Help Wanted-Female Classified Ads: Working Women Ancestors

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this blog post, Gena shows how “Help Wanted-Female” ads in historical newspapers can help you learn more about the employment opportunities that were available to your women ancestors—and learn about the places and eras they lived in.

What type of work did your female ancestor do? We often assume that our women ancestors were just “housewives” and didn’t work outside of the home. But for many women and girls, some sort of outside work was not an option—it was a financial necessity.

photo of a secretary at her typewriter, 1912

Photo: secretary at typewriter, 1912. Source: Miami University Libraries.

Early Newspaper Classifieds

So how did your female ancestor find employment? One option would have been the local newspaper’s Help Wanted advertisements. Prior to the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, those classified advertisements were very specific. They didn’t just provide qualifications the employer was looking for; they sometimes specified race, gender, and even age. Classified ads often included the headings “Help Wanted-Female” and “Help Wanted-Male.” In the 1970s this segregation of ads was deemed illegal, and Help-Wanted ads evolved to the advertisements we are accustomed to reading today.

photo of women weavers at work, c. 1910

Photo: weavers at work, c. 1910. Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Help Wanted-Female Ads

Help Wanted-Female advertisements were not just employers looking for any qualified woman to apply for their job offerings. These ads were in some cases very specific about what type of female employee they wanted.

Enter Last Name










For example, while these 1885 Help Wanted ads from New York include jobs like cooking and cleaning—they also contain ads that request women of a certain religion or ethnic background. While an obvious sign of discrimination to us, these employment requirements were a common practice in the nineteenth century. In cases of families looking for household help, they may have added such requirements to their ads in hopes of finding someone that mirrored their own familial background, or spoke their language. No doubt, such requirements were sometimes added to Help Wanted ads due to stereotypical beliefs that a certain ethnic or racial group produced better housekeepers and cooks, or were less likely to steal.

help wanted-female ads, New York Herald newspaper advertisements 1 October 1885

New York Herald (New York, New York), 1 October 1885, page 12

photo of women typists and accountants, c. 1920

Photo: typists and accountants, c. 1920. Source: George Eastman House Collection.

Help Wanted advertisements were not just segregated according to gender but also, in some cases, age or race. All of these advertisements from 1921specifically request a female: one wants an “Italian, Spanish or French” woman, one wants a “middle-aged” woman, one wants a “young” woman, and two want “white” women.

help wanted-female ads, Trenton Evening Times newspaper advertisements 13 July 1921

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 13 July 1921, page 18

photo of a maid doing laundry, San Diego, California, 1941

Photo: maid doing laundry, San Diego, California, 1941. Source: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

Social History in the Classifieds

One of the reasons I love classified advertisements is that they provide some social history information that can assist in learning more about the place and era of your ancestor. The 1885 ad above reflects how American jobs have changed over time, and provides a look at what types of employment women and girls could expect to engage in. In this particular Help Wanted column, one advertisement is searching for a “Girl who can mount hat birds…”

Enter Last Name










To understand this advertisement you need to know a little bit about late nineteenth century fashion history. Women during this time period were sporting hats decorated with bird feathers and entire stuffed birds. These practices resulted in the killing of large numbers of birds in the name of fashion. Later, the production of these hats fell out of favor after concentrated bird conservation efforts targeted women’s demand for the style.

help wanted-female ad, New York Herald newspaper advertisement 1 October 1885

New York Herald (New York, New York), 1 October 1885, page 12

In another Help Wanted example, from 1915, we find an advertisement looking for girls to work in a cigar factory. While today we associate cigar making with Cuba and the Caribbean, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, cigar making thrived in the United States and was seen as “women’s work” in cities such as Harrisburg, where this Help Wanted advertisement for the Harrisburg Cigar Company is from. This ad starts with announcing that they are looking for girls over 16 years of age to “strip” tobacco (remove the center stem in the tobacco leaf). Other jobs found in making cigars are also listed, including rollers, bunchmakers and packers.

help wanted-female ads, Patriot newspaper advertisements 26 November 1915

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 26 November 1915, page 11

Situations Wanted

Women didn’t just find work through the Help Wanted ads; they may have also placed an ad in the Situations Wanted column to find a particular employment opportunity. This was a good tactic especially if the woman had a child and needed a live-in situation, was older, or did not speak English.

situation wanted-female ads, Kalamazoo Gazette newspaper advertisements 1 June 1906

Kalamazoo Gazette (Kalamazoo, Michigan), 1 June 1906, page 9

Did your female ancestor have a job? She just might have—and by reading the classifieds in the local newspaper of her hometown and era, you may get a sense for what types of employment were available to her.

