Introduction to Tracing Women (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Research: Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters-Tracing Women  by Lisa Alzo, M.F.A.. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).


When you fill out the pedigree chart for your family tree, do you often find that you have one or more females for whom no maiden name is listed? Instead you just have a bunch of blanks—Mary (blank), Helen (blank) and so on.

Certainly, the research process for an elusive female ancestor can be a bit daunting. While it is true that it can be easier to research male ancestors, there are plenty of records that mention women. All you need is to know what they are, where to find them, and how to implement a research strategy that will lead you to the details you seek to track down those maiden names. In this course you will learn some strategies and key sources to draw your mysterious female ancestors out of hiding.

Why are Females so Difficult to Trace?

Prior to the twentieth century, it is typically difficult to locate and trace a woman. Most historical records have been created for and are about men, making it more challenging to research the women in your family tree. For example, property was usually listed under the man’s name, and men ran the majority of the businesses and controlled the government. Also, it was the man’s surname that was carried to the next generation by the children. In addition, few women left diaries or letters. Finally, cultural influences toward the behavior and treatment of women must be evaluated.

Still our female ancestors played significant roles in history. Tracing women successfully requires us to study them within their everyday lives. We must look at their work, and duties, skills and, and responsibilities, their personalities, and their contacts (friends, neighbors, associates). Most historical treatments in the past overlooked or ignored the important role women played, treating them only peripherally. In addition, certain stereotypes about women were perpetuated in society—especially the idea that they did not work outside the home (note how many census takers recorded women as housekeepers, often ignoring what else they did outside the home). More often than not, the problem isn’t that there are no records available, but rather how thoroughly we investigate the sources presented to us. Some records are obvious and easy to locate, while others require thinking “outside the box”, being a bit more creative in our searches, and demonstrating a willingness to explore those sources that are readily available to us online or from printed genealogies.

In Canada, women were not regarded as “persons” until 1929! The British North America Act used the word “persons” which did not seem to include women. Persons were able to vote in all federal and most provincial elections. Women were included in the right to vote, but were denied access to the Senate. It was in 1927 when five women from Alberta challenged the meaning of “persons” and took it to the Supreme Court of Canada. It was two years later when the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of Great Britain (the highest Court of Appeal for Canada) ruled that “persons” would include both men and women.

These courageous women—Emily Murphy, Henrietta Muir Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney and Irene Parlby—from Alberta have come to be known as “The Famous Five”. More can be learned about their fight from the following websites:

Library and Archives Canada - Famous Five

The Famous 5 Foundation Canada Online - The Persons Case: A Milestone in the History of Canadian Women

Guidelines for Researching a Woman’s History

When researching female ancestors, there are four main areas for consideration:

  1. the individual woman (family situation, life experiences, culture)
  2. the woman’s relationships/collateral family (relatives, friends, neighbors, acquaintances)
  3. where the woman lived (locality)
  4. the time period (social history)

Your success or failure may depend on how thoroughly you investigate each of these components.

First Steps: Developing a Solid Research Strategy

Whenever you start research an ancestor, one of your first tasks should be to develop a research strategy that outlines how you will proceed with your search for this individual and what you are hoping to discover. Define both short-term and long-term research goals. For example, your long-term goal may be to learn the maiden name of your great-grandmother. A short-term goal might be to locate her in a federal census, which may show or help you determine her year of immigration, or how old she was when she married. Be sure to set realistic and attainable goals, taking into consideration accessibility and availability of documentation. For example, think about the following:

  • Do records exist in the location where your ancestors lived and for what time frame?
  • Are the records available in original form, or on microfilm or microfiche?
  • Is there an index available in an online database or available on a compact disc, or in published books and periodicals?
  • What happens if the records are not in English?
  • What translation resources or tools are available?

Also, identify any missing pieces or obvious holes (e.g. a missing maiden name, adoption, etc.) But resist the temptation to start from a family legend or tradition. Try to build your research upon known facts.

Whenever you begin to research a new ancestor, it is good to use the “5Ws” approach. Ask the questions: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. This is also a good strategy when you run into a problem ancestor. When trying to track down the females, step back and evaluate:

Who - are you researching? Be equipped with all the names they were known by, and all the possible spellings, e.g. Elizabeth could also have been entered as Beth, Betty, Eliza, Liz, Liza, Lisa or Eli; Margaret could be Margie, Maggie, Peg, Peggy, etc. And that doesn’t begin to address the surnames often mangled in records. Who did she know or associate with?

What - is your question? What do you want to learn? This will give you some insight into what record type(s) you need to locate. What did your female ancestor do?

Where – did she live? Did your ancestor stay in the same town where she originally settled? Did she migrate or move often? What country was she born in? Where did she emigrate from?

When – what timeframe are you interested in? Like everywhere, record types started being kept at specific times. If your research starts before certain records were kept you’ll need to find alternate record types to use. How records were created and kept changed at different times, and even the names of the locations changed.

Why - do you need this? What are you hoping to find: if it’s a marriage registration you need, perhaps it’s to also learn the names of the parents of the bride and groom. Just being aware of why you need this record type can often open up other research possibilities. It also helps to keep us focused—something most genealogists struggle with.

Research Diagram

There are basic simple steps you can follow when tracking an elusive female ancestor. These include:

  1. Begin with individual’s name and birth date
  2. Gather family details
  3. Locate name of hometown or village of origin (for immigrants)
  4. Search records for surnames (check siblings, cousins, etc.)
  5. Locate village of origin today
  6. Check for available records (Family History Library)
  7. Establish contacts in village or town (mayor/priest) by email or snail mail
  8. Write to foreign archives or hire a professional researcher

Research Diagram

Research Women1U.jpg

In addition, using a research planner can help you stay organized. Use it to record who, what, when, where and why as noted above. Research planners are also important is organizing what you don’t find. Keep a written record of all the sources you have searched, including both positive and negative results. You can also note specifics to be searched in the future. Many genealogy software programs come with built-in research logs/planners. You can also find a link to a free Research Log on the Genealogy Free Stuff! website.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters-Tracing Women offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.