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Female Ancestors: Finding Women in Local History and Genealogy

This guide provides resources and strategies for discovering the women in local history and family trees. Library of Congress print and digital collections, as well as state, county, and community archives can help to find elusive female ancestors.


R. W. Harrison, photographer. Six generations (Selma, Ala.). Circa 1893. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Finding women in genealogical records can be difficult because throughout much of our history, women have held a secondary status to men. The traditions and laws of their societies limited their access to such things as education, employment, and public roles. It’s often difficult to discover something even so foundational as a woman’s name. Her identity is intertwined with the men in her life. She is her father’s daughter. Her husband’s wife.

Accordingly, it is a challenge to represent women equally in our research because they are not equally represented in the records. However, every ancestor deserves honest, accurate, and exhaustive research. As with any ancestor who poses a challenge, we must think creatively and broaden our perspective.

We must brainstorm, strategize, seek out, and study all relevant records. Even more importantly, we must scrutinize each of those records to assure that we have pulled out and properly interpreted every possible detail.

And, it is so important to put women into their historical context. What was happening when and where they lived? What laws impacted their rights to marry, divorce, maintain custody of their children, vote, speak publicly, own property, own a business, or receive an education? Did she live during Abolition, Temperance, or Suffrage? What responsibilities did she take-on during war? How did her community support or treat her if she were orphaned, widowed, single, or rebellious? This framework helps us to understand her circumstances, why she may have made certain choices (if she had a choice at all), and where she may have left records behind.

About This Guide: The resources and strategies in this guide are specifically aimed at discovering the details of female ancestors in our families and communities. Separate Library of Congress Research Guides for American Women History and Gender and Women’s Studies target women's history more broadly and provide important context.

About Local History & Genealogy Reference Services

The Library of Congress has one of the world's premier collections of U.S. and foreign genealogical and local historical publications, numbering more than 50,000 compiled family histories and over 100,000 U.S. local histories. The Library's genealogy collection began as early as 1815 with the purchase of Thomas Jefferson's library.