Friday, November 28, 2014

Where the Women Folk Are

There is an obvious and tragic problem built into the bones of genealogy. Its source is obvious, but its solution is not. It affects everyone, every family, regardless of culture and convention - and sometimes it costs us more than we understand.

Kameron Hurley's 2014 Hugo-award winning blog post, "We Have Always Fought" talks about the ways in which women have been erased from the narrative of our fiction. She talks about the effect the pressures of simplicity and tradition have on the stories we tell, and while she mainly talks about fiction, it is worth remembering that history is one of the stories that we tell. Her essay resonated with me deeply because I have seen the effect in action in my research.

In most Western cultures, surnames developed as a way of tracing heredity which has a tendency to favor the preservation of the paternal line's identity, often at the total expense of the maternal. Scandinavians passed fathers' names to sons, literally - Hans's son took the surname "Hansen" and if his name was Tom, his son would be "Tomsen" (yes, I'm oversimplifying, and not everyone followed that custom). Spanish traditions could be more complicated, passing names of fathers AND mothers to children. There are areas in Germany and other places where the groom assumed the bride's name, but that only reverses the problem. Some families try to solve the problem by using hyphens - but the pressures of simplicity and tradition (and public record-keeping) still have the effect of erasing mothers' surnames from records and memories.

Sometimes, completely.

It isn't just that their names are hard to find - that's part of the fun and challenge that drew me into this hobby in the first place.

The problem is that I see, over and over, generation after generation, in branch after branch of the family tree that women are recorded differently from the men they lived with. It's not just that they pass - are passed - from their father's house bearing their father's name into their husband's bearing his; it's not just that the stories told about them are centered on the home, and bearing children, and being quiet, pious, and lovingly in the background. Many of them insisted on being portrayed that way. The problem I have with that is that they did more, saw more, thought more, and had more influence on our history than they get credit for.

I pore through the census records, and I often see stories between the boring lines of simple tabulation. Sometimes I see that there are clearly recent widows with small children out on the frontier. Sometimes I see odd pairings or May-December marriages after what must have been an epidemic. Yet when I dig through the old books about The Founders, there is almost never a mention of the mother who fed the town or the young wife who rescued the broken-hearted widower and his brood of orphans. Even those kinds of simple, traditional stories are left out in favor of listing the forming of business partnerships, the surveying and clearing of land, and the staunch political affiliations of the local burgesses.

As Hurley says in her essay, women are erased from the stories we tell, because:

"...none of those things fit our narrative. What we want to talk about are women in one capacity: their capacity as wife, mother, sister, daughter to a man.  I see this in fiction all the time.  I see it in books and TV. I hear it in the way people talk."

Again, I'm not complaining that my family tree is full of wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters - that's a good thing. I'm pointing out that while we have all kinds of stories about brave soldiers, traveling preachers and teachers, builders, and local leaders that tell us what our forefathers were like, we rarely have those kinds of stories about their wives, mothers, sisters, or daughters.

Part of the problem lies in the way they are written about. When I find old books about pioneer families, and the founding of towns across 19th century America, the biographical sketches are always about prominent men. Always. Their wives and daughters are rarely mentioned outside the context of who they married or how many children they mothered.

But another part of the problem lies in the way they wrote about themselves. Obviously, they felt the pressure to be seen as wives, mothers, sisters, daughters - not as pioneers, adventurers, trailblazers. Even writing about women of more recent generations, women who I know to be strong, brilliant three-dimensional people, it's easy to cave in to that pressure to stick to the simple, common, traditional narrative. As much as I crave the opportunity to write about the badassed, big-hearted, boisterous, and brilliant women in my family, I have already been told to be careful about it. They do not want to be embarrassed. They do not want to be seen in ways that aren't ... right.

Well, brace yourselves.

This is your warning that I am looking for ways to bring the amazing women of my history to light. I don't plan to make these stories up - that would be a different problem, and still wrong - but sometimes we have to use our imaginations to recreate what life must have been like in days gone by.

I may have to read between the lines to see what my 4th great-grandmother Eleanor was really like. She was widowed, and left to raise her grandson, my great-great grandfather, only to see him die young; and I don't even know her full name. And I need to dig to find out who this author named Frances Adams More is - what did she write, and what happened to her. And what about those adventurous Huff sisters, who seemed to travel abroad so much?

 If I have the choice, and if the evidence will support me, I will choose to look beyond the flowery words in obituaries about loving wives and doting mothers to see the pioneers, the engineers, and the adventurers. Many of them will be mothers, and of course, they are all daughters. But I will seek to show you the capable drivers, the financial wizards, the creative writers and artists, and the community organizers when I find them.

So, where are these women? They're right there in the crooks of the trees, hiding in plain sight. They left clues, and when I find them, I will show them to you - because I owe them that. Because if these ordinary men can be Mighty Acorns, it stands to reason their partners were just as amazing. (And they likely did most of the work...if they were anything like my partner.)

Traditional narrative be damned, I intend to tell their stories. Whether they wore silk or satin, whether they raised a family or raised hell, they deserve to be remembered.

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