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Women’s History Month: Genealogy

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Sepia-toned image of a family of seven, posed stiffly as if for church. Mother and father stand at each side with five daughters in between.
Family of Antoinette Pothier and family, Lawrence, Massachusetts. September 1911. Antoinette stands in the back row next to her father. She grew up to work at a factory in town. Photo: Lewis Wickes Hine.

This is a guest post by Candice Buchanan, a reference librarian in the Local History and Genealogy Section.

His and her tombstones for L. D. Hunnell and Mrs. L. D. Hunnell. A young bride without a parent to sign permission for her to marry. A former slave registering to vote, paying her poll tax and standing vigil through weather’s worst in order to vote on Election Day in 1920.

These stories and so many more may be found in the records of just one rural county in southwestern Pennsylvania. They are poignant examples that range from outrageous circumstances to everyday realities for women in American history. The Library can help you track down their long-lost stories.

Finding these women in genealogical records can be difficult because throughout much of our history, women have held a secondary status to men. The traditions and laws of their societies limited their access to education, employment, citizenship and public roles. In the records, it’s often difficult to even discover something as foundational as a woman’s name. Her identity is often intertwined with the men in her life. She is her father’s daughter. Her husband’s wife.

Today, that means they are not equally represented in the records. However, every ancestor deserves honest, accurate and exhaustive research. As with any ancestor who poses a challenge, we must think creatively and broaden our perspective.

Library specialists in the Local History and Genealogy Section collaborate with researchers to find relevant records and then help decipher clues that might lead to more discoveries. What was happening when and where she lived? What laws impacted her rights to marry, divorce, maintain custody of her children, vote, speak publicly, own property, own a business or receive an education? Was she an abolitionist? A suffragist? What responsibilities did she take on during war? How did her community support or treat her if she were orphaned, widowed, single or rebellious?

In this video presentation, we delve into the past with the women from our local history and family trees. Through a series of case studies, we understand the challenges involved in uncovering their stories.

You can also use our Ask a Librarian service to reach out to the Library’s experts to discuss your research project and consider what resources and collections the Library offers to grow your family tree and better understand the women in your history.

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Comments (4)

  1. “…every ancestor deserves honest, accurate and exhaustive research.”
    Thank you for the perfect summation for how I feel about the how’s and why’s of family history (not to mention who and what).

  2. This was an amazing read and a really good video! So happy I subscribed to the email list. Keep them coming!

  3. Question: Does the Library have any information that would be relevant to women that were public servants in their local communities? Would Martha Wilson- Jenkins of Mt. Pleasant, SC have any mentions on her community work in that small town in Charleston County, SC, for that matter would the Library of congress have any information on a group of young African American Students that represented the NAACP, organized by Mr. and Mrs. Malcolm James of Mt. Pleasant, SC.

  4. Welcome to one of my specialties. My family tree is via and yes my DNA is on file . I have done many others. DNA analysis, sequences etc along with it. Women have had it rough. They are to be considered equal to men.we are mother’s sisters and wives. So many titles but also erased . Why? It is because men of the past want to be the male. It is ok in my books but sometimes a woman can easily hunt, hit home runs and prove that there’s more to the mystery of life. Winks ps I blew the scenes up lol. Welcome to Americas smartest and she is not a robot.

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