Do you know what your early female ancestors did for a living? Please share the positions the women in your family occupied with us in the comments.

More Articles Related to Female Ancestors’ Occupations:

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Tracing Female Ancestors: The Mother of All Genealogy Research

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, to help celebrate Mother’s Day this weekend, Gena provides genealogy search tips to find information about your female ancestors.

There’s no doubt that tracing female ancestors can be difficult and sometimes near impossible. Unlike men who were documented via different types of transactions throughout their lives, women can seemingly disappear just by marrying an unknown-to-you spouse or spouses.

Let’s face it, finding a certified Mother of the Year might be easier than finding most of our female ancestors, but consider the following genealogy search tips to help you find success as you embark on your family history research.

Mother of the Year (Mrs. Elias Compton), Boston Herald newspaper article 12 April 1939

Boston Herald (Boston, Massachusetts), 12 April 1939, page 1

Finding Dear Old Mom in the News

First, consider the relationship your ancestress had to others. She may have been a wife or several men’s wife. Maybe she was a mother and a grandmother. Likely as a younger woman she was a student, perhaps a volunteer, and a church or organization member. Don’t forget that she was also somebody’s daughter and friend. She can be in all kinds of different newspaper articles based on her activities and relationships at the time.

Enter Last Name










As you consider all this, remember that her name will “change” according to her relationship and time. A non-married woman will be listed by her given name and surname (a.k.a. maiden name), while a married woman might be listed as Mrs. [insert husband’s first name or initials and surname]. A widow may revert back to using her given name, so that Mrs. John Smith or Mrs. J. W. Smith becomes Mrs. Grace Smith after his death.

An example of this is the obituary for Mrs. Emily Ann Smith, a widow who was living with her daughter Mrs. W. E. Gilchrist when she died. Note she is not referred to as “Mrs. Sanford Smith.”

obituary for Emily Smith, Daily Register Gazette newspaper article 17 December 1921

Daily Register Gazette (Rockford, Illinois), 17 December 1921, page 6

Rarer is a news article such as this next one, in which the deceased is referred to by both her own name (Mary Smith Keenan) and her married name (Mrs. James Keenan). Because this is rare, make sure that you are searching all variations of a female ancestor’s name—because some articles will have her name one way, and some will have it another; very few will have both versions.

obituary for Mary Smith Keenan, St. Albans Daily Messenger newspaper article 5 February 1906

St. Albans Daily Messenger (St. Albans, Vermont), 5 February 1906, page 7

Start Research with the Basics

As you research, use a timeline of dates and places to help you find newspaper articles that you may miss just searching by a name, due to misspellings or name variations. Find the corresponding newspaper articles for your timeline that document the major events in her life: birth, engagement, wedding, children’s births, major anniversary milestones, and death.

This engagement notice from 1939 for the appropriately named Mary Love Jones gives great information—not only about her but other women in her life: her mother, sister, aunts, and other family and friends. Note that not all of the women are listed by their given names. Plus, this article provides a photograph of Mary as a young woman—what a great find if she’s one of your ancestors!

engagement notice for Mary Jones and Truett Bishop, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 29 October 1939

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 29 October 1939, section III, page 6

Avoid Making Assumptions about Your Female Ancestors

Stay away from making assumptions about your ancestor’s life. Don’t fall into the old “she was just a housewife” syndrome. You might be surprised to find what she was involved in during her lifetime.

