Genealogy and LGBTQ+ families

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Increasingly, we hear about family models that diverge from heterosexual and cisgender1 norms. The rights of LGBTQ+ individuals to form a family (and to access various methods allowing them to have children) are indeed recent, and the political events of the last few months demonstrate that these rights are still precarious. Certain groups, often associated with the far-right, seek to challenge the rights of queer2 individuals, especially those who are transgender (Massoud, 2023; Beaulieu-Kratchanov, 2023). These groups claim an international fight against the “homosexual agenda” and consider the very existence of queer individuals as ideological, stemming from “propaganda,” or even indoctrination, and depicting a “deterioration” of society (arguments that also exist, moreover, concerning homosexuality). In this context, it seemed essential to me to explore what genealogy could teach us about these realities – particularly how it could make them visible and help deconstruct marginalizing narratives.

Picture of two gay dads, 1983. Source : WikiCommons.

Finding our LGBTQ+ ancestors

Some people sometimes feel that there are “more and more LGBTQ+ individuals.” This is purportedly an argument supporting the idea that queer identities result from indoctrination. In reality, this impression is created because people within the sexual and gender diversity spectrum increasingly feel less need to hide – however, there have always been queer individuals, and it’s highly likely that among your ancestors and mine, there were LGBTQ+ persons.

Identifying them can be challenging because they often had to live in secrecy. Nonetheless, it’s not impossible3. Of course, one can begin by looking into ancestors who did not marry (or who got divorced if it was legal), had few or no known romantic relationships, and did not have children. LGBTQ+ individuals also tended to choose professions where being single was not unusual, or even required – like teaching, the clergy, and the arts (Leclerc, 2023). Many also became self-employed or entrepreneurs because this way, if their identity was discovered, they couldn’t be dismissed (MacEntee, n.d.). Some of these professions also allowed for easy mobility and relocation if needed. These are not conclusive pieces of evidence, and there were LGBTQ+ individuals who did not fit these criteria, but they can be good initial clues!

Ideally, we would have access to our ancestors’ correspondence or journals. These documents can help us better understand their lives, including their gender identity and sexual attractions. Traces of LGBTQ+ ancestors can also be found in legal records and newspapers of the time: homosexuality was illegal in Canada until 1969. Therefore, homosexual individuals could be prosecuted, and traces of their trials can be found in such documents4. If they were in the military and their identity was discovered, they were likely to be discharged. When using these sources, remember to investigate the terms used at the time to describe gay, lesbian, bisexual, queer, and transgender people – all these terms are relatively recent. Moreover, LGBTQ+ individuals often had to use codes to avoid being identified, which put them in danger.

However, in the absence of indisputable evidence, additional clues can be sought. For instance, one can start by looking into the places where the person lived. Did they reside in a gay neighborhood? Were there places, private clubs, for example, that served as safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community at that time? Did they leave traces of the people who frequented these places? In census records, when a same-sex couple lived together, both partners often found ways to present themselves without revealing the nature of their relationship. Sometimes, it was simply left undefined, or defined in vague terms like a “friend,” or disguised under another label such as a housekeeper or tenant. Clues can also be found in records listing passengers of transportation companies, indicating that two same-gender individuals lived together.

Subsequently, one can look into our ancestors’ network of relationships. Often, LGBTQ+ individuals were rejected by their families due to the heavy prejudices of the time. When archives are found for all our ancestors except one, questions arise: it’s possible that an embarrassed family sought to erase the presence of an LGBTQ+ member by wiping out their presence as much as possible. If relations with the family were severed, it’s likely that our ancestors did not bequeath their material possessions to them. Hence, examining their wills can be insightful. Historian and genealogist Mary McKee (2022) notes that the “new support circles”, the chosen family of queer individuals, is often revealed in their wills by the individuals they chose to inherit their material possessions. Similarly, same-gender couples were sometimes buried together: if your ancestor is buried with a same-gender person who wasn’t part of their family, that could have been their partner. A person of the same gender might also be mentioned in their death certificate as a “long-time companion,” “close friend,” or even a roommate!

In short, to trace and identify our LGBTQ+ ancestors, we need to think outside the box! Sometimes, we need to look beyond the “traditional” sources typically used in genealogical research, consider absences as much as findings, and even consider that our ancestor might have used an alias in certain circles to avoid being exposed. Having a good understanding of the LGBTQ+ history of our country or region will guide us on where to search and what to focus on depending on the era in which our ancestor lived. Of course, in several cases, despite your efforts, confirmation of your ancestor’s queer identity might not be attainable – but you will still have good reasons to suspect it.

Representing non-conventional family models in our family trees today

It is imperative that the various platforms used for building family trees include features that allow representation of unions between same-gender individuals, as well as individuals who do not identify with the gender assigned to them at birth5. Even today, this is not always the case – although it is on Genealogy Quebec in the section of marriages from the Directeur de l’état civil (DECQ)’s records and on other sites and software (see Koeven, 2018). Similarly, rules concerning photos that can be uploaded to these platforms should be inclusive: some sites have been criticized for prohibiting photos representing “cross-dressing” or “immodest” attire.

Marriage notice celebrating a union between two women, 2020. Source : Genealogy Quebec, mariages DECQ.

Let’s not forget that LGBTQ+ realities are not the only ones deviating from conventions and facing challenges in representation. It is crucial to adapt our genealogical tools to the realities of so-called “blended” families, where parents separate and then form new relationships, sometimes with individuals who already have children, families who adopt, families where there’s only one parent, by choice, as well as parents practicing ethical non-monogamy6. Again, a few sites and software allow this, but not all (see Waldemar, n.d.), and individuals sometimes have to resort to software not designed for genealogy to document these realities.

While it’s important to adapt our tools, it’s also crucial for laws governing unions and parenthood to continue evolving to recognize the entire diversity of family models! Many strides have been made in recognizing unions and children born out of wedlock, blended families, and the legalization of same-sex marriage (Magnan-St-Onge, 2020). However, the issue of polyamorous7 parents remains unresolved to this day. Lawyer and doctoral candidate Michaël Lessard documented that polyamorous individuals who fulfill a parental role may be excluded from decisions related to the custody, monitoring, and education of the child, regardless of the quality of their bond with them, and that privileges and economic and social assistance programs reserved for partners exclude polyamorous individuals, leaving them disadvantaged and therefore precarious (Magnan-St-Onge, 2020).

In conclusion, it seems essential to reflect on the reasons that drive us to reveal the LGBTQ+ (confirmed or presumed) identity of our ancestors. Thomas MacEntee (n.d) reminds us that disclosing one’s LGBTQ+ identity is a highly personal issue, and even today, not all individuals belonging to sexual and gender diversity decide to reveal their identity to their surroundings, partly because they sometimes fear for their safety. MacEntee thus raises the question: what is the best way to honor the memory of our ancestors? It’s important to consider our particular situation. Sometimes, revealing the LGBTQ+ identity of our ancestors can be perceived as a betrayal, while other times, it’s a way to give them the voice and visibility they were denied during their lifetime (MacEntee, 2007). It is also possible to take note of this information but choose whom to reveal it to and protect it, for instance, with a password.

