Remember the Ladies

by Memoir Mentor on June 6, 2010

More than two centuries ago Abigail Adams penned a letter to her husband, John, the future president, when he was then serving as a representative to the Continental Congress. She admonished him that while he and his colleagues were crafting new laws, “I desire you would Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable to them than your ancestors.” 

I recalled Abigail’s advice at the end of an aggravating day researching in libraries and archives this week. Men, Men, Men…that’s all I read about. Women were invisible, for the most part. If their existence was acknowledged, they were usually identified as Mrs. So and So. Didn’t they have names of their own?  

I know, I know, we genealogists know all about this. We shake our heads about the sad inequity of it all, but most of us continue to research and write about our male forbears–because it’s easier–and thus perpetuate the situation.  

Sometimes it just gets to me—like when I scour cemeteries for my ancestors and see women identified on gravestones as someone’s wife. Why aren’t men identified as someone’s husband? Or what about the many occasions when men have stones with their names on them and their wives aren’t mentioned at all? Where were they buried?

The incident that really got me riled this week occurred during a tour of a lovely mansion that serves as a museum and repository for the Ross County Historic Society in Chillicothe, Ohio. Our tour group, consisting entirely of women, entered the mansion’s parlor and our female guide pointed to a painting hanging over the fireplace mantel. She identified the man in the painting as the owner of the home and recounted his many achievements. The man’s wife was portrayed in another painting that hung alongside her husband’s. She smiled down at us from her place on the wall, but we never learned a thing about her. I should have piped up and asked, “Can you tell us something about the woman?” But I didn’t.

I’m as guilty as the next person. I’m here in Ohio researching my paternal line, writing specifically about the men in that line.

I supposed it’s partially the fault of society’s naming conventions. Our birth surname is part of our identity, and it’s natural for a researcher to trace the history of her birth name. If we inherited our surname from our mother, our research focus might be different. And, of course, there are the age-old culprits that keep women out of historical records–power, authority, sexism, etc.–making it virtually impossible to find out anything about our female relations.

I can understand why women aren’t mentioned in military histories. I really get bugged, though, when early church histories mention only the contributions of men. Come on, we all know that if women weren’t around, men wouldn’t set foot inside a chapel! Just kidding here, folks, but women do form the backbone of most churches. Why aren’t they mentioned?

Some people and institutions have been trying to balance the historical record by recognizing and publishing the accomplishments of women. I’m currently involved in a project directed by a friend of mine that involves interviewing and recording the life stories of women in our church. In the last nine months more than 60 women have been interviewed, providing a valuable archive for future generations.

After I finish my Parrett family history, I plan to do more to “remember the ladies” among my forbears by writing their stories. I also need to finish my own personal history.

I’d like to hear if any of you are involved in projects that honor your female heritage. If you, like me, have been busy chasing after the men, consider Abigail’s admonition. She was a wise woman. John thought so, too.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Matilda Butler June 10, 2010 at 8:37 am

Hi Dawn:
Such a great blog post. You’ve written a reminder to seek out and document the stories of the women in our families. It’s never too late to get started, even if it is documenting our own stories.

I do have a project that I’ll get to one of these years. I have an interesting set of World War II letters — every letter my uncle wrote to my aunt, every letter she wrote to him, every letter he wrote to his mother, and every letter his mother wrote him. Having both sides of the conversation and getting to know my aunt’s story as a Rosie the Riveter (actually, one of the “government girls”) is important to document.

Thanks for reminding us to “Remember the Ladies.”

-Matilda

2 Carol Enos June 10, 2010 at 12:20 pm

Dawn, not a research-just another story: at a gathering of my sister’s family, we all decided to attend their family’s church. My sister stood and introduced us all and then other women (and only women) stood with announcements of the various church activities. I knew my brother-in-law was an Elder and afterward, I asked him if there were any women elders in the church. “No,” he replied, “We’ve voted on it though.”
As they say, “it is what it is.”

3 Morrie June 13, 2010 at 8:30 pm

I’d never really thought about it before … but yes … now that I do … I’m pretty sure that at least half of my ancestors were women!

4 Nancy Fermazin Peralta June 14, 2010 at 9:14 am

I just purchased a great book at the Jamboree Genealogy Seminar.
The Last Muster ~Images of the Revolutionary War Generation ———-by Maureen Taylor It is nice to see that she included Revolutionary War Women. There are over 15+ pictures and vignettes on Women of the Revolutionary War.
A remarkable work of documentary history and collection of rare nineteenth centruy photographic images primarily daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and carte de visite paper photographs
of the Revolutionary War generation. Extraordinary collection.
Vignettes tell the stories of our nation’s Founding Fathers and Mothers, updating and su;;lementing research last collected and published over a century ago.
I am trying to blog more about my female ancestors this year and to get their stories out there.

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