The Pitfalls and Frustrations of Researching Women
Posted On: 01/08/2018 - 11:53am, Posted By: Christine Engels, Archives Manager, Manuscripts Department
Recently while researching a Cincinnati woman’s committee from the WWI era I encountered an all too familiar roadblock to writing about women in history. Of the nearly dozen women involved in this committee only the unmarried women had their first name listed in any reports, documents or letters. The married women went by their husband’s name no matter her own accomplishments in life. For example, Emma Mendenhall Anderson was the initial organizer of the Scholarship Fund for French Women but she was listed only as Mrs. Larz Anderson. Larz was an important Cincinnatian too but I wanted to write about Emma. Since the women on this committee did most of the work to fund and house the French women during WWI I felt that they deserved to have full recognition with their entire names as well as birth and death dates. This proved to be a much more difficult task than I initially anticipated though I was able to correctly name nearly all of them.
One woman remained elusive despite her husband being the president of a local company. I have my suspicions but am not completely confident of her name so I could not include it in my final version. I tried all of the tricks that worked to find the other women. The simplest place to start is by researching the husband and searching for marriage or census records online, though you have to beware of men remarrying after the death of a first wife. Many online genealogy sites are very useful and you can often find people through their parents, children or siblings, but not everything is online. Because I was researching the World War I era I searched rosters of soldiers to see if he had enlisted, but that led me to different first name of a woman which led nowhere with any amount of certainty. I found the husband in city directories but no wife was listed. I discovered plenty about his brothers and sisters but nothing that included anything about his wife. Even his obituary only listed her under his name. I began to doubt that some of the research I was finding was even related to the man and woman I sought. Admitting defeat for the moment, I listed her under her husband’s name with no dates and added her to my list of dead ends I hope to get back to one day.
Just one-hundred years ago, and perhaps even more recently (or even still in some parts of the world), a woman could live her entire life without leaving a trace of who she was as a person apart from her husband. For the majority of women, all of their work outside of the home was attributed to her husband, as was the cultural norm of wives submitting to him as the head of the household. For a historical researcher this is a significant challenge to overcome. If you know a married woman’s surname you have a chance of finding her maiden name through marriage records. The same is true if you only know her maiden name. However, if you don’t have those records you have to get creative and search for any mention of her you can find, including letters, wills, probate records, pension requests, city directories and newspaper articles. The National Archives and Records Administration has a handy guide for researching women and you can search the internet to find many other websites that offer tip for getting started.
Unfortunately the lower down the economic ladder a woman was, the harder it is to find a trace of her. The same holds true for poor and working class men. When you’re busy simply trying to make ends meet it’s unlikely that you’ll keep a diary or have time to write many letters. The education of women was also not prioritized until the late nineteenth century even if the family was able to afford having the children attend school instead of working. Many working class and poor children often had only a rudimentary knowledge of reading and writing and so rarely had the chance to leave a paper trail behind for later researchers. Though frustrating, good researchers have to be creative to try and produce an inclusive history that more accurately represents all people from the past.