Nevertheless, bringing visibility to LGBTQ+ stories within our families allows us to have a more accurate and comprehensive portrait of our ancestors. Not to mention, some genealogists today are part of the LGBTQ+ community or practice polyamory (see Our Prairie Nest or Blandón Traiman, 2018a) and may want to document their realities. As mentioned in the introduction, this also allows us to show that LGBTQ+ realities are not new but are human experiences common to all places and times and thus contribute, on our scale, to the struggle for LGBTQ+ rights.

Audrey Pepin

1 To be cisgender means identifying with the gender assigned at birth. Conversely, transgender individuals identify with a gender different from the one assigned at birth and thus undergo a social, legal, and/or medical transition to live with a gender identity that aligns with their own.

2 The term “queer” serves as both an umbrella term used to refer to LGBTQ+ individuals and an identity embraced by those who refuse to define their sexuality and/or gender through labels.

3 This section of the article provides a summary of various recommendations found in the numerous blog articles consulted. Further details are available in the mentioned articles, all listed in the bibliography at the end of this article.

4 It is important to note that men were more targeted in police operations aimed at homosexual individuals; therefore, this tool may be more useful for your research on male ancestors. Although women may have benefited from this targeting at the time, it’s also another way in which their history is currently rendered invisible.

5 The genealogist Stewart Blandón Traiman has extensively reflected on this topic, and if you’re interested, I highly recommend visiting his blog (Blandón Traiman, 2018b).

6 By ethical non-monogamy, I refer to relationship models where partners can have sexual and/or romantic relationships with more than one person. For non-monogamy to be ethical, the individuals involved must be aware of the agreement and have given their enthusiastic, free, and informed consent

7 Polyamory is defined as a practice, an identity, or a relational orientation that involves a consensual, transparent, and honest romantic relationship with multiple partners simultaneously. It is thus a form of ethical non-monogamy

Bibliography :

Beaulieu-Kratchanov, Léa (2023). ” ‘C’est déshumanisant’ : l’impact de la haine anti-trans sur les jeunes”. Pivot Québec. Accessed on November 20th 2023 

Blandón Traiman, Stewart (2018a). LGBT Genealogy – The Six Generations (blog). 

Blandón Traiman, Stewart (2018b). LGBT Genealogy and Softwares – The Six Generations (blog). 

Collins, Rosemary (2022). ”How to Trace LGBT Ancestors” Who do you Think you Are (online magazine). Accessed on November 17th 2023 

Kobel, Becks (2017). ”Genealogy in the Works: Being Gay in Genealogy” The Hipster Historian (blog). Accessed on November 20th 2023 

Koeven, Mary (2018). ”Non-traditional Family Trees: Homosexual Relationships”. The Handwritten Past : Professional Genealogists (blog). Accessed on November 20th 2023 

Leclerc, Michael J. (2023). ”5 Tips for Finding Your LGBTQIA+ Ancestors”. Ancestry (blog). Accessed on November 16th 2023 

MacEntee, Thomas (s.d). ”Finding Your LGBT Ancestors”. My Heritage (blog). Accessed on Novemebr 16th 2023. 

MacEntee, Thomas (2007). ”The Hidden – LGBT Family Members and Genealogy”. Destination : Austin Family (blog). Accessed on November 20th 2023 

Magnan-St-Onge, Carolanne (2020). ”Droit de la famille : le polyamour au banc des accusés” Observatoire des réalités familiales du Québec (online publication). Accessed on November 20th 2023. 

Massoud, Rania (2023). ”Identité de genre : après la rue, une offensive dans les écoles en vue”. Radio-Canada. Accessed on November 20th 2023. 

McKee, Mary (2022). ”How to Trace LGBT Ancestors”. Find my Past (blog). Accessed on November 16th 2023. 

Neaves, Jessica (2020). ”How to Search for Your LGBTQ Ancestors”. Heritage Discovered (blog). Accessed on November 17th 2023 

Waldemar, Heather (s.d). ”How to Create a Family Tree with Flying Logic”. Flying Logic (Website). Accessed on November 20th 2023. 

“It’s too long”: a look at the double surname in Quebec

When one is interested in one’s ancestry and reconstructs a lineage through genealogical research, one also sees the history of the transmission of family name(s). This may seem insignificant to us, because for a long time this history was obvious: the question of the transmission of the family name did not really arise, since the family name of the father was systematically given to the children. There was no need to think about it. 

But in 1981, the reform of the civil code, and more precisely of family law, allowed Quebec women to give their family name to their children. Suddenly, the choice of which family name to pass on became an issue: one could give a family name, that of the father or the mother, or choose to pass on both. In this context, it becomes particularly interesting to observe the ways in which surnames are passed from one generation to the next. Forty years later, what has been the impact of the 1981 reform? What relationship do Quebec women have with their family name, and why do they choose (or not) to pass it on?

The first baptismal record available on Genalogy Quebec, following the family law reform, where a double surname is found. Source: LaFrance, Genealogy Quebec.

Marie-Hélène Frenette-Assad decided to explore these questions by producing the podcast Le nom de ma mère (Frenette-Assad, 2020) available for free on Radio-Canada’s Ohdio platform.1

Marie-Hélène Frenette-Assad is a podcast producer, musician, consultant and trainer in digital audio. She also has, as you may have noticed, two last names, her father’s and her mother’s. However, she finds that her friends, the women of her generation, don’t often pass on their names to their children, nor is it a topic of discussion they often bring up. And this is not just an anecdotal observation – statistics also indicate a decrease in the transmission of the double family name in Quebec (Frenette-Assad, 2020: episode 5).

In Le nom de ma mère (The name of my mother), Marie-Hélène discusses with her own mother why she gave her a double surname and explores, throughout the podcast, her relationship to her surname. But she also brings in women who participated in the 1981 reform, experts who study the issue, and a variety of women from her generation who have a different relationship to their surnames and who decide to give it to their children, or not, for different reasons. Often, these are women who themselves have a double surname, and who should potentially split it to give only one to their children.

Cover image of the podcast “Le nom de ma mère”, directed by Marie-Hélène Frenette-Assad. Source: Radio-Canada (Frenette-Assad, 2020).

Because yes, a generation after the 1981 reform, situations arise where both members of a couple have two surnames.. It would obviously become quickly unmanageable if both parents transmitted their two surnames and we ended up with quadruple surnames, then octuple, and so on! If a couple both have a double surname and want to pass it on to their child, they will have to make a choice. In the podcast, we learn that the instigators of the reform had originally thought that mothers could pass on their mother’s surname, and fathers, their father’s surname. The idea is similar to the proposal of Pierre-Yves Dionne (2004), which I have discussed in previous articles2 – he suggested that future generations of women should be given the name of a common ancestor (the uterine pioneer), so that women’s surnames would no longer always come from a man.

However, in practice, this is not always the case. There are many factors other than gender that come into play when making a decision about passing on a name. Some women, for example, choose to pass on the name associated with the extended family to which they feel closest, regardless of the gender of the parent. Some also consider the presence or absence, in their family, of other people with the same name who have passed it on or could pass it on to their children. For example, they mention wanting to pass on one of their names that would otherwise go extinct. 

