| The maternal line
Family historians often come across a seemingly insurmountable barrier where there is no record of a woman’s maiden name when researching female lines. This is a particular problem in pre-civil registration British records and owes its origins to both old customs and the laws of the time. As a result, female ancestors are often neglected in family histories and genealogies—they are often listed with only a first name and approximate dates for birth and death because researchers find it difficult to find more details. They are our invisible ancestors.
Since half of all of our ancestors were women, each newly discovered female in our family tree provides us with a new surname to research and an entire branch of new ancestors to discover.
Prior to the twentieth century people (well men at least) generally believed that there was a definite difference in character between the sexes. Men were supposed to be active, dominant, assertive and materialistic, while women were religious, modest, passive, submissive and domestic.
As a result society espoused four basic attributes of female character: piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity.
Firstly, piety, was the core of woman’s virtue and thus the source of her strength. It was thought that women naturally possessed virtues of faith, simplicity, goodness, self-sacrifice, tenderness, affection, sentimentality and modesty.
Purity was an essential characteristic for a woman to maintain her virtue against the more aggressive male.
Submissiveness required women to accept their positions in life willingly and obediently, thereby affirming God had appointed them to that special position. Much of this reasoning was founded upon Ephesians 5:22-23, which commanded that;
Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husband, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the family, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body.
Finally, domesticity, or the cheerful performance of social, household, and family duties, was highly prized. Women were expected to comfort and cheer, to nurse and support, to manage and oversee. Housework was to be viewed as a morally uplifting mental and physical exercise.
We also have to understand the rights of women in the eyes of the laws of the day. The legal status of women, in spite of their moral and religious significance, was poor because they lived in a society that was predominantly designed for men. Legally, women were strictly dependent on the men in their family and unequal. Politically women did not exist! Under laws codified in 1765 in Commentaries on the Laws of England by the English barrister, Sir William Blackstone, it was asserted and accepted that by marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law; that is, the very being and legal existence of the woman is suspended during marriage. Essentially, the wife belonged to her husband. He had a right to the person and property of his wife; he could use gentle restraint upon her liberty to prevent improper conduct; he could beat her without fear of prosecution. Prior to marriage this role was maintained by the woman’s father. Only widowed women had rights in law!
The above prevailing conditions also were reflected in the education of women. Anti-intellectualism was implicit in legal and societal attitudes and women were not expected to use logic or reason. Their only role was to exhibit morality and domesticity. Consequently, in the few early girls schools that did exist, dame and parish schools, female education was purely designed to develop domestic skills. The destiny of all women was to become a spouse and mother of a family.
The best way to demonstrate the problem is to give a specific example…
William Baker Ashton, the rotund governor of the first gaol in Adelaide and former London policeman, was baptised according to records held in Adelaide on 6 August 1800 and subsequently married Charlotte MILLS on 8 April 1828 St Bride Fleet Street London.
A search at Familysearch confirms that William Baker Ashton was baptised at St Michaelchurch Somerset, the son of John Ashton and Sarah.
We can feel quite comfortable about this entry as the batch number starts with the letter P which indicates it is a filmed parish register extraction. However, a thorough researcher will call up this film and check the entry. The question arises—what was Sarah’s surname?
When one tries to resolve this matter by searching the same web site for John Ashton/Sarah matches the result produces numerous possible couples in the brief period 1780 to 1790 and we know that there could be more given that Familysearch has far less than 100% coverage. Although none are in the expected parish or surrounding parishes, even if the matter was pursued further, the researcher may never be certain they located the right couple!
Some strategies worth pursuing that may reveal an answer to this conundrum include:
The operative word above is may. It could prove that regardless of your efforts, the paper trail back to the woman's parents, and thus her surname may have been lost or never created. Remember that we advocate pursuing the paper trail is just one line of research. The other, and often more fruitful, way of pursuing ancestry is by seeking out your remote living relatives as they may just happen to hold information unknown to you.
- Focus on the woman herself.
- Check out the people around the woman.
- Check the associates of her husband.
- Find out how women of the time lived.
- Undertake a deductive search of records.
The five strategies listed above were addressed fully in Newsletter 42. You can download this issue at: www.jaunay.com/newsletter/newsletter42.html