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Female Ancestors: Finding Women in Local History and Genealogy


New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper, staff photo. Three women, (left to right) Mrs. Silvia Haskell, Mrs. Rita Litman and Mrs. Celia Winer, register for jury duty in the Hall of Records, New York City. 1937. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

It is critical to understand the law at the time and place in which your female ancestor lived. Laws will help you to frame her world, appreciate her opportunities or lack thereof, and identify which legal actions permitted or required her participation.

Nearly every research category discussed in the Genealogy Go-To Records section of this guide was impacted by law. Law determined what questions were asked on the census; who was allowed, not allowed, or required to file each type of record at the courthouse; which relatives could apply to benefit from a soldier's military pension; when legal notices had to be published in newspapers; and where women were allowed to vote.

Legal Documents

In addition to the essential historical context that the pertinent laws provide, laws also dictate and generate paper trails. We want to identify those points in a woman’s life at which she was most likely to come into contact with any level of government jurisdiction. Those transactions are likely to have prompted a written record that identifies her with considerable specificity. Events such as marriage, divorce, the birth of her children, slave manumissions, civil suits, military records, immigration, citizenship, passports, suffrage, and census records all have the potential to produce documents that are regulated or required by law. Any of these documents may contain unique data critical to the identity and story of the woman involved.

Selected Resources

Library of Congress subject specialists have created Blogs that provide background and resources for further study.

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

The Library of Congress Digital Collections contain a wide variety of primary source materials that may be searched for items related to the lives and times of our female ancestors, including government documents, manuscripts, maps, newspaper articles, and photographs. Search for historical context to set the scene and better understand her world, as well as pieces specifically about her life.

Library of Congress subject specialists have created Research Guides that provide background and resources for further study.

Legal History Resources

Many historical laws may be found online through digital libraries, such as Google Books External, HathiTrust External, and Internet Archive External. The following websites include links to those resources, as well as case studies and explanations to help you apply the law to your research strategies and ancestor stories.

Legal Databases

The subscription resources marked with a padlock are available to researchers on-site at the Law Library of Congress. If you are unable to visit the Library, you may be able to access these resources through a law library at your local courthouse or an academic library near you.