Other women do not see themselves choosing between their two names, either because they see their name as indivisible, or because they do not want to hurt the parent whose name would be “rejected”. Since this is not an option for them, they prefer not to give their name at all!

Others are thinking about the effect that the name will have on their children’s lives: sometimes the double name is experienced as an obstacle, whether in certain professional environments where self-branding is important, or in everyday life because we become annoyed that people forget our full name or because one of the names is difficult to pronounce. But the double name is also sometimes perceived as a strength, something that allows one to stand out and whose uniqueness makes it beautiful, even poetic (as is the case for columnist Rose-Aimée Automne T. Morin).

Baptismal record in which the mother chose one of her two family names to pass on to her child. Source : LaFrance, Genealogy Quebec.

However, despite all this reasoning that moves away from gender concerns, the issue remains clearly political and feminist. Some women claim that they “have given themselves the chance to exist in their children’s names”3 (Frenette-Assad, 2020: episodes 2 and 3). They see it as a way of recognizing the role of women in filiation and the passing on of the heritage. Others mention the importance of honoring past feminist struggles by exercising their right to pass on their names to their children. For my part, as I listened to the podcast and repeatedly heard women question whether their names are “too long,” I couldn’t help but think of the many ways in which women are constantly asked to make themselves smaller. In particular, many feminist researchers and theorists have documented how various social norms (and the attitudes of some men) push women to wear restrictive clothing (from corsets to high heels), not to speak too loudly or too long, not to take up too much space with their bodies, etc. (Young, 2005; Yaguello, 2002). In particular, manspreading has made a lot of noise in recent years (Morin, 2017). Could we add having a “not too long” last name to the list?

It is very interesting to note that the issue also has an intersectional component: it is indeed posed differently, for example, for adopted people, who often have a different relationship with their surname because it does not reflect their genetic heritage; or for people with an immigrant background, whose surname is sometimes a bearer of prejudice, but also represents an important link with the country of origin. On a more personal note, I grew up with a single mother who gave me her family name – and only her family name. I wear it proudly: it represents for me the strength of women who find themselves, by spite or by choice, to be the only parental figure.

The reality of homosexual couples, and in particular lesbian couples, is also particular and occupies an entire episode of the podcast (Frenette-Assad, 2020: episode 4). Indeed, in their case, the passing on of the family name cannot be “taken for granted”: when both parents are women, one cannot avoid a real reflection by invoking tradition since there is no male parent who could pass on his name “by default”. Of course, most of the issues we have already discussed apply in the case of lesbian couples as well, but since very often the child carries the genetic baggage of only one of their two mothers, a concern is added: that of a symbolic transmission of a legacy that is not biological, through the transmission of the name.

If you are interested in the issue of double surnames, I highly recommend listening to the podcast Le nom de ma mère, available free of charge on the Ohdio platform of Radio-Canada.

Audrey Pepin

1 A special thanks to documentarian Fanny Germain who, during a discussion on matrilineality, introduced me to this very interesting podcast!

2 See the series of articles ” The omission of women in family trees “.

3 Quote freely translated by the author of this article

Bibliography :

Frenette-Assad, Marie-Hélène (2020). Le nom de ma mère. Podcast available online:  

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.

Morin, Violaine (2017). “Comment le ‘’manspreading’’ est devenu un objet de lutte féministe” Le Monde [Online]:

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

Young, Iris Marion (2005). On Female Body Experience: “Throwing Like a Girl” and Other Essays. Oxford University Press: 192 p.

Quebec Women Farmers’ Circles and their relationship with feminism

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A couple of weeks ago, as I was going through Genealogy Quebec’s databases, I found a folder in the Raymond-Gingras fund named ”Cercle de Fermières” (Women Farmers’ Circle).

The little story of Saint-Antoine-de-Tilly, written by the Women Farmers’ Circle of the town. Source : Genealogy Quebec, Raymond-Gingras Fund.

Inside, I found a series of photographs of a short text produced by a Women Farmers’ Circle, which tells the story of Saint-Antoine-de-Tilly, a small municipality located in Chaudière-Appalaches. I was curious. Women Farmers’ Circles… I remembered seeing this name somewhere. I knew it was a women’s association who did crafts. Not much more. Intrigued, I did more research.

What are Quebec Women Farmers’ Circles ?

In fact, Women Farmers’ Circles are not only a women’s association, but the first women’s association in Quebec ! They were founded in 1915 (a bit ironically) by a man, Alphonse Désilets, an agronomist who defended “the principle of rural associations to resolve the crisis of the modern world”1 (Cohen, 1990 : 28). The members of the association were, as its name indicates, farmers, and they came together in the Circles mainly to help each other in their various tasks and to better meet the needs of their families. They ran cooperative gardens, helped each other make clothes for the family, all sorts of things which helped improve their quality of life. The groups were then under the direction of the Ministry of Agriculture, in concert with the Church.

From 1940, the Circles progressively gained autonomy, until they no longer depended on the Church or the State. As Quebec urbanized, there were fewer and fewer farmers among the members, but the group chose to keep its name. Despite the evolution of society, we can observe a certain continuity in the activities of the Circles : members are still doing crafts, knitting, weaving and cooking. They consider themselves guardians of the craft and culinary heritage (Beaudoin et Joncas, 2021 : 46) and transmit their knowledge to younger members or the larger community. The Circles are also an important space of sociability for the women who participate and they help break isolation, among retired women for example. Women Farmers’ Circles finally have a political function, helping their members stay informed as citizens, trying to influence government policies, but also by maintaining links with various organizations (such as the Associated Country Women of the World, the Coalition for Gun Control, Canadian Breast Cancer Network, etc.) (Lagarde, 2015 : 5).

The Women Farmers’ Circles greatly contribute to the transmission of artisanal knowledge within Quebec society. Here, a child learns to use a loom during a workshop given by Alma’s Women Farmers’ Circle. Source : Wikimedia Commons.

Women Farmers’ Circles and feminism

Even though they are a women’s association, now run by and for women, Quebec Women Farmers’ Circles do not impose themselves, at first glance, as feminist groups. Indeed, the Circles have spoken out against women’s right to vote and against the right to abortion. Their positions evolved over time, but the Circles are still promoting the roles traditionally attributed to women, such as caring for the family and domestic work. This posture further distances them from feminist demands, which often link emancipation and the possibility for women to break out of stereotypes and gender roles if they wish to do so.

Nevertheless, in my opinion, it would be disproportionate to completely exclude them from the history of feminism in Quebec. Indeed, the Circles worked hard to improve the living conditions of women and have been a driving force for promoting the activities typically practiced by women, in particular by promoting the culinary and artisanal achievements of their members. They are also a space in which the ethics of care2 can be lived and practiced. Indeed, the Women Farmers’ Circles were created at first to to promote mutual aid between members, but beyond this mission, the Circles also take care of their wider communities, for example through the organization of community meals, volunteering and partnerships with charities or their influence on public policy3. Above all, although the Circles promote the traditional roles that women occupy in the private sphere, they were, and in some respects may still be today, a public space that women can fully inhabit, where they can express themselves, do organizational work, and even do politics4, in short, where they can learn typical male work but do it in their own way.

