Monday, June 07, 2010

Genealogy and Female Ancestors

Digging up your family roots. Trying to find the baron which old family stories tell about. That kind of stuff.

I've been doing some looking up for a friend, and what strikes me most about the whole adventure is how it truly is HIS story. Women disappear into the mists of time.

The obvious reason for that is the shifting last name, the disappearing last name, the pointlessness of giving the last name of a woman who no longer has it, being now married. The baptismal records state the birth of Maria Elizabetha, parents Johan Wilbert Cachelhooper and wife. If you are really lucky, they state the birth of Maria Elizabetha, parents Johan Wilbert Cachelhooper, and wife Anna Elizabetha!

Now, keeping your last name in marriage may not be justified so that future genealogists wouldn't have such a hard time, especially if you realize that finding the maiden name of Anna Elizabetha just tells you what her dad was called. But that disappearing last name is not a mere fluke. It's a sign of the way people viewed family as the family of men. That's why the women had to lose their last name and that's why all those genealogy sites give us family trees which start from Johan Wilbert Cachelhooper.

The descendants of Johan Wilbert Cachelhooper! Do you descend from him?

That Johan Wilbert Cachelhooper didn't make children all on his own gets forgotten. In fact, we could as well call the whole thing the family tree of Anna Elizabetha. Do you descend from her?

But we don't call it that, even if Anna Elizabetha's maiden name happens to be known.

All this is not just because of women taking their husbands' names. There is a real feeling on those genealogy sites that everyone is looking for their eight times removed grandfathers! It doesn't occur to anyone that if his wife cuckolded him he may not be your 8Xgrandfather, after all.

Then I got to the really fun stuff: Pioneers! Finding the arrival times in America of various European-born ancestors. Oddly enough, those pioneers were all men, and no, they mostly did not marry Indian women! Only men arrived on ship Darling Nancy in 1736! Only men entered the untouched wilderness (except for the Indians) to start farming and building houses!

Even here I found a sort-of reason: Most ship lists only recorded men over sixteen years of age. But how odd that the invisible women stay invisible, even today! Because they really were pioneers, too, and arrived on those same ships. They are even ancestors who could have their own family trees.

The reason I'm writing about this is not because of a particular story of particular immigrants to America (all invented here, by the way), but because it is such an excellent metaphor for what happens to women in history even more generally. Women disappear. It's both because at some point those who write down history decide on rules which make women less visible and also because women did not act in ways which history would notice. Having fifteen children without medical attention and running a farm without any labor-saving conveniences in the backwoods (with bears and wolves at the door) of the eighteenth century America did not give you a mention in history books. It still will not give you a mention anywhere.

But if you lead those women into those backwoods you get to be famous! You also get to decide on rules which mean that women will remain invisible. And most of that goes under our radar. I see some of it happening even today.

This post ties in with the old question I remember reading in a feminist novel:

How many generations back can you go in your female line of ancestries? Most people can't make it past three generations at most, even if they can do better than that in the male line.