Many of the women have been lost or simply forgotten.
That’s the sad, but persistent, reality that I’ve uncovered over the last 30 years in piecing together my family’s history during the past four centuries.
As chronicles have been kept, the record is more often than not, patriarchal, drawn by the “heads of households,” than spouses and children.
This is not unique to my family, and it has been defended as a “biblical” model, though it exists in other religions than Judaism and Christianity.
The national censuses, starting in the Anglo-Saxon context with the Domesday Book (1086), adopted this method and the vast majority of data we have is categorized by male heads of households ever since.
Following the women can be frustrating and confusing, largely because of multiple spouses and “disappearing” women.
Around the world, the predominant family system from the Middle Ages through yesterday involved having as many children as possible to produce a cottage labor force, replenish the family and provide care for the surviving elderly.
I have been amazed at the fecundity (length of capacity to give birth) and fertility (actual incidence of childbirths) of women in my family’s narrative since the 16th century.
Twelve to 15 children were not uncommon for a woman starting from 16 to 18 years old until her late menopause. A high percentage of women died in childbirth, husbands remarried and continued to sire children. Sometimes, men married the next older sibling of the deceased wife, producing a crazy quilt of siblings for the genealogist to unravel.
In my case, Quakers did an excellent job of recording births within their meetings, as well as marriages, but lost awareness of the elderly, especially the women.
Personally, I think of my ancestor, Isaac Archer Brackney, a Quaker tailor who was married to three women and had 12 children in the first half of the 19th century. Two of Isaac’s wives vanished at their deaths.
Plagues and pandemics were hard on women and children. In my family’s history, diseases like typhoid, scarlet fever, plagues and dysentery wiped out whole generations.
Many times, men survived because they had greater mobility (they were not confined to close urban quarters), but the young children died without names, and the women were buried without reference or certificates.
During pandemics, toxic human remains were disposed of quickly without registration or death notices. My natural great grandmother, Rebecca Thomas, was one of the lost women of Philadelphia in 1892.
Certain cemeteries took care of the poor but made no effort to record interments, and later suffered mass dis-interments and destruction of monuments in the face of housing projects. In short, total obliteration of identities.
Another area of concern for lost women in our past is their occupations. Men as yeomen, householders, farmers and tradesmen are clearly identified. Women in the lists are frequently indistinguishable from children and servants.
Women are listed as “keeping house” or “homemaking,” even though their assets and estates were considerable. One of my ancestors, Elizabeth Harwood Pointer, outlived her husband by 27 years and, at her death, had assets of several thousand dollars.
Recent publications have partially told the iconic stories.
One thinks of Dorothy Hazzard of Bristol, England, who kept house and nurtured a congregation. Or Mary Carey, who in the shadow of her world-famous husband, struggled with mental illness.
Or the three Judson wives who pushed fecundity to its limits in 19th century Burma and the high seas. Or Lottie Moon, who turned aside the lifestyle of a comfortable professor’s wife in Virginia for a single person’s devotion to administering a lonely mission outpost in China.
They are worthy models for all of us to contemplate.
The work of genealogists has theological implications. Complementary to historians and social scientists, they seek to recover the data of our families and ancestors: genealogists record the pilgrimages of real persons. A doctrine of “extensive human witness” – as in ancient Israel and the New Testament letters – comes to light.
Genealogists have a moral responsibility to re-create the data around which social and church historians can rebuild the contexts. The majority of local congregation records remain untapped resources for women’s history. The narrative that emerges is women and men struggling together to survive and be faithful.
My Aunt Bessie survived 16 childbirths and produced generations of hard-working, committed Christians. I appreciate her much more when I understand the repressed development of southern Maryland at the turn of the last century.
Women’s history has often been written from the perspective of institutional or congregational structures, with too little attention to family and personal details.
Among Free Church, and particularly Baptist narratives, the majority of participating congregants over four centuries is overwhelmingly female, but we know so very little about the recorded, but forgotten, women: a name here, a name there.
Certainly, the Spirit did speak boldly through women leaders whom we have come to celebrate, but what about the Spirit’s guidance in home, hearth, trades, businesses and classrooms?
We have work to do as we face the prevailing mortality rates in the age of COVID-19.
The frustrations of genealogists have revealed a need in our current situation: No one should be left to die in anonymity, especially the women and children in our midst.
Millard R. Cherry Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Christian Thought and Ethics, and Adjunct Professor in History and Classics at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia. He is also president of the Board of Interfaith Spirituality Network, a provincially based interreligious organization.