Women Farmers’ Circles therefore occupy a very particular position in our history and are victims of a double erasing : we don’t talk about them much when we do the history of Quebec, because we don’t talk much about women in general; but we also speak little about them when we construct a history of women from a feminist perspective, since their positions deviated (and still deviate, in certain respects) from those taken by the feminist movement. It’s nevertheless impossible to deny the role the Circles played, both globally in the history of Quebec society and more specifically in the history of women in Quebec. They were one of the first drivers of women’s empowerment and affirmation, encouraging them to leave the private and family sphere (Cohen, 1990: 263). The Circles also participated fully in the development of the national project. Indeed, through their requests made to the State and their rejection of the influence of the clergy on their organization, they participated in the establishment of two central pillars to the development of Quebec: the development of a modern and protective State and the deconfessionalization of society (Cohen, 1990: 263).

Like any organization, it is of course best not to idealize the Women Farmers’ Circles and to underline their limits, particularly in terms of feminist positioning. However, it also seems essential to make their contribution to the history of women and Quebec society visible.

To learn more about Quebec Women Farmers’ Circles, I invite you to read Yolande Cohen’s book Femmes de Parole : l’histoire des Cercles de Fermières du Québec (1990) (although as far as I know, it’s only available in French) or to watch the documentary All That We Make, directed by Annie Saint-Pierre (2013).

1  This quote was translated from French by the author of this article.

2  Ethics of care are based in the maintenance of human relationships as well as in the interdependence of individuals. Care aims to ‘’maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web’’ (Fisher and Tronto, 1990 : 40). For more details, you can read my article about genealogy and care here. It’s also important to note that these ethics can be linked to the christian values of the organization. 

3  They are notably at the origin of programs for the distribution of milk cartons in schools (Radio-Canada, 2015).

4 I’m thinking in particular of the women who are involved in the organization of the Circles and who are democratically elected as presidents, whether at regional or national level.


Beaudoin, Christiane and Joncas, Gisèle. « Le Cercle de Fermières de Gaspé : 50 ans par et pour les femmes ». Magazine Gaspésie, vol.57, no.3 (199), p.46-48.

Cohen, Yolande (1990). Femmes de parole : l’histoire des Cercles de Fermières du Québec 1915-1990. Montréal : Le Jour Éditeur, 315 pages.

Lagarde, Louise (2015). « Les Cercles de Fermières du Québec : 100 ans de savoir à partager ». Histoire Québec, vol.20, no.3, p.5-9.

Radio-Canada (2015). « Les Cercles de Fermières », segment of the show L’épicerie, 13:37 – 18:10. Consulted February 13th 2023 :

Saint-Pierre, Annie (2013). All That We Make, documentary.

Fisher, Berenice and Tronto, Joan. (1990). ”Towards a Feminist Theory of Care”. In Circles of care, Abel, E. and Nelson, M. (ed.). New York : State University of New York Press, p.36-54.

Demystifying women’s history in Quebec

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In my last article, Genealogy and women’s history, I talked about the ways in which genealogy can shed light on women’s history, whether by highlighting certain oppressions (injunctions to marriage or maternity, or even slavery for example), or their numerous contributions to society, whether in the family or as nuns, midwives or seamstresses. To be able to do this highlighting work, it is necessary to know a bit about the context in which women were living. A good starting point for this is the book Quebec Women : a History from the Clio Collective (1987). 

The Clio Collective was formed by four historians : Marie Lavigne, Jennifer Stoddart, Micheline Dumont and Michèle Jean. The name is inspired by Greek mythology : Clio, daughter of Mnemosyne, the memory goddess, is History’s Muse. It seems the four authors were inspired by genealogical questions as well. They open their book with a short anecdote :

On the left, a portrait of Clio, History’s Muse, by Johannes Moreelse ; on the right, a portrait of Mnemosyne, goddess of memory, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Source : Wikimedia Commons. 

”Seven-year old Anne was sitting in the corner of the kitchen, tracing her family tree. She named people as if reciting a nursery rhyme. “My mother’s name is Juliette, Juliette’s mother was called Rebecca, Rebecca’s mother was Maria, Maria’s mother was Emilie…” […] In history classes, nobody could tell her what Emilie, her great-great-grandmother, had done”(Clio’s Collective, 1987 : 11).

Indeed, when the four historians got together, in the 70s, there did not exist a book synthetizing women’s history in Quebec : therefore, their goal was to write one. They wanted to show that ”Women were not only spectators, but also actors in the world’s history” (Collard, 2012). By this, they didn’t only mean ”great women” such as Therese Casgrain or Marguerite Bourgeoys, but also the hundreds of thousands of Emilie, women most would consider ”insignificant” (Clio Collective, 1997 : 11).

Quebec Women : a History can teach us a lot about these ”ordinary” women we often find in our family trees. The book covers four centuries of history, from 1617 to 1979. It can therefore be a very useful complement to our genealogical research. Divided in six periods (Beginnings 1617-1703 ; Stability 1701-1832 ; Upheavals 1832-1900 ; Contradictions 1900-1940 ; The Impasse 1940-1969 ; and The Explosion 1969-1979), the book explores a great variety of subjects. We can find details about parts of life often considered ”trivial” (the modalities surrounding family life or work, for example), but also clarifications of how significant political events, such as major wars or regime changes, affected women’s lives.

Book cover of Quebec Women: a History from the Clio Collective (1987)

On the fourth cover of the French version of Clio’s Collective’s book, we can read ”Some might say : ”Another book about women!” They are wrong. It is another history book. It’s history told differently” (Clio Collective, 1982). This short quote already announces that it’s not only about feminism, it’s about having a more complete vision of history. It summarizes well the interest we should, as genealogists, have in the issues raised by the Collective. The book was wildly successful (after all, we are still talking about it as we celebrate its fortieth birthday this year) and has greatly contributed to moving things forward, but even today, we must acknowledge that there is still work to be done in the recognition of women’s role in history.. A reform of the education program would certainly help, and as genealogists, we can also contribute.

Despite its desire for universalization, the Clio Collective couldn’t talk about everything : blind spots are expected in all history books. But it’s important to avoid universalizing the experiences described in Quebec Women : a History. Racialized women (particularly black women), indigenous women, immigrant women as well as lesbians, among others, are sometimes mentionned but would certainly have benefited from occupying a more important place in the book : after all, they were also part of the history of Quebec and we should not forget it. As such, it is important to read this book with a critical eye, keeping in mind an intersectional perspective which highlights other axes of oppression such as race. Quebec Women : a History is still very pertinent, in particular to analyze the lives of white and heterosexual women in Quebec across centuries.

You will find a great number of references to dig into more specific subjects in the bibliography of Quebec Women : a History. I’m also leaving some suggestions of books that are not in its bibliography as they were published afterwards. Once again, the experiences of white and heterosexual women are at the center of those books. If you know other references thatdeal with women’s history in Quebec, don’t hesitate to email me, in particular if they focus on the reality of marginalized women (immigrants, non-whites, non-heterosexuals, etc). I will add them here : this way we can create a reference bank on women’s history, which will certainly enrich our genealogical research.

Audrey Pepin

References of women’s history :

General :

Clio’s Collective (1987). Quebec Women : a History. Toronto : The Women’s Press, 396 p.

