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Female Ancestors: Finding Women in Local History and Genealogy

Mitochondrial DNA

Miss Margaret D. Foster, Uncle Sam's only woman chemist. 1919. National Photo Company Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) is passed from mother to child. Both sons and daughters receive mtDNA, but only daughters pass the mtDNA on to their own children. Since both sons and daughters receive their mother's mtDNA, both men and women can take mtDNA tests. The mtDNA test examines the specific matrilineal line following a mother’s mother’s mother all the way back through the branches of the family tree. In order to test specific female lines, you will need to identify living descendants who come from an uninterrupted lineage of females, so that the matrilineal line is intact.

Autosomal DNA may also be used to identify female ancestors and relatives. Autosomal DNA looks more broadly at the entire family tree, so it will encompass more than one specific paternal or maternal line, as opposed to Mitochondrial DNA, which will narrow your results specifically to one matrilineal line. Another important difference is that Autosomal DNA captures roughly five to seven generations of the family tree, whereas Mitochondrial DNA extends back to ancient origins.

The scientific evidence provided by DNA must be examined in combination with traditional documentary evidence in order to evaluate research conclusions. For women who left behind far fewer textual records, incorporating DNA into the analysis is an essential component.

Selected Resources

Your DNA test results are the beginning, not the end, of your research. Use these resources to understand and maximize the information revealed by DNA.

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available.

Library of Congress subject specialists have created research guides that highlight specific topics related to the evolution, benefits, and challenges of incorporating DNA analysis into traditional genealogical research.