Three Ideas for Tracing Your Female Ancestors 4

From the Editors: The In-Depth Genealogist would like to thank Gena Philibert-Ortega for sharing her knowledge of researching the women who proudly hold up the roots and branches of our family tree. We are lucky to learn from her experience!

My interest in researching female ancestors began over 20 years ago. The more I thought about the challenges facing genealogists researching the women in their families the more I started to wonder why we were trying to research women in the same way that we were researching male ancestors. Women historically did not always leave the same type of paper trail and didn’t have the same legal rights. When thinking about a female ancestor the first and foremost thing you should be thinking about is what she did that could have left a paper trail. What clubs, churches, membership organizations existed in her community? What was historically happening?

Researching female ancestors can be challenging. While you should start with a similar methodology when researching women as you would men there are some additional strategies to consider. The three steps I describe below will assist you with finding your female ancestors when the usual techniques fail.

Expand Your Research

It can be easy to rely on searching just on a person’s name as you use genealogy subscription websites. But as you research you may find more relevant information if you expand your search beyond the person themselves. Research should include the clusters that were a part of the person’s life like extended family members.  In researching women consider expanding your research to also include her community (you can’t know all the resources available if you don’t have knowledge of the community she lived in)  and her historical era.

Most genealogists start a family history project by focusing their research on the individual woman and her family. Collateral family members can be vital in finding more information about an individual since some family members may have left a better paper trail than others. The research I recommend goes beyond that. Elizabeth Shown Mills talks about the FAN principle (friends, acquaintances and neighbors). The idea is that in research you need to go beyond just searching on an individual if you want to find rich primary source material that detail their lives. In addition to this concept , include researching the historical era your ancestress lived in. When researching women it’s vital to know something about the history her  time. Without that knowledge you may make mistakes in looking for documents that don’t exist or in making assumptions about the documents you do find.

A quick example will illustrate this. If you are not familiar with when your state passed female suffrage you may ignore voting records as a possibility. Now to be clear, I am not referring to when women won the right to vote on the federal level. And in fact women may have been voting in local school elections prior to being granted the right to vote on the state level. If I didn’t know that women in California were granted the right to vote in 1911 I might assume that I would need to wait until after 1920 to find them in voter registrations.

Female Specific Resources

In some cases there are record collections that are specific to women. For example, a keyword search on the Family History Library Catalog  using the keyword “women”  reveals over 4,600 results. Just a few of the examples from this search are:

As you search online catalogs, remember to try searching on various  keywords like the name of the church she attended, the  membership group or activity you know that your ancestress was a part of. Because library and archive catalogs are organized differently than genealogy subscription websites, make sure to always conduct  a search on the city your ancestor lived in.

Women Centered Activities

Part of the reason why women can be difficult to trace could have something to do with the sources we typically use in genealogy. Because we primarily rely on government documents it should come as no shock that women are not well represented. As you consider your female ancestor think about what activities she may have been involved in that would result in a record or document. For example, utilizing city directories will assist you in learning what membership societies she could have been a member of. What church did she attend? She may have been a member of a benevolent society for that church that could have resulted in membership records or even a fundraising cookbook or signature quilt.

One important place to find records that pertain to women’s lives is through manuscript collections. Utilize union catalogs like NUCMC to find manuscript collections that pertain to the area your ancestor lived in. Also check library, archive and museum online catalogs for the city, county, region and state they lived. In some cases repositories have women’s manuscript collections that are authored by or pertain to women. These can be a rich source for women’s journals, correspondence, church and membership group records.

Yes, finding your female ancestors can be tricky but these brief ideas for how you can enhance your search will help you uncover more records than if you limit your search to a genealogy website.

Gena Philibert-Ortega holds a Master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and a Master’s degree in Religion. Presenting on various subjects involving genealogy, women’s studies and social history, Gena has spoken to groups throughout the United States and virtually to audiences worldwide. Gena is the author of hundreds of articles published in genealogy newsletters and magazines including Internet Genealogy, Family Chronicle, GenWeekly and the WorldVitalRecords newsletter. She is the author of the books, Putting the Pieces Together and Cemeteries of the Eastern Sierra (Arcadia Publishing, 2007) as well as the forthcoming, From the Family Kitchen (F + W Media, 2012). Gena is the editor of the Utah Genealogical Association’s journal Crossroads. An instructor for the National Institute for Genealogical Studies, Gena has written courses about social media and Google. She serves as Vice-President for the So. California Chapter of the Association of Professional Genealogists and is a Director for the California State Genealogical Alliance. Her current research interests include social history, community cookbooks,signature quilts and researching women’s lives.

Find Gena:
Your Family History Research


About idgadmin

The In-Depth Genealogist is an online, interactive genealogy community that contributes to the advancement of all genealogists by sharing resources.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

4 thoughts on “Three Ideas for Tracing Your Female Ancestors

  • Mariann Regan

    Thank you for these useful insights. I remember Helen Hunt’s ancestor (great-grandmother) who was so instrumental in the WCTU and women’s suffrage, on WDYTYA. They found her full story through the FAN approach–friends, acquaintances, and neighbors–as well as other women in the WCTU. Genealogical research will help us identify more women’s groups from those pre-feminist eras, before women thought of themselves as the political force, “women.”

  • Gena Philibert-Ortega


    Thanks for your comment. I think one big aspect of researching female ancestors that we miss is those organizations that they belonged to whether it was a social change organization like the WCTU, an auxiliary to a fraternal order or even a benevolent society. It’s when we expand out approach and look at the history and the community she lived in that we can get valuable clues about what additional records might exist.

    I loved that part in Helen Hunt’s episode about the WCTU. It’s important for us to look at these organizations and see if our ancestress played a part in them.

    Thanks again