Collectif Clio (1982). L’histoire des femmes au Québec depuis quatre siècles. Montréal : Les Quinze, 521 p.

Bouchard, Serge, Lévesque, Marie-Christine and Back, Francis (2011). Elles ont fait l’Amérique. Montréal : LUX, 452 p.

Women’s Work :

Bazinet, Sylvain (2020). Dictionnaire des artistes québécoises avant le droit de vote. Montréal : Sylvain Bazinet, 306 p.

Gousse, Suzanne (2013). Couturières en Nouvelle-France. Québec : Septentrion, 280 p.

Robert, Camille. (2017). Toutes les femmes sont d’abord ménagères. Montréal : Éditions Somme Toute. 180 p.

Other references in this article :

Bernard, Jean-Paul (1983). « Le collectif Clio, L’histoire des femmes au Québec depuis quatre siècles ». Recherches sociographiques, vol. 24, no. 3, p. 423–428. 

Collard, Nathalie (2012, 8 mars). « Il y a 30 ans, le Collectif Clio ». La Presse. [Online]: 

Lequin, Lucie (1992). « L’histoire des femmes au Québec depuis quatre siècles ». Canadian Woman Studies, vol. 13, no. 1, p.107-108.

McCue, Harvey A. (2020) « Indian » in The Canadian Encyclopedia. [Online]: 

Genealogy and women’s history

(This article is a follow-up to Genealogy and care work)

As genealogists, we have access to little windows into the past. Our familial histories, the lives of our ancestors, all fit into the much larger context of the society in which they lived. If we pay enough attention, we can see traces of that in our research. These little pieces of the past can be very instructive, as they can help us better understand certain realities. In this sense, I believe genealogy can serve feminist emancipation : it can shed light on women’s history.

Genealogy can teach us a lot about the living conditions of women at different times. In our genealogical research, we can discover how many children our female ancestors had, at what interval, how many survived, how old they were when they got married and when they gave birth, if they became widows, how many times, at what age, etc. From these facts, we can rebuild their life stories, partially of course, since their lives cannot be summed up entirely to their familial context. However, because the social role of women has often been to take care of their families, these facts can teach us a lot about their daily lives, the major milestones of their lives and the challenges they faced.

Source: Individual File 13420,
Source: Family File 4903,
Marie Catherine Sicotte’s individual and family files from give us a relatively detailed overview of her life; her place and date of birth, marriage and death, the names of her parents as well as the list of her children including the place and date of their birth, marriage and death.

We can also certainly see in this information the different ways in which patriarchy influenced women’s lives. Subtle social norms and very concrete laws concerning the injunction to marriage and motherhood or access to contraception and abortion are directly reflected in our family trees and in our family histories. When we connect the life stories of several generations, we can see how these influences changed over the decades, or even centuries.

Genealogy can also help us understand what roles women played in society. The documents we use in a genealogical research often mention the men’s occupations, but it’s a lot more rare for women, who were taking care of the children or helping with the family business in the shadows of their husbands. However, there is an exception : the midwives! Midwives who assisted the birth of a child are sometimes mentioned on baptismal records.

Source: Record 2953156, LAFRANCE,

The roles women played in our societies were rarely recognized, let alone valued: and yet, they were crucial. Midwives often were essential local medical resources, especially in smaller or remote villages where access to a doctor was not always guaranteed (Laforce, 1983 :7 ; Bates et al, 2005 :18). House work and child rearing are also essential in any family, and it was often because women took care of it that men were able to devote themselves to more public and supposedly important activities (like politics, art, science, etc).

This devalorization continues to this day : women who choose to be stay-at-home-moms are often seen as ‘’not working’’ (we can think of the notorious play ‘’Môman travaille pas, a trop d’ouvrage’’  (mom doesn’t have a job, she has too much work) (Théâtre des cuisines, 1976)) and jobs typically done by women are significatively underpaid. Canadian Women’s Foundation underlines that ‘’jobs that conform to traditional gender roles tend to be undervalued because they parallel domestic work that women were expected to perform for free’’ (Canadian Women’s Foundation, 2021). By putting these roles forward in our genealogical research, we can participate in their revalorization, so that the contributions of women from the past and the present are more recognized.

This type of genealogical research can also bridge the gap between familial histories, personal to each genealogist, and the much more global history of a society. Genealogy can therefore link the public and private spheres even if they are presented as fundamentally opposed by the patriarchy (Bereni and Revillard, 2009). This opposition is directly linked to women’s oppression : because these spheres are seen as completely different, even incompatible, women’s assignment to the private sphere necessarily excludes them from the public sphere.

Feminists worked towards the deconstruction of this opposition : this idea is notoriously carried in the famous slogan of radical feminists ‘’the personal is political’’. We can therefore consider that particular genealogical practices which link these two spheres and blur the line that divide them participate to this deconstruction and to the feminist emancipation project.

Audrey Pepin


Bates, Christina, Dodd, Diane and Rousseau, Nicole (2005). Sans Frontières : quatre siècles de soins infirmiers canadiens. Ottawa : Les Presses de l’Université d’Ottawa. 248 p.

Bereni, Laure and 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.

Canadian Women’s Foundation (2021). The Facts about the Gender Pay Gap in Canada  [Online]. 

Laforce, Hélène (1983). L’évolution du rôle de la sage-femme dans la région de Québec de 1620 à 1840. (Master’s thesis). Québec : Université Laval, 368 p. Théâtre des cuisines. (1976). Môman travaille pas, a trop d’ouvrage. Montréal : Les Éditions du Remue-Ménage, 78 p.

Genealogy and care work

L’attribut alt de cette image est vide, son nom de fichier est IGD-large-1024x336.png.

In my first article series on this blog ”The omission of women in family trees”1, I talked about the place of women in genealogy, exploring the reasons and the consequences of their exclusion from most research. For this new series, I wanted to reverse the perspective and talk about how women practice genealogy. Why do they do genealogical research? What can they accomplish with their investigations? What place does gender take in their practices? Can genealogy be a source of feminist emancipation for women?

Individual genealogical practices are often related to one’s family. We practice genealogy to find our ancestors, to share our discoveries with our loved ones and to bequeath to future generations a better knowledge of their past. Therefore, it seemed logical to start by trying to see if genealogy could be a part of women’s traditional role in a family : care.

The Spring Clean, unknown artist. Source : Wikimedia Commons.

What does ‘’care’’ mean ?

The word ‘’care’’ has first been popularized by Carol Gilligan, who talked more precisely about the ethics of care. Her work put to light the particular bases of the moral and ethical judgement of women and showed it was more contextual and anchored in the maintenance of human relationships as well as in the interdependence of individuals (see Gilligan, 2008 [1982]). The concept of ‘’care’’ eventually superseded the philosophical and psychological questions of Gilligan. Contemporary feminist theories often refer to ‘’care work’’. Care work is a set of concrete (or material) and less visibles (or more immaterial) tasks which aim to take care of others and the world around us.

Those tasks are usually (at least, in our patriarchal societies) attributed to women. Joan Tronto, a researcher who is interested in care, defines the concept this way : ‘’a species activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible. That world includes our bodies, our selves, and our environment, all of which we seek to interweave in a complex, life-sustaining web’’ (Fisher and Tronto, 1990 : 40).

