The omission of women in family trees – Part 3

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(This is a 3 part article. Click to read: Part 1, Part 2)

In my previous article, I detailed the consequences of the erasure of women in familial histories. Fortunately, although the patriarchal bases of this erasure are well rooted in our society, they can be rethought and subverted. Now that we know this problem exists, what can we do? How can the genealogical community help, to the extent of its practice, build a society that is closer to the gender equality ideal?

Two women practicing archery, 1942. Source: BAnQ digital archives.

First, we can change our vocabulary. In the first part of this article, I  stressed that, often, the terms that are used in genealogical research seem to forget about women (Cousteau Serdongs, 2008 : 133). This issue is of great importance : according to numerous authors, language, words, shape our interpretation of reality (it is the subject of the Saphir-Whorf hypothesis, see Whorf, 1978. On the link between linguistics and women’s condition, see Yaguello, 2002). Francine Cousteau Serdongs (2008: 134) therefore suggests that we should create a non-sexist genealogical vocabulary as well as a more neutral numbering system.

Secondly, we can review our way of doing genealogical research. Cousteau Serdongs (2008: 134) suggests that we should create search tools which facilitate the search for one’s female ancestors by separating them from their husbands: although there are some exceptions, for example the Féminine (Women series) in the Great Collections of the Drouin Genealogical Institute, most search tools will list a couple under the man’s name.

In the Drouin Institute’s Women Series, couples are listed according to the bride’s surname and first name. Source: La Féminine (Women series), Drouin Institute’s Great Collections, GenealogyQuebec.com

On an individual level, Cousteau Serdongs invites genealogists to take interest in their matrilineal line, traced from mother to daughter, to publish their research and to try and reunite descendants from uterine pioneers in associations (2008: 143). This lineage could even be highlighted by a new tradition of last name’s transmission, as suggested by Pierre-Yves Dionne. In his book De mère en fille : comment faire ressortir la lignée maternelle de votre arbre généalogique (From Mother to Daughter : How to bring out the maternal line of your family tree) (2004), he suggests that we could pass on the name of a common female ancestor to subsequent generations of girls.

Dionne also presents in his book his own process of reconstructing his matrilineal line: it can therefore be used as a reference for anyone who wishes to do the same. Judy Russell (Clyde, 2017b) also makes some suggestions for those who struggle with finding their female ancestors: for example, to search in divorce, school, or churches registries.

We also need to think about the future: to make sure that women will not be ignored or left in the background of tomorrow’s research, we can recognize the value of their perspectives and make them visible today. Some women have already started, like the American genealogists who participated in the study of Amy M. Smith (2008). One in particular explained how she was keeping a diary for her descendants, so that they can understand her life and her points of view (M. Smith, 2008: 93). This ensures her life will be documented for future generations to read. This practice also represents women as subjects of their own story, rather than objects in a man’s story.

Westmount Catholic Women’s Club, 1943. Source: BAnQ digital archives.

Multiple feminist genealogical practices are already applied by researchers. In future articles, I will have the occasion to explore in depth the ways in which genealogy can help bring the experiences of women to light or subvert the division between the public and the private sphere, a division which plays a primordial role in patriarchal oppression (see Bereni and Revillard, 2009). We have in front of us a world of possibilities to make genealogy more feminist: it is up to us to get involved!

Audrey Pepin

Bibliography

Bereni, Laure et Revillard Anne. (2009). La dichotomie “Public-Privé’’ à l’épreuve des critiques féministes: de la théorie à l’action publique. In Genre et action publique : la frontière public-privé en questions, Muller, P. et Sénac-Slawinski, R (dir.). Paris: L’Harmattan. p. 27-55.

Clyde, Linda. (2017b, 3 mai). Where to Look to Find Your Female Ancestors. Rootstech [Blog]: https://www.rootstech.org/blog/where-to-look-to-find-your-female-ancestors

Cousteau Serdongs, Francine. (2008). Le Québec, paradis de la généalogie et « re-père » du patriarcat : où sont les féministes ? De l’importance d’aborder la généalogie avec les outils de la réflexion féministe. Recherches féministes vol. 21, no. 1, p.131-147. https://doi.org/10.7202/018313ar

Dionne, Pierre-Yves. (2004). De mère en fille : comment faire ressortir la lignée maternelle de votre arbre généalogique. Sainte-Foy: Éditions MultiMondes ; Montréal: Éditions du Remue-Ménage, 79 p.

M. Smiths, Amy. (2008). Family Webs: The Impact of Women’s Genealogy, Research on Family Communication. (doctoral thesis). Graduate College of Bowling Green State University.

Reny, Paule et des Rivières, Marie-José. (2005). Compte-rendu de Pierre-Yves Dionne De mère en fille. Comment faire ressortir la lignée maternelle de votre arbre généalogique. Montréal, Les Éditions Multimondes et les éditions du remue-ménage, 2004, 79 p. Recherches féministes, vol. 18, no. 1, p.153-154. https://doi.org/10.7202/012550ar

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. (1978 [1971]). Linguistique et anthropologie essai. Trad. de l’anglais par Claud Carme. Paris: Paris Denoël/Gonthier. 228 p.

Yaguello, Marina. (2002 [1978]). Les mots et les femmes. Paris: Éditions Payot. 257 p