Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Tracing Women’s Family History Poses Challenges

Two unidentified women pose for
a photo in the 1920s. Photo is courtesy
of the Arkansas State Archives. G6156.37
One of the most challenging aspects of genealogy is finding historical information about women. Throughout history, laws and society have limited women’s roles, which has made finding records about their contributions or lineage more difficult.

Women are often referred to as “hidden members of the family.” Early in American history, women had few rights. For example, men usually controlled all the property, including their wives’ property, and a woman often only received an inheritance if there were no males in the family.

So, how do researchers find information that restores women in history?

The first step is to fully document your male ancestors for clues to female family members. For example, you might find a woman’s full name on birth records or mentioned in obituaries for men.
After you have information about the men in your family, you can use the information to create a timeline of events linked to the woman’s life. This could include census, marriage, birth, death and church records.

Not all records will be helpful or available, however. For example, before 1850, women’s names were only listed in census records if they were heads of household. Women who were married or living with a male relative were only counted with a number and age range.

Women were listed with their first and last names, ages and places of birth from 1850 to 1940. By 1880, the U.S. Census included marital status. That means you can start to trace marriages, which will lead you to marriage licenses.

Information on marriage licenses include maiden names. The license may also include a note from the bride’s brother, who vouched for her age, or a note from her father, who gave permission for her to wed. In some states, such as Ohio and Louisiana, parents’ names are listed on the licenses. Marriage licenses are often recorded in county records that are available on microfilm at the ASA, and some may be searched through, which is available for free at the ASA.

Other county records, such as deeds, probate and court records, can provide additional information. Deed records can include a wife’s name and some women owned property. Probate and will records also can help one understand connections between wives, husbands and children. Divorces records can provide a woman’s maiden name, and because women couldn’t legally file lawsuits in early Arkansas, these records may uncover male relatives who filed on their behalf.

Once you’ve combed those records, try searching newspapers and church records. Women often were involved in their communities and churches. Local newspapers filled pages with social columns listing visitors to homes and social events, wedding announcements, ladies club news, sewing hints, recipes, church news and divorces. It can be worth taking time to go through a weekly or daily newspaper for information. Sometimes the information you find in a newspaper can lead you back to a court record you missed. The Arkansas State Archives has newspapers from communities across the state available on microfilm. Select digitized newspapers made be searched by keyword online on Chronicling American or through, which is available for free for Arkansas newspapers at the ASA.

Church records can be a wealth of information. The information in church records may vary depending on the denomination, but all contain vital information, such as godparent names and birth names. You may also find information about baptisms, bat mitzvahs or confirmations, marriages, birth dates and more. Church records on marriages and deaths sometimes recorded more details than civil records.

Military records can also sometimes provide information about women, either those that served or those related to men who served in the military. Widows of soldiers often applied for pensions, such as the Confederate Pensions Applications searchable at the ASA.

In the late 19th century, many women’s organizations and clubs were founded. Some patriotic hereditary organizations, such as the Daughters of the American Revolution and the United Daughters of the Confederacy, offer a treasure trove of information about women and their ancestral lines. Other organizations focused on specific causes and education can provide details of the interests and activities of women in their communities. The papers of many of women’s organizations are housed at the Arkansas State Archives.

The Arkansas State Archives has many collections related to women and women’s organizations in Arkansas. A Guide to Women’s History Resources at the Arkansas State Archives is available online at with a selection of women’s history collections available at the ASA. This is not a comprehensive list, so please contact ASA staff for additional information.

Researching the women in your family is challenging, but patience is the key to success. Stop by our Arkansas State Archives or our branch archives and let us help get you started. 

For more information or to request help with your research project, contact the Arkansas State Archives at 501-682-6900 or visit our website