Sunday, May 9, 2010

Sexism in Genealogy

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, this seems to be an appropriate occasion to discuss the difficulties of tracing our female ancestors and the rich rewards we can find on the distaff side of the family forest.

Not so long ago, sexism was rampant, and genealogical research was done almost entirely by men working from paper documents. It took a lot of time (and money) to travel to the places where those paper documents were kept. Dogma therefore held that it is most “efficient” to concentrate on tracing back just one family line at a time.

In practice, this meant that if John’s parents were George Beasley and Anne Stone, John traced only the male lines of Beasley and Stone. John would note the maiden names of the wives if he stumbled across them, but that was it, unless he had reason to suspect a woman was related to somebody famous. In the “finished” pedigree John would list most of the wives by first names only, as if they were merely adjuncts of their husbands—if he gave their names at all. If he didn’t, his pedigree would read like one of those Biblical “begats”.

To be fair, this wasn’t altogether John’s own fault, since even today there are far too many people who somehow feel that women exist chiefly to satisfy the male sex drive and to be breeders for continuation of the male line. I am happy to say that most researchers today realize that half of their ancestors are female, and that some of their most interesting or notorious ancestors will be in the female lines.

John also had the excuse that it’s often quite difficult to trace the lines of a female ancestor in the USA, especially if she had a fairly common name. Censuses here record only the first names of wives and widows. The farther back in time John went, the less documentation would be available and readily accessible to him. Even a marriage record might give him no information about who his great-grandmother’s parents might have been. In such a case John had to rely on tracing all the people who turn up in other family records in hopes that some of them mention her relatives—if he was willing to make any serious effort at all.

Now that so much genealogical information is available on the Internet, John would have a much better chance of tracking down his great-grandmother’s family. You and I have this same advantage.

Moreover, once we get to the immigrant generation, tracing female ancestors is often much simpler, because in many countries, including Quebec, women retain the surnames they were born with throughout their lives.

My Danish grandmother was called “Fru Jensen” by the neighbors, but in all her records, including the Danish census records, she is listed under her original name of Mette Marie Andersen. Her 5th-great grandfather was a French Count who happened to be a Huguenot, but I’d never have known there was a wee bit of French nobility on my Danish side if I hadn’t made the effort to research her ancestry.

In the same way, the wife of Antoine Lepine of Quebec may be called Madame Lepine in social situations, but all of her records identify her by her maiden name of Marie-Louise Poitvin. If you make the effort to trace Marie-Louise’s ancestry, it would not be unusual if you found that Antoine’s brother François married Marie-Louise’s sister Marie-Thérèse—and that finding their records enables you to get past a brick wall in your direct line. You may also find that Marie-Louise’s branch of the family tree includes celebrities who are therefore your distant cousins.

The fact that women in Quebec are always recorded with their maiden names means that it’s much easier to trace female Quebec ancestors than it is to trace John Babcock’s wife Mary in 1860 Iowa, where the US census that year shows her only as Mary Babcock, born about 1841 in New York. If you can’t find John and Mary’s marriage record, you may never know that her maiden name was Fogarty, therefore you won’t recognize her in the 1850 New Jersey federal census record with her parents Henry and Sarah Fogerty.

Nowadays it has become fairly common for American women to retain their maiden name after marriage (as Hilary Rodham Clinton did), usually for professional reasons. So when Brenda Hazelton, MD, marries Jared Vanderventer, she decides that her legal name will still be Brenda Hazelton. This is certainly a practical thing to do, especially if she is already well established in her medical career. Her descendants who want to research their ancestry will bless her for retaining her maiden name.

But as a genealogist, I find myself asking this: what if Brenda wants to keep her original surname simply because she is an ardent feminist who believes it’s demeaning for a woman to give up her own identity to become an appendage of her husband, and her enlightened groom Jared is equally opposed to sexism? The modern way for such a couple to resolve that issue is simple: combine their premarital surnames, and Brenda and Jared both become Vanderventer-Hazelton (or Hazelton-Vandeventer). Their children are recorded under the double surname.

Meanwhile, across town, Jennifer Morrison marries Michael Mackenzie and become Michael and Jennifer Morrison-Mackenzie. Their children also use the double surname.

I’m waiting to see what happens when Jared and Brenda’s daughter Alicia Vanderventer-Hazelton marries Jacob Morrison-Mackenzie and the happy couple want to do what their parents did. Do the newlyweds become Jacob and Alicia Vanderventer-Hazelton-Morrison-Mackenzie? Or do they discard one or more of those four surnames and thereby alienate the parents whose surnames are eliminated?

If Jacob and Alicia choose to keep all four surnames, what happens when one of their children marries a grandchild of a another double-combined-surname couple?

How will all these people fill out official forms which have, say, sixteen boxes for the letters of the surname? How will they introduce themselves to other people? If all their descendants keep to the practice of Brenda and Jared and Jennifer and Michael, in just another few generations one family’s combined multiple surnames could take up a whole page. Children would have to be drilled long and hard on the exact spelling and sequence of their surnames.

True, future genealogists might have a far easier time tracing their ancestry back to the first double-surname couple, although they might find it difficult to determine in each generation which surname set belongs to which partner, since this is not yet a standard practice. But would it be worth the daily hassle resulting from numerous long amalgamated surnames?

Meanwhile, I observe that no feminist seems to have noticed that her maiden name is either the surname of her father (biological or adopted) or the surname of her grandfather (if the mother did not supply the father's name for whatever reason). Personally, I don’t see much difference whether a woman keeps her maiden surname or takes the surname of a spouse. Either way, her surname is derived from her relationship to a male, either as his daughter, his granddaughter, or his spouse.

The only non-sexist way to get around that would be for every woman and/or every man (or couple) to create a new surname to use for their family, and genealogical research would become impossible for their descendants.

Perhaps a smidgen of sexism isn’t such a bad thing.

1 comment:

  1. good observations. It's too bad people cannot come up with some type of dewey decimal system / ssi id # or whatever that a computer could quickly use to determine lineage. I have started doing genealogical research and so far, for ease have just followed my father's surname all the way back to one of the 102 people who came over to Montreal from France in the Great Recruit of 1653. It has been difficult to even find parents of the wives of my paternal grandfathers. It would, of course, be nice to know more about these women. Thanks again for your article.