How to Learn about the Public Service of your Female Ancestors
Do you know more about your male or female ancestors? Men are definitely easier to research. They owned land and were listed as the heads of household on U.S. Federal Census records before 1850. We’ve probably all traced our surname line back as far as possible – who wouldn’t want to know where their name came from? The soldiers, land owners, prominent business men, and community leaders in our family trees have captured the interest of many of us.
I know more about the men in my family tree – and that’s why I’m motivated this year to devote a whole month of research to my female ancestors.
March is National Women’s History Month (in the U.S.) – a chance for educators and politicians to highlight the influence and contributions of women in history. As family historians, we too have the unique opportunity to learn more about our female ancestors this month.
In the Presidential Proclamation 2016 issued Monday, President Obama said, “During Women’s History Month, we remember the trailblazers of the past, including the women who are not recorded in our history books, and we honor their legacies by carrying forward the valuable lessons learned from the powerful examples they set.” (emphasis added)
Women’s History Month began in 1987; before that it was Women’s History Week. Each year, a theme is chosen. Themes from past years have varied, including “Weaving the Stories of Women’s Lives” in 2015 and “Celebrating Women of Character, Courage, and Commitment” in 2014. The theme for this year is “Working to Form a More Perfect Union: Honoring Women in Public Service and Government.”
How have your mothers, grandmothers, and great grandmothers given public service? Did they serve in government positions? On the school board? In city councils? Did they work in the public sector? Did they volunteer to improve our communities through charitable work, scouting, or helping at the polls?
The 1987 Congressional Declaration designating the month of March as “Women’s History Month stated: “American women have played a unique role throughout the history of the Nation by providing the majority of the volunteer labor force of the Nation.
You might be surprised by how often women in your family have volunteered in the community. I’ve started women’s history month by learning about the volunteer service my grandmothers and great grandmothers have given.
Here are some tips for learning about the public service given by your grandmothers:
1. Ask parents and grandparents
Asking relatives for information is simple and fun! It often yields incredible stories.
I asked my mother, grandmother, and mother-in-law about public service given in our family. I found out that my mother-in-law volunteered in her area with one of the presidential campaigns before she was married. She told me, “You can’t complain about the way things are going if you’re not willing to get involved.”
My grandmother told me that she worked in Seattle on voting days for about 4 hours at a time handing out the forms and explaining voting procedure to voters.
I learned that my husband’s grandmother headed up the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment in her state back in the ‘70s.
2. Read stories about your female ancestors
You may find stories about your family members in Books of Remembrance that have been passed down or online connected to family trees. Maybe you have a compiled genealogy book that a cousin created or an oral story passed down in the family that someone typed and gave to you. Those stories are so invaluable. Hopefully you have collected them into some kind of binder and digitized them to share online.
