcing original documents.  Both provide an overview of the various topics, including the kind of records you might want to explore, where to find them, and further reading.  It may still be that you won’t find any specific records naming your female ancestors, but you will have a lot more idea about how she lived.  In my own case, I have both found and better understood some records as a direct result of reading these two books.

So which of these books might be best for you?  In what ways do they differ?

The most obvious differences are in dates of publication, size and price.  With a publication date of 2003, Margaret Ward’s book could be considered out of date.  Of course, the records and events haven’t changed since then, but certainly the online availability of records has.  Published in 2019, Adèle Emm’s work is bang up to date.  (In fact it was published as I was reading Margaret Ward’s.)  It’s also much longer, with 220 pages including index, as opposed to 112.  On the other hand, it costs almost twice as much, with a RRP of £14.99 as compared with £7.95.  As a result it contains much more information, both in terms of scope and also in the inclusion of far more examples taken from actual records in various parts of the country.

My recommendation is that, despite the comparative age of The Female Line, if you’re still very much a beginner at family history, you might prefer her shorter, gentler book.  If you are confident and enjoy social history then like me, you’ll get a lot more out of Tracing Your Female Ancestors.

Click on either image to find that book on Amazon.co.uk.
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