Researching female ancestors is often neglected when working on a family tree. Spending time uncovering and understanding the women who made you who you are, is time well spent, but can be tricky. Here are three main hurdles to researching female ancestors and some tips on how to overcome them.

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1. Changing surnames

Surnames play a big part in family identity and, as women have traditionally changed theirs to their husband’s name on marriage, this can nudge us towards research a paternal, rather than a maternal line.

Women changing their name on marriage can also be one of the main reasons you may lose a woman in the records. If you find a 15-year-old girl in the 1881 census and can’t find her in 1891, then it is easy to assume that she has got married and changed her name. At that point, you need to look for her in marriage records. However, it is important to remember that marriage could happen at any point in someone’s life. You may find a widow in her 60s in the 1871 census and assume you need to look for a death if you can’t find her in 1881 but keep an open mind, as marriage was an important safety net for women of all ages.

Not only did women change their surnames, but many records didn’t even note their given name, some even used the husband’s name entirely. It is not uncommon to find a married woman referred to as Mrs John Smith or just Mrs Smith in newspaper articles and elsewhere. Keep this in mind when searching for records.

It is worth noting that in Scotland women frequently continued to be referred to by their maiden name in records, even after their marriage. Sometimes records will note both married and maiden name making research much easier.

2. Records of female ancestors

We find our female ancestors in the standard records of census, birth, marriage and death, but are there other records we can look at? The lack of records for women can sometimes be seen as a stumbling block, but there are routes you can explore.

We mentioned above newspaper records and these can be an important source if you are lucky to find a female ancestor in them. From court cases and local disputes to acts of charity or school and university awards, newspapers can lead to other records and help flesh out women’s stories. Specialist publications like The Suffragette are also now online and make for fascinating reading, even if you don't find your ancestor named within its pages. To access the biggest collection of local and specialist newspapers for the UK, you will need to subscribe to either the British Newspaper Archive or Findmypast (Pro subscription). Some libraries also offer institutional subscriptions, enabling you to view the records for free.

Although far fewer women left wills than men, they are often mentioned in men’s wills. Wills made after 1858 can easily be ordered online.

Other general family history records that can be used to trace women include electoral registers (after 1918) and the 1939 Register.

There are also professions, such as nursing and teaching, which had a strong female presence. Many of these records are also now online. Although occupational registers can seem rather dry, knowing when and where an ancestor studied and practised their profession can lead to other records. For example, if your ancestor was a teacher, you might find log books for the school she taught at which will give you some insight into what her life was like. Findmypast has a large collection of school records including log books.

For nurses, Ancestry has the best collection of online records. Hospital records are likely to be held in local archives and may well include staff photographs, including social activities. If your ancestor was a nurse during wartime, then there are likely to be records of her. First World War British Army service records for nurses can be freely accessed from The National Archives' website as can records for women who served during the First World War with the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, the Women's Royal Air Force and Women's Royal Naval service, although generally these records are more sparse than those held for their male counterparts.

If your ancestor was alive and working in 1921, then the 1921 census will give details of her employer. Ask the local archive if they hold records for the relevant business.

At the other end of the scale, women were even more likely to fall into poverty than men and records of them can be found in Poor Law and workhouse records. It is important to know though that just because a woman is recorded in a workhouse infirmary, it doesn’t necessarily mean that she was a workhouse inmate. With few alternative choices, many women will have given birth in these hospitals.

3. The unrecorded lives of women

Unfortunately, for many women, much of their day-to-day life was unrecorded, but this doesn’t mean they were doing nothing! You can draw up a picture of a woman’s life by looking at the people and places connected to her life. How many children did she have, and did they all live to adulthood? If not, what did they die of? What was her father’s occupation and what was her husband’s occupation? Where did she live?

Just because a woman’s occupation is often not recorded, that doesn’t mean she didn’t help the family to earn money. She may well have worked in a family business or supported her husband in his work. It was customary not to include a woman’s occupation on a marriage entry regardless of whether she was working. Although many women did give up their jobs on marriage, many others could not afford to. You may find clues in the census.

More like this

The more you try to understand what life was like for women like your ancestor, the closer you will get to understanding her, regardless of what survives in official records. Look at where she lived, read local history books and try to walk in her footsteps. You will be rewarded with a much richer sense of your family’s story.

Tracing your Female Ancestors, by Adele Emm, Pen and Sword, 2019

Criminal Women, by Barry Godfrey and Lucy Williams, Pen and Sword, 2018

A History of Nursing by Louise Wyatt, Amberley Publishing, 2019

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Pen and Sword Books has published a series of books looking at women's lives from a local perspective. Visit their website to find out if there is publication for the area you are interested in. Examples include A History of Women's Lives in Liverpool by Gill Rossini. Other areas covered include: Scunthorpe, Coventry, Nottingham, Norwich, The Isle of Wight, Oxford, Newcastle, Portsmouth, Leeds and Halifax.

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