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Finding information on female ancestors is elusive

Half of our ancestors were women. Yet, for some, one of the most frustrating challenges in doing family research is learning a woman's maiden name. In the past, that name simply drifted away after marriage, making it difficult to locate information about our female ancestors. Early laws had a lot to do with that.

Such laws prohibited a woman from owning real estate or a business; she could not sign a deed, devise a will or enter into contracts. Therefore, she left no paper trail.

Marriage was a necessity and when she did marry, everything she had  including her clothing  transferred from being the property of her father to being the property of her husband. Divorce was rarely an option. Of course, there were some exceptions.

A woman was not even allowed to be the legal guardian of her own children when her husband died. She may have had physical custody, but that did not give her legal custody. In his will, a wealthy man usually appointed another male to be the guardian of minor children until the sons reached the age of 21 or until the daughters married. In the case of an impoverished man, he could have arranged for his children to be put into service with another family; the children's mother had no legal say in the matter.

Because of these early conditions, researchers often have to use back door approaches to find a woman's maiden name.

Back door approaches

The most obvious place to look is at the marriage license or certificate. If the ceremony took place in a church, check that church's records.

Do not assume that a woman's surname recorded on a marriage license or certificate is her maiden name. It could be her married name to a previous husband.

If her children predeceased her, check their death certificates, as her full name may be on them.

Look at the obituaries for her, her husband and each of her children. If her maiden name or the names of her parents are not mentioned, check the survivors, such as her brothers. Again, be cautious, as men listed as brothers may be half brothers or stepbrothers with surnames different from hers.

And if her husband served in the military, she may have applied for a widow's pension. Proof of marriage is required and such proof will have her pre-married name. Be aware that a pre-married name may be the surname of a previous husband and not her maiden name. While it may not be the maiden name you are looking for, it takes you one step closer to it.

Also, in checking any index, look not only for her married and maiden names, but for the surnames of her father and brothers.

Women's citizenship

In March 1907, the Congress passed the Expatriation Act, which decreed that a woman who was born in the United States lost her American citizenship if she married a foreign-born man who was not a U.S. citizen. She could regain her American citizenship if her husband later became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Guess what? That law did not apply to American-born men who married foreign-born women.

When the United States entered World War I, an American-born woman who had married a German man who had not yet been naturalized lost her citizenship and had to register as an enemy alien.

When women got the right to vote in 1920, they lobbied lawmakers to recognize that a woman's citizenship should not be tied to that of a husband. Then the Married Women's Independent Nationality Act (1922) said that a woman kept her U.S. citizenship if she married a man who could become a U.S. citizen, even if he chose not to. But the fine print in this act required that an expatriated woman had to petition the government to regain her citizenship; if her husband was ineligible for citizenship, her petition could be denied. And if she lived on foreign soil for two years, she could lose her citizenship.

Fortunately for many women, attitudes and laws changed and by the 1940s women born in the United States did not have to limit their marriage prospects to native-born men or naturalized citizens.

These are important details to keep in mind when researching women.

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