The concept thus includes housework (maintaining the household, planning, preparing meals, purchasing household goods, educating the children, etc (see Robert, 2017 : 15)), but also a way to perceive the world and others and a way to be preoccupied by them, to be aware of the responsibility we have towards them and to care about their wellbeing (Garrau and Le Goff, 2010 : 5). Examples would be listening to and empathizing with our loved ones, adapting to their situations to help them, giving them little marks of affection to maintain our relationship, etc.

Care work is also part of the famous public-private divide that I discussed in my previous articles (particularly here). To prevent women from accessing the public sphere, where the decisions were made and power was held, the patriarchal system has historically relegated them to the private sphere, particularly by assigning them to care work within their families.

Genealogical research and care practice

Genealogy can also be a form of care work. In her doctorate thesis, ‘’ Family webs : the impact of women genealogy research on family communication ’’, Amy M. Smith (2008) interviewed 22 female genealogists to understand how their genealogical practices fit into their family environments as well as in the patriarchal society we live in. Considering the results of her interviews, Smith names care as an important component to women’s genealogical practices. She explains that genealogical research plays a key role in the construction of the individual identities of family members as well as of the identity of the family as a whole. Genealogy can also be very useful in healing intergenerational traumas, and to more serenely live through  certain losses, as it can help understand the history of our family. Taking care of our family’s genealogy can therefore be a way to take care of its individual members and the relationships that unite them.

Does this mean that genealogy necessarily confines women? Not at all! Care work is not oppressive in itself : feminists rather criticize the ways in which it is devalued, the absence of recognition for the women who do it, its instrumentalization to keep women away from the public sphere and its uneven distribution between men and women.

Mother and Child (The Goodnight Hug), Mary Cassat. Source : Wikimedia Commons.

Care and emancipation

Care is otherwise revendicated as a part of feminist emancipation. Some theoriticians consider care as fundamentally subversive, because it ”shows the importance of valorizing what women valorize, as opposed to allowing them to access what men valorize”2 (Savard-Laroche, 2020 : 63). Some even go so far as to say that ”care is neither more nor less than a coherent response, both realistic and visionary, to the pitfalls of the dominant paradigms” (Bourgault et Perreault, 2015 : 14). The idea of taking care of our environment and of others, of not stigmatizing dependency and vulnerability but to put forward the interdependence between humans can be a way to counter capitalist and colonial ideologies which destroy our environment and valorize autonomy, individuality and independence to the detriment of solidarity.

A genealogical practice anchored in care could therefore, under certain circumstances, contribute to the valorization of care ethics and to a certain feminist emancipation. In her thesis, Amy M. Smith notes that because they take a particular interest in connections between individuals and between families, genealogists can see the interconnection that exists between all human beings (Smith, 2008 : 107). Between this interconnection and the interdependence put forward by care ethics, there is only a small step! 

We also need to remember that care is only one aspect of women’s genealogical practices. There are as many relationships to genealogy as there are women practicing it, and they can be emancipatory in numerous ways : that will be the subject of the second part of this article series. 

1  By clicking on the links, you can read part 1, part 2 and part 3 of this series. 
2 This quote and the one following have been translated by the author of this article.

Bibliography :

Bereni, Laure and 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. and Sénac-Slawinski, R (ed.). Paris : L’Harmattan. p. 27-55.

Bourgault, Sophie and Perreault, Julie. (2015). « Introduction. Le féminisme du care, d’hier à aujourd’hui ». In L’éthique du care. Montréal : Remue-Ménage. p.9-25.

Fisher, Berenice and Tronto, Joan. (1990). ”Towards a Feminist Theory of Care”. In Circles of care, Abel, E. and Nelson, M. (ed.). New York : State University of New York Press, p.36-54.

Gilligan, Carol. (2008 [1982]). Une voix différente : pour une éthique du care. Paris : Flammarion. 284 p.

Garrau, Marie et Le Goff, Alice. (2010). Care, justice et dépendance. Introduction aux théories du care. Paris : Presses Universitaires de France. 160 p.

Robert, Camille. (2017). Toutes les femmes sont d’abord ménagères. Montréal : Éditions Somme Toute. 180 p.

Savard-Laroche, Sophie (2020). Travail et justice du care. (Mémoire de maîtrise). Université Laval.

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

Women in Quebec’s toponymy

In genealogical research, locations often play a very important role : they can help us confirm a person’s identity or guide our research when looking for an ancestor. Even if their role is not central to our investigation, from the moment we consult modern sources such as civil records or a nominative census, we will necessarily encounter a variety of toponyms (Jetté, 1991 : 89) – cities, parishes or even street names!

Saint-Thomas de Joliette church, one of many Quebec parishes named after a man.
Source: Drouin Institute’s Miscellaneous Collections (Fonds Pierre-Colpron),

Thereby, you may have noticed that Quebec’s toponyms are far from parity. We estimate that women represent less than 10% of Quebec anthroponymic toponymy. To phrase it differently, for each place named after a woman, there are 10 others named after a man (Beaudoin and Martin, 2019 : 1).

Faced with this observation, a movement for toponymic parity was created. Sarah Beaudoin and Gabriel Martin are both involved in this cause : Beaudoin as a feminist activist and Martin as a linguist. They published a book about the subject : Femmes et toponymie, de l’occultation à la parité.

The book offers a surprisingly complete overview for its 125 pages. The authors first present a historical portrait of the movement for toponymic parity in Quebec, then address common myths. From the supposed low importance of working towards toponymic parity to the so-called insufficient number of prominent women in history, all arguments against resolutions aimed at achieving toponymic parity are examined.

Through the development of this argument, the authors discuss a variety of feminist concepts such as radical feminism and patriarchy. The book also demonstrates a sensibility towards different types of oppression (like racism and colonialism), particularly for indigenous issues. The cover is a tribute to An Antane Kapesh, an innu band leader and author of the well-known book Eukuan nin matshimanitu innu-iskueu – I am a damn savage. However, the use of the term “amerindian” a few times in the book is regrettable since it is now considered derogatory (Picard, 2018).

The book ends with a list of potential toponyms and a chart for toponymic parity, which serves as a concrete link between the demands of the movement and Quebec’s reality. It is also a good opportunity to discover women who have marked our history : among the 145 toponymic suggestions, 10 are the subject of a short presentation, more than half of which are racialized and/or indigenous women.

Notarized contract mentioning Sainte-Thérèse and Sainte-Anne-des-Plaines, cities named after women.
Source: Notarized documents tool,

The book accomplishes the feat of remaining very accessible while addressing several issues in depth. Those who are not very familiar with feminism or toponymy will nonetheless understand, the book serving as a good introduction to these subjects. Those who have a deeper understanding of either feminism or toponymy will also find their read interesting : even after studying feminism in university, I learned quite a lot reading this book, finding ways to refine my feminist argument and discovering prominent women of our history.

All in all, it is an excellent book that will provide you with a different outlook, both in your genealogical research and in your everyday life.

Audrey Pepin

Reference list :

Jetté, René. (1991). Traité de Généalogie. Montreal : Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 716 p.

