Essential advice for finding your female ancestors and discovering their amazing stories
The women in our family trees are often the unsung heroes of how we got here. There's even a chance they helped change history. Finding information on female ancestors, however, can be a challenge. That's because women often take their husband's surname, making it impossible to uncover any pre-marriage information if you don't know their maiden name. And unfortunately, women are all too often written out of history, or at the very least see their roles underplayed. This short guide explains how to trace your female ancestors, discover their stories, and ensure their contributions to history will never be forgotten.
Step 1: What Do You Know?
The first step in any family history research is to write down everything you already know, starting with names, dates of birth, and birth places. Start with yourself and work outwards. Ask other family members if they can help fill in any blanks.
Step 2: Let Us Help You
Start your family tree and add all the family members you already know about. Our clever family tree builder will instantly search for mentions of them in censuses and birth, marriage, and death records. These potential matches will appear as orange hint bubbles on your tree. Click the hint bubble to view the record* we've found and choose what information from it you want to add to that person's profile.
Here's where things get clever. Census records are taken every 10 years (the most recent available to view is the 1911 census, because privacy laws dictate they be published 100 years after being taken) and they record information on every person in every household in the country. That means if we find one of your ancestors in a census record, we will also have found everyone they were living with at the time. In a couple of clicks you can add their siblings, parents and any other significant people to your family tree.
Step 3: Discover More
Hints are amazing, but they can only tell you so much. To get more insight into the lives of your female ancestors, you can search for them in our extensive archive of historical documents. Newspapers are a rich source of stories, while crime records will reveal if any of your female ancestors got in trouble with the law. If so, there are even amazing mugshot photographs that let you look your ancestor in their (deviant!) eyes. Business listings let you know if they had a family trade, military records list the brave nurses who risked their lives in the First World War, while our recently published suffrage collection reveals whether any of your female ancestors helped change history.
*You will need a subscription to view some records. Why not take a 14-day free trial? There's no obligation and just like Netflix and other online subscription services, you won't be charged a cent if you cancel before your free trial ends
So, that's the basics of general family history research covered. Next up, smart tips for discovering your female ancestors' stories, shared by some of our in-house experts.
Tip 1: Search Using Maiden and Married Names
'Women used to get married much younger than they do now,' says Product Manager, Estelle Calfe. 'But you still run the risk of not finding lots of juicy information if you only search using their married name.'
Don't know your ancestors' maiden names? No problem…
Tip 2: Check Old Newspapers
'Filter your search to only include family notices and you should find marriage notices, which have loads of useful information, including the names of siblings, which can help determine that all-important maiden name,' says Data Content Specialist, Mary McKee.
Findmypast's historical newspaper collection covers most of the country and goes all the way back to 1710. Search it now.
Tip 3: Acknowledge the Patriarchy
'Historical newspapers list all sorts of local happenings. Community events used to be a big deal, so expect to see mentions of local fete organisers and notable teachers, for example. If your female ancestors were involved in the suffrage movement they'll likely show up in stories covering marches and public disturbances. Can't find any mention of your female ancestors? Try searching using their husbands' names with a Mrs prefix e.g. Mrs John Smith,' says Data Development Manager, Aoife O'Connor.
See what we mean about women's roles in history being underplayed? Follow our advice, start your family tree, and ensure your female ancestors aren't consigned to the sidelines of history.