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Female Ancestors: Finding Women in Local History and Genealogy


Young woman worker at quartermaster depot assists in the creation of American flags for military activities. Philadelphia Quartermaster Corps. May 1942. Office of War Information Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

When we think of war, we rightfully envision soldiers and political leaders—who in our history were mostly men. But, of course, women lived through, participated in, and were impacted by these major, monumental events too. This is not a comparison of the roles of men versus women, but an acknowledgement of how important these events were to her story as well as his.

It is no coincidence that women finally got the right to vote just after World War I ended. Suffragists leveraged women's wartime contributions and used the political language of the moment to demand that if our country desired to spread democracy abroad, it must also practice it at home.

Look at the major events in the lifetime of every ancestor and consider how they were effected. We must be careful not to limit what we think of as men’s history to men. Women lived it too.

War impacted relationships, courtships, occupations, vocations, community roles, household operations, and so many other aspects of daily life. Women, like men, lived through unique experiences generated by the extremes of War.

Soldiers in the Family

If a woman served in the military, in any capacity, it is important to examine her individual records as well as those of the unit in which she served. Locating the records and stories of the individuals she served with is also likely to reveal details of her experience.

In addition to the files for any women who served, also seek out the files for the servicemen who were a part of your female ancestors’ lives. Individual service and pension files are good places to start for potential genealogical clues and biographical context. Under certain circumstances, widows, children, and parents of soldiers could also apply for military pensions. The applications of these family members required proof of relationships. Accordingly, these files may include family bible pages, personal wartime letters, and numerous depositions.

Federal records maintained by the National Archives provide an excellent starting point for finding key documents, but it is also important to search at the state and local level for record sets related to units and soldiers from those locations.

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.

American Revolution

War of 1812

Civil War

World War I

World War II

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.

The following collection titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content, including finding aids for the collections, are included when available.

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

African American Experiences

Civil War

World War I

World War II

Military records are being digitized at local, state, and federal levels, but it is a gradual process. Many records must still be ordered or accessed through the appropriate repositories, most predominantly the National Archives.

Explore the websites below to determine which records may be available to you online versus which ones you will need to request or schedule an appointment to view in person.

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