Skip to Main Content

Female Ancestors: Finding Women in Local History and Genealogy


Harris & Ewing, photographer. Women working with tabulating machines at long rows of desks at the US Census Bureau. Circa 1940. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Genealogists love census records because they allow us to follow an ancestor’s life decade by decade. They are often the low hanging branches we use to begin climbing the family tree and the foundation blocks for building biographical profiles. However, because we use them so frequently and access them so easily, we are in danger of taking them for granted, assuming we know what data they contain, or glancing over their columns too haphazardly.

For women, these records are particularly important because they are one of few that were intended to account for both males and females, though initially only those who were free and white. In the early years, when only the head of household was listed by name, the women and girls in the home were reduced to numbers in columns organized by sex and age, just as the men and boys were, but they are nevertheless represented. Enumerations became more detailed each decade, increasing the opportunity to observe important clues about our female ancestors. For some of the women in our family tree, census records may be the only government document in which we find them listed. These neighborhood roll calls may also provide the only evidence of their living situations as they advanced from girlhood to womanhood or from daughter to wife.

It is essential that we examine the original census pages, as opposed to only the typed transcriptions. We need to look closely at every field for clues and context that might lead to new research paths: household members, neighbors, occupations, incomes, education, health, and so on.

The where and when of each enumeration enables us to plot our ancestors' lives on maps and timelines. This geographical and chronological context pinpoints locations where we should also look for other types of records.

Selected Resources

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

Federal Census

Find your family in the 1950 U.S. Federal Census and continue backward decade by decade. Free access to Census records is available on sites such as FamilySearch External. Once you create a free account, you can login to search: 1950 External, 1940 External, 1930 External, 1920 External, 1910 External, 1900 External, 1890 External, 1880 External, 1870 External, 1860 External, 1850 External, 1840 External, 1830 External, 1820 External, 1810 External, 1800 External, 1790 External.

Use the blank United States Census forms that have been customized for each census year to help you fill in and evaluate your family's information.

State Census

If your ancestor lived in a state that conducted its own censuses, you will want to locate her in each of those records as well. State censuses were often created during they years ending in "5" to offset the federal censuses created during years ending in "0." Accordingly, these records may be crucial in filling gaps on your ancestor's timeline. In her book, State Census Records, Ann S. Lainhart provides an inventory of each state and the years during which they conducted a census. You can see an abstract of this list on the U.S. Census Bureau website and refer back to Lainhart's book to learn more about the types of information each census recorded. You can access state census records through the appropriate State Archives.