Beaudoin, Sarah et Martin, Gabriel (2019). Femmes et toponymie, de l’occultation à la parité. Sherbrooke : Les Éditions du Fleurdelysé, 125 p.

Picard, Ghislain (2018, September 26th). « Non, les Autochtones ne sont pas des Amérindiens ». HuffPost Québec. 

The omission of women in family trees – Part 3

(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,

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


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. Family Search [Blog].

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.

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.

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

The omission of women in family trees – Part 2

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

In my previous article, I demonstrated that women are often forgotten in genealogical research: patrilineal lineages are prevalent (Jetté, 1991: 110 ; Drouin, 2015) and women’s presence is often  made invisible through the vocabulary used (Cousteau Serdongs, 2008 : 133). This problem is anchored in the patriarchal organization of our society as well as in the reproduction of sexism in genealogical practices. We will now detail the consequences of this omission and the reasons why this problem deserves our attention.

The omission of women in the construction of genealogical lineages is part of a system of erasure and devaluation of women’s accomplishments, as well as appropriation and control of their work and bodies. The consequences are very concrete. Francine Cousteau Serdongs points out that “the lack of knowledge of women’s history from women of one’s own lineage makes it impossible to identify with them [1](2008: 138). It might also make it more difficult to identify what shaped one’s family and the role gender played in its formation. Patriarchal values (such as imperatives imposed on women’s appearances or behaviors) are reproduced not only in the public space, but also in the private space as they are often transmitted to children from an early age.

Not knowing about the history of women in our family can prevent us from understanding generational traumas or gendered perspectives as an essential part of our familial dynamic and culture. A better understanding of those issues would certainly play an important role in the deconstruction of patriarchal schemes transmitted in the family and in the consolidation of solidarity between women (Cousteau Serdongs, 2008: 138).

Four generations in one picture, Wikimedia Commons.

The erasure of women in genealogy also tends to go hand in hand with their erasure in the great History. Francine Cousteau Serdongs gives many examples of that phenomenon (2008: 135-136). She mentions the women on the Grande recrue ship and the spouses of famous men, like Charles Le Moyne. This invisibility certainly plays a role in the devaluation of women’s roles and work that is still going on today in our society: if we can’t recognize women’s past realizations, why would we be able to recognize present ones?

Charles Le Moyne and Catherine Primot’s marriage. Source: Record 47196, LAFRANCE,

When we neglect mothers in genealogical research, we also devalue their role and we negate their implication in passing on the heritage, while men, because they pass on their last name, are an obvious part of one’s lineage (Cousteau Serdongs, 2008: 132). To quote Francine Cousteau Serdongs: “In the second generation, women are ignored, allegedly because they don’t have the same last name. Everything happens as if women didn’t have a lineage of their own but were simply helping their spouse have one” (2008: 133). Symbolically, this perpetuates a representation of women as “objects” with no agency (Cousteau Serdongs, 2008: 139-140), when in reality, women were playing an essential and active role in their family and their society.

It is true that women have historically been relegated to reproduction and the private sphere. They were kept out of the public space: the places where decisions were made and power was held. We can find traces of this private/public division since ancient Greece and despite the recent feminist progress, in some ways, it is still accurate today (see Bereni and Revillard, 2009). But even if women were locked up in the private sphere, it was not really a place for them to lead either. Patriarchal values continually dictated how women should act, even in private spaces. Medicalization of pregnancy and childbirth, the imperatives about how they should raise their children and clean their houses and the restrictions concerning abortion are all glaring examples of the way women’s work (including their work with children) is controlled and appropriated by men (see Cousteau Serdongs, 2008: 141-142 or Guillaumin, 1978).

Painting of a woman doing laundry

As if it wasn’t enough, the private sphere has also been devalued (see Robert, 2017). The fact that women have been prohibited from giving their last names to their children for a very long time and that even today, we rarely allow them to appear in familial histories contribute to this appropriation of women’s work by men as well as in the patriarchal control and devaluation of the private sphere.

These consequences are even more important for racialized women, who are at the intersection of multiple oppression systems such as racism and sexism. For indigenous women, the erasure of their role in familial history meant the loss of their “Indian status” when they married a non-indigenous man. Their children couldn’t get the status either. This often meant being deprived of certain political, cultural, and social rights and often losing access to their community (see Arnaud, 2014: 213-217). The C-31 law, voted in 1985, allowed women who lost their status because of their marriage to a non-indigenous person to get it back, but their children could only get a non-transmissible status, unlike the children of indigenous fathers. It would take 25 years for this disposition of the law to be changed (Arnaud, 2014: 216). These simple changes in the law were not even enough to give their communities back to these women and children: the communities were lacking space and money and received no support at all to welcome back these people. Women were perceived badly, as if they were upsetting the established order and forcing the hand of their communities: this issue has yet to be resolved.

Native women with their children, Vancouver, 1901, Wikimedia Commons

(Trigger warning: mention of rape in the next paragraph.)

This conception of women as carriers of men’s lineages also contributed to the imposition of chastity and fidelity standards which were used to ensure the identity of a child’s father (Knibiehler, 2012). Outside of Quebec, rape has been used as a weapon of war in many contexts. Women’s bodies were used to “tarnish genealogical lineages” and punish certain peoples. To quote Véronique Nahoum-Grappe, talking about ex-Yugoslavia “rape became, some sort of a victory on war’s front against the collective identity of the enemy, a victorious invasion of their reproductive space” (1996, 153). While, to my knowledge, events of this sort have not been documented during Quebec’s colonization, it is still very possible they happened. In 2014, Statistics Canada reported that indigenous women were three times more likely to be a victim of sexual assault than non-indigenous women (Boyce, 2014).

In conclusion, the omission of women in genealogy contributes to a patriarchal culture which erases and devalues women’s accomplishments as well as the oppression they live under within their societies and families. It also contributes to the appropriation and control of their work and bodies. It is urgent that we find ways to change this situation and work towards a society in which we can all be equals: my next article will detail how we can achieve this in the field of genealogy.

Audrey Pepin


[1] Quotes which were originally in French have been translated by the author of this article


Arnaud, Aurélie. (2014). Féminisme autochtone militant : quel féminisme pour quelle militance? Nouvelles pratiques sociales, vol. 27, no. 1, p.211-222.

Baillargeon, Denyse. Compte-rendu de Yvonne Knibiehler, La virginité féminine. Mythes, fantasmes, émancipation. Paris , Odile Jacob, 2012 221 p. Recherches féministes, vol. 25, no. 2, p.191-193.

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

Boyce, Jillian. (2014). La victimisation chez les Autochtones au Canada, 2014. Statistiques Canada :

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.

Drouin, Mathieu. (2015). Patrilinéaire, mitochondriale et agnatique : trois façons de faire votre généalogie! Histoire Canada. Récupéré de,-mitochondriale-et-agnatique-trois-facons-de-faire-votre-genealogie!

Guillaumin, Colette. (1978). Pratique du pouvoir et idée de nature : 1- L’appropriation des femmes. Questions féministes, no.2, p.58-74.

Jetté, René. (1991). Traité de Généalogie. Montréal : Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 716 p.

