In the new Code of Laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors. ~ Abigail Adams (1744-1818) in a letter to her husband John Adams (1735-1826) dated March 31, 1776
Researching your female ancestors presents unique challenges.
For instance, naturalization laws uniquely affected women’s place in society. Until the early part of the 20th century, women’s citizenship status was largely connected to her marital status, and thus, her husband’s status. In 1855, non-citzen women became citizens if they married a natural-born American citizen, if they married a naturalized citizen, or if their non-citizen husband obtained citizenship.
By 1907, the Expatriation Act stripped US-born women of their citizenship if they married a non-citizen. While this act was partially repealed in 1922, US-born women who married non-citizens of Asian descent still lost their citizenship. In 1936, these women could only regain their citizenship if they were divorced or widowed and took an oath of allegiance. It was only in 1940 that Congress restored citizenship to all women who had previously lost it through marriage.
In addition, because women took their husbands’ surnames upon marriage, they often lost their original identities in documents. Married women were often referred to by their husband’s full name – such as Mrs. James McCarter – or, by their married name – such as Sarah McCarter. Their maiden names are seemingly lost. However, if you know where to look, you may be able to trace your female ancestor’s origin.
Note! Unless a woman was listed as the head of a household, her name would not have appeared in census records before the 1850 census.
We’ve provided some helpful hints below to discovering your female ancestor’s maiden name and/or tracing their lives in documents.
- Children’s names. Women often gave their children their maiden name as a given name in order to carry their family heritage into the next generation. For the most part, male children received their mother’s maiden name, though female children were known to as well, albeit less commonly.
- Family Bibles. Family Bibles will often record marriages and births, with full names listed.
- Household members in census records. In the past, it was common for multiple generations to live together under a single roof. Check all the names listed for your ancestor’s household. You may find parents, siblings, aunts, or uncles who share the maiden name.
- Marriage records. If a marriage record exists, it will list the maiden name of the bride. Even if you know the county in which the married couple lived, don’t assume that they were married in that county. Check the records of surrounding counties and courthouses.
- Military pensions. Women could apply for a military pension if their husband or unmarried son died of war-related injuries. In such cases, they had to provide marriage records, which included maiden names.
- Neighbors’ wills. Prior to modern transportation, people did not travel very far from their birthplace, so they were likely to meet their spouses in their own communities. Sometimes they married the children of neighbors. Checking the wills of neighboring families may give you information such as maiden names, as well as the names of parents and siblings.
- Newspapers. Examine the announcements of births, deaths, and weddings. Pay close attention to any social columns as well.
- Vital records. Records of births and deaths often listed a woman’s parents.
Ancestry.com Library Edition – The Library edition of Ancestry includes many resources for genealogical research. However, in order to use the Library edition, you must be at one of the libraries within the Sevier County Public Library System.
BellaOnline: The Voice of Women – Editor Tina Sansone writes articles providing helpful tips and guide for tracing your female ancestors.
The Civil War: Women and the Homefront – Duke University’s research guide to women’s roles in the US Civil War. It includes links to primary sources and manuscripts.
Cyndi’s List: Female Ancestors – A comprehensive list of resources for tracing your female ancestors.
Discovering American Women’s History Online – This database provides access to digital collections of primary sources (photos, letters, diaries, artifacts, etc.) that document the history of women in the United States.
FamilySearch – This free genealogy resource operated by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints includes Native American resources. They also have a research guide available here.
From Pi Beta Phi to Arrowmont Collection at the University of Tennessee – “In 1912, the Pi Beta Phi Fraternity for Women founded a settlement school in Gatlinburg, Tennessee as a service project for its 50th anniversary. Materials documenting the school’s history and its contemporary legacy, Arrowmont, are found within this collection.”
Military Women’s Memorial – The leading memorial and education center honoring women’s contributions to military service. The Women’s Memorial is the only historical repository that documents “all military women’s service, educates and inspires” through exhibitions, collections, and programs.
Prologue Magazine: Women and Naturalization Records – This article examines the history behind women (and their absence) in early American naturalization records.
Researching Female Ancestors in NARA’s Military Records – A general guide to finding your ancestor’s service records.
U.S., World War II Cadet Nursing Corps Card Files, 1942-1948 – Available via Ancestry, this database contains membership cards providing details on women who joined the Cadet Nurse Corps created during World War II.
Virginia P. Moore Collection at the University of Tennessee – “Virginia Pearl Moore was the first home demonstration agent in Tennessee. Her home demonstration work expanded to incorporate all aspects of domestic life, including cooking, canning, sewing, cleaning, and managing home finances.”
Women in the Civil War – This collection from the Tennessee Virtual Archives includes a variety of primary sources about women’s roles in and participation in the Civil War in Tennessee.
Women and Social Movements in the United States, 1600-2000 – “This website is a resource for students and scholars of U.S. women’s history and U.S. history more broadly. Loosely organized around the history of women in social movements in the U.S. between 1600 and 2000, the site seeks to advance scholarly debates and understanding of U.S. history while making the insights of women’s history accessible to teachers and students at universities, colleges, and high schools. It features teaching-centered document projects, as well as extensive collections of primary sources. We are also an online journal and publish new issues twice a year, in the fall and spring, featuring new document projects and book reviews, along with a host of other material, including essays, roundtables, and other special features.”
Women’s History at the Library of Congress – The Library of Congress houses several digital collections related to women’s history, including digital artifacts, correspondence, and records. It is the official home for the records of National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA).
Women’s History at the National Archives – A subsection of the National Archives dedicated to Women’s history and resources.
Women’s Suffrage in Tennessee – “This initial collection focuses on pro- and anti-suffrage activity in Tennessee in 1920, primarily drawing from the papers of suffragist Carrie Chapman Catt, anti-suffragist Josephine A. Pearson, and Governor Albert H. Roberts. In addition to letters, telegrams, political cartoons, broadsides, and photographs, it contains three audio clips from an interview conducted in 1983 with Abby Crawford Milton. As the centennial of the ratification of the 19th Amendment approaches, we plan to add to this online collection, expanding the chronological and narrative scope.”