I looked at the memories attached to female ancestors in my FamilySearch Family Tree and read a story about my 3rd great grandmother, Elizabeth Thomas, and her contributions to the small community of Smithfield, Utah:
On October 29, 1865, Elizabeth [Thomas] Morehead was appointed to preside over the Female Home Manufacturing Society in Smithfield. Later this society took over the name of the Female Relief Society. .. their object was “to do good”, especially in helping the poor. Meetings were held on Saturday afternoon at the schoolhouse or at members’ homes. They were usually working meetings where the women made quilts, knitted, crocheted and etc. The members gave donations of whatever they had and helped the poor families with these and the clothing they made.” (“Women’s Society” Attached to Elizabeth Turner Thomas on FamilySearch.org)
3. Read obituaries and funeral remarks
Obituaries often share the accomplishments, community service, and groups a person was involved in. These obituaries gave me a great starting point for further research:
In the obituary of my great grandmother, Blanche Hollingsworth, I learned that “she was secretary of the Preston Chamber of Commerce, secretary for the Draft Board during World War II, and served as a civil defense spotter during that time.” (Obituary of Blanche Merrill Hollingsworth)
From the obituary of my great aunt, Phyllis Bergquist, I learned that she “belonged to the Socialette Club, later known as the Women’s Service League and helped to raise funds for many projects to enhance the community and their citizens through the years…She had a great love of Scouting, attended Woodbadge and was awarded the Silver Beaver.” (Obituary of Phyllis Hollingsworth Bergquist)
I read the obituary of my husband’s grandmother and learned about her: “Equally active in community, social, and civic affairs, [Nona Dyer] volunteered service to the needy, to political candidates, to the Daughters of Utah Pioneers, and served as President of the Utah Chapter of the Freedoms Foundation at Valley Forge. A special highlight was serving as a delegate to the national electoral college.” (Obituary of Nona Richards Dyer)
Next, I learned this story from a transcription of the remarks given at Nona’s funeral:
“[Mother] always was a friend to the homeless, to the strangers. Maybe because we lived on that thoroughfare, I don’t know, but there was a constant stream of people that came through our front door to receive blessings at her hand. I remember the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the march on Washington, when those seeking greater rights in this country came and camped on the ellipse between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. They lived in a tent city called, “Resurrection City.” While most of Washington watched in their pious way on their television sets, the plight of those poor people as they wore the grass down to mud and the thunderstorms of August created a hopeless quagmire that these people lived in, in very poor conditions in the nation’s capitol, my mother went to the garage and dug out my father’s irrigator boots and went down every day and served those people meals and took blankets and clothing and succored the weak and gave of her strength to those in need.”
Where can you find obituaries? Try the FamilySearch.org and Genealogy Bank collection here. Many more collections of obituaries are online. Check out Cyndi’s List to find links to these collections.
You might have copies of your family members’ obituaries floating around the family somewhere. Ask around – you never know who has kept the newspaper clippings of all the relatives’ obituaries.
Amy Johnson Crow shared 5 Tips for Finding Women’s Obituaries on her blog today. Check it out!
4. Search newspapers articles
Now that you have an idea of which women in your family were the most politically active, you can try searching local newspapers for more details of their public service.
I looked for more information about my great grandmother, Blanche.
Blanche lived in Preston, Idaho, so I searched google for “Idaho historic newspapers.” I clicked on a blog post at The Ancestor Hunt with links to digitized Idaho newspapers by county. Some states have a website listing this information. Idaho did not, so I’m thankful to Kenneth Marks of the Ancestor Hunt for making this available. I scrolled down to Franklin County, which is where Blanche lived, and clicked on the first link. It took me to the Franklin County Library archives of The Preston Citizen, where I found these (and many more) articles about Blanche.
About her service as Secretary of the Preston Chamber of Commerce, November 28, 1949:
About her service as secretary of the Selective Service Board, August 10, 1950:
5. Search databases
Here are some women’s history databases and research guides that may help you find out if your female ancestors were involved in public service:
- National Archives Library Reference Center – Women ALIC presents a listing of web sites relevant to women in the United States.
- American Women’s History Online
- Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (1774 – present)
- Biographical Directory of Federal Judges, 1789-present
- Best Websites for Tracing Women by Lisa Alzo on the FamilySearch Wiki
- Ancestry Card Catalog collections about women
- Web: Minnesota, Women in Industry, 1919 (Ancestry)
- S., Women of the West, 1928 (Ancestry)
- Biographical Cyclopedia of U.S. Women (Ancestry)
- Women of the Century (Ancestry)
- Daughters of Utah Pioneers Obituary Scrapbook (Ancestry)
You may not find any of your female ancestors in these databases, but as you start asking relatives, you will most likely learn that more females in your family volunteered and gave public service than you thought. And those who did not serve in this way – their contributions and influence are important too.
For more family history ideas for celebrating Women’s History Month, check out Lisa Alzo’s post about Fearless Women for 31 prompts to help you write about women in your family.