Knibiehler, Yvonne (2012). La virginité féminine. Mythes, fantasmes, émancipation. Paris : Odile Jacob, 221 p.

Nahoum-Grappe, Véronique (1996). Purifier le lien de filiation : Les viols systématiques en ex-Yougoslavie, 1991-1995. Esprit, no. 227 (12), p.150-163.

Robert, Camille. (2017). Toutes les femmes sont d’abord ménagères. Histoire d’un combat féministe pour la reconnaissance du travail ménager. Montréal : Éditions Somme toute, Coll. « économie politique », 178 p.

The omission of women in family trees – Part 1

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

When starting this articles project about feminism and genealogy, I first asked myself what I could have to say about it. I had developed a certain expertise in feminist theory through my studies and activism, but I only knew genealogy from afar. Therefore, I started by doing some research in the library of my university, the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM), and on the internet. I tried different keyword combinations with “genealogy”, both in English and in French: “women”, “feminism”, “patriarchy”, “sexism” …

Jean Talon, Bishop François de Laval and several settlers welcome the King’s Daughters upon their arrival, Painting by Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale – before 1927, Library and Archives Canada

The first thing I noticed was that women, in genealogical research as in many other fields, were often left aside.

Several specialists confirmed that Quebec wasn’t an exception: according to Francine Cousteau Serdongs, who was a lecturer at UQÀM in social work and a genealogy graduate and practitioner, very few genealogists know the name of their uterine pioneer (the woman at the origin of a women lineage, traced from mother to daughter) (Cousteau Serdongs, 2008: 131). She also stressed that the terms that are used in genealogical research seem to forget about women: for example, an ancestry is rarely called patrilineal because it is considered so by default. Another example would be the French word “fratrie”, which means a group of siblings and is directly derived from “frère” which means brother.

Quebec historian Mathieu Drouin pointed out that patrilineal genealogy is the “most known – and generally the easiest way – to rebuild one’s ancestry”[1] (Drouin, 2015) and that matrilineal genealogy is rather “counterintuitive”. Quebec historian, demographer and genealogist René Jetté made the same observation in his Traité de généalogie (Genealogy Treatise) in asserting that patrilineal genealogy is the “most ancient and most popular form” (Jetté, 1991: 110).

Finally, Pierre-Yves Dionne, genealogist and author of 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), insists on the fact that in Quebec as in most Western societies, women’s last names almost always come from a man (their husband or their father). He therefore uses genealogy to develop the basis of an eventual transmission of the name of a common female ancestor to subsequent generations of girls. That is exactly what Francine Cousteau Serdongs did: Cousteau is the last name of her uterine pioneer, the first woman in her matrilineage to set foot in New France (Cousteau Serdongs, 2008: 145).

Although the role played by women in history are increasingly emphasized (for example, see Yves Landry’s book on the King’s Daughters, 1992) and some concrete efforts are made to facilitate genealogical research about women (for example, the Drouin Genealogical Institute includes in its Great Collections the Féminine (or Women series), an alphabetical directory of marriages sorted by the bride’s name), I will show in this article that we are not done working on the women’s place in genealogy. Genealogy, like the rest of our society, is based on a patriarchal foundation that we can only deconstruct on the long term. With this first series of articles, I will look into the situation of women in genealogical research in Quebec. I will first explain why women are less present than men in genealogical research. I will then show, in the next articles, what are the consequences of this absence and what possible solutions we can put forward.

As mentioned earlier, our society, genealogical practices included, is a patriarchal society. As underlined by Geneviève Pagé, professor of political science at UQÀM, “patriarchy doesn’t mean that all women are submitted to all men, but that the men’s group, in general, is dominating the women’s group. Therefore, it is not because one woman has had a lot of power […] that we are no longer living in a patriarchal society” (Pagé, 2017: 354). Even though a lot of progress was made by women and feminists in history, in genealogy and in the rest of society, we are still living in a patriarchal system. In genealogy, the marginality of matrilineal lineages that many experts have put forward confirms it. In the rest of our society, it is well shown by the wage inequality, the underrepresentation of women in places of power (such as political institutions) and their overrepresentation in statistics of domestic violence and sexual assault (Pagé, 2017: 353-354).

Patriarchy has forged, through history, a sexist heritage that we didn’t actively construct but that we need to deal with. This heritage partially explains why women’s lineages are invisible in our research. Researchers can indeed have a hard time because of the way last names are passed on. First of all, the fact that women’s last names change every generation, while men pass on their last name to their progeny, makes matrilineal lineages less obvious.

Second, marriage sometimes muddies the waters when it comes to researching women. In Catholic records, women would keep their maiden name in any event that concerned them directly (marriage(s) and death) and even in records that concerned their spouse (remarriage and death) or their children (births, marriages and deaths), but in Protestant registers and historical Canadian censuses until the beginning of the 20th century, women were generally only referred to by the last name of their husband as long as he was alive, and even after (Jetté, 1991 : 436).

Catholic marriage: the bride is identified under her maiden name in the record. Source: Record 345331, LAFRANCE,

Protestant marriage; the bride is identified under her husband’s surname in the record. Source: Record 4778127, LAFRANCE,

Judy Russell, an American genealogist and law graduate, specifies that, in her country, other factors may make it difficult to retrace women in a genealogical research. The fact that they rarely received any inheritance, that they couldn’t take legal action in their name, own land or even open a bank account erased their names from many registers (Clyde, 2017). Those are additional sources: in general, we use marriages, deaths and births records to construct a family tree. Fortunately, Quebec archives are pretty exhaustive in that matter (Jetté, 1991 : 432), but there are always a couple of forgotten individuals and when those are women, they are more difficult to retrace.

Although we didn’t actively construct this patriarchal heritage, I believe it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to work toward a world where we are all equals. After all, these practices that put forward men’s lineages, we reproduce them day after day and we have the power to change them. Thus, Francine Cousteau Serdongs questions the way genealogy is organised as a science as well as how individuals themselves perpetuate these ideas in their own practice of genealogy (2008: 132). In the next two articles, I will detail the consequences of this erasure on the lives of women and I will explore some potential solutions.

Audrey Pepin

[1] Quotes which were originally in French have been translated by the author of this article


Clyde, Linda. (2017a, 26 avril). Ever Wonder Why It’s So Hard to Trace Your Female Ancestry? Family Search [Blog].

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.

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

Drouin, Mathieu. (2015). Patrilinéaire, mitochondriale et agnatique : trois façons de faire votre généalogie! Histoire Canada.,-mitochondriale-et-agnatique-trois-facons-de-faire-votre-genealogie!

Jetté, René. (1991). Traité de Généalogie. Montreal : Les Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 716 p.

Landry, Yves. (1992). Orphelines en France, pionnières au Canada. Les Filles du roi au XVIIe siècle suivi d’un répertoire biographique des Filles du roi. Montreal : Bibliothèque Québécoise Editions, 280 p.

Pagé, Geneviève. (2017). La démocratie et les femmes au Québec et au Canada in La politique québécoise et canadienne, Gagnon et Sanschagrin (dir.), 2nd Edition. Quebec : Presses de l’Université du Québec, p.353 à 374.

Reny, Paule and 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.