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.