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Uncovering her story

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herstory, ancestors, family history, womenTracing our female ancestors can be tricky, but it is vital if we really want to know who we are.

It is often difficult finding any reference to women in history, let alone understanding what they did and how they contributed to society.

Until quite recently women routinely changed their names after marrying, they were not allowed to vote and own property, men paid the bills and wrote the wills, so finding them is not so easy.

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack, author of Finding Female Ancestors, believes following the female line can open up new possibilities.

Women are important to trace because they are the ones who give us new family lines to pursue, and researching your female line can help explode myths and challenge stereotypes.

Carmack believes getting to know your female ancestors can help develop a more rounded picture of life in the past.

“While we may find many records for men detailing their military service, land purchases and civic lives, women were more likely to be the letter writers, the family Bible recorders, and the diarists.

“They recorded family and daily life,” she said.

A good example of this, for Carmack, came from one of her clients.

“She’s fortunate to have her mother’s high school diaries from the 1930s.

“Here you have the mom’s own writing, her own voice, her own thoughts, her own opinions, as well as the names of all the boys she dated and had crushes on.

“No other record will give you that kind of information,” said Carmack.

But for genealogist Emma Jolly, author of titles like Family History for Kids and an upcoming book about women in war, tracing her female line helps her understand her own experiences.

“I’m a mother, so I’m interested in the pregnancy, child rearing and childbirth experiences of my ancestors.

“It’s something you can learn from, as pregnancy is something that women experience whatever era you’re in.

“I grew up with my grandmother, she used to live with us and my grandmother, my mother’s and my pregnancy experiences have been the same. We all had the same morning sickness and childbirth experiences,” she said.

“When you trace your female line you realise how many women worked outside the home,” she said.

“If you have a more middle class line you may find women who engaged in political campaigning. Many working class women were working all the time, right through pregnancy in some cases.

“My great, great grandmother worked as a domestic servant in a London townhouse while pregnant, so she would have had to go up several flights of stairs,” said Jolly. “It must have been very hard.”

You often have to dig deep to find out what your female ancestors were doing, Jolly said.

“Newspapers are really useful for finding female ancestors. There are the digital archives of the Times, Guardian, Observer and Daily Mirror.

“Women were often involved in church and community activities, so you may have to look at more specific archives, so for example if your ancestor was a member of the Methodist church it might be with the National Methodist Archives.

“There may be a really detailed obituary or an example of your ancestor running a church fete.

“You can also check marriage certificates and birth certificates for maiden names,” she said.

Vital – and fun.

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