For example, I love this front page montage of photos of teachers and women from the local PTA of Greensboro, North Carolina. What a great find for a descendent who may not be aware of their ancestor’s school involvement.

article about women in the local PTA, Greensboro Daily News newspaper article 15 May 1938

Greensboro Daily News (Greensboro, North Carolina), 15 May 1938, page 37

Another great example of “women’s work” making it into the newspaper is this article about  Red Cross volunteer Mrs. D. P. Beyea, who spoke to groups about her experience nursing soldieries overseas during World War I. Known as the “Little Mother of the First Division,” she is said to have been one of the first to volunteer. You get a sense of her accomplishments from the newspaper article and a reminder that a woman’s activities may have depended on the time period.

article about WWI nurse Mrs. D. P. Beyea, Lexington Herald newspaper article 9 November 1919

Lexington Herald (Lexington, Kentucky), 9 November 1919, section 5, page 1

Again, the issue of name is important here. The old news article isn’t clear whether D. P. (later listed as D. Pirie) is her husband’s initials or her own. A newspaper search on just one version of her name might easily miss this informative article.

Enter Last Name










Use Clues in Newspaper Articles to Find More Information

Continuing our genealogy search for Mrs. D. Pirie Beyea by searching Google, we can learn even more about her life. For example: click here to see a copy of her lecture brochure digitized and made available through the University of Iowa Libraries Digital Library. This is a great brochure complete with personal information, charming photos, and testimonials by those who heard her speak.

Genealogy Search Tip: Once you find your ancestor listed by a certain name or involved in an activity in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, make sure to continue your search in Google and Google Books for any other mentions of them.

Consider Your Ancestor’s Activities

It’s hard to know what activities your ancestor may have been a part of since some groups that would have been familiar in her time are all but unknown today. Consider that she may have been a member of a group that was an auxiliary to one her husband was a member of (The Daughters of Rebekah, Order of the Eastern Star, Ladies of the Grand Army of the Republic), a religious benevolent group (Dorcas Society, Relief Society), a cause she believed in (Women’s Christian Temperance Union, National American Woman Suffrage Association), a heritage association (Daughters of the American Revolution, Colonial Dames, Daughters of the Confederacy), or just a local group that may have done anything from hold cultural events to provide a social outlet. These groups may have had articles published in the newspaper that listed members or officers, meetings, special events, or persuasive missals.

The following newspaper article reports on the Spinsters, a social group for young unmarried women.

Miss King to Head Thalian Spinsters, Greensboro Record newspaper article 12 September 1939

Greensboro Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 12 September 1939, page 7

The historical news article above is from this newspaper’s “Women’s Activities” page which has some great articles about women’s groups, wedding notices, and personals that list names of women and mentions of vacations and visits.

Women's Activities page, Greensboro Record newspaper 12 September 1939

Greensboro Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 12 September 1939, page 7

There’s So Much Genealogy to Explore

Having trouble finding genealogical information about your foremothers? Newspaper collections are an excellent place to start because newspapers recorded the happenings of a community. Can’t find anything about your female ancestors? Remember to search the archives for your ancestress with applicable name variations—and keep checking back: GenealogyBank adds more newspapers daily. Even though you may not find anything about your ancestry today, tomorrow could reveal your “aha” genealogy moment.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Related Articles about Tracing Your Female Ancestry:

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5 Fave Genealogy Articles: ‘Titanic,’ Women, Ads, Ephemera & Food

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena reflects on some of her favorite genealogy topics that she’s researched for the GenealogyBank Blog.

One great thing about working as a writer is that you have the opportunity to research and learn about a variety of subjects. Through my work on the GenealogyBank Blog I’ve had the opportunity to write about some of my favorite genealogy topics and expand my knowledge of records and history in the process. What are my favorite GenealogyBank Blog articles? Check out the following personally-chosen list.

Titanic

photo of the Titanic departing Southampton, England, on 10 April 1912

Photo: the Titanic departing Southampton, England, on 10 April 1912. Credit: F. G. O. Stuart; Wikipedia.

One of my interests is the sinking of the Titanic. I probably share that interest with many of my fellow genealogists, who find the study of Titanic history fascinating. Probably no surprise to regular readers of this blog, the two aspects that I am particularly interested in are: the food that was served on the Titanic; and the women, passengers and staff who were aboard that fateful voyage. Luckily for me I was able to write some articles about this, including Tracing Titanic Genealogy: Survivor Passenger Lists & More which looks at some of the Titanic passenger lists with names that you can find in historical newspapers in the days and weeks after the tragedy. The subject of food on the Titanic could fill a whole book, and it has, but I took a brief look at what passengers ate in the article Eating on the Titanic: Massive Quantities of Food on the Menu.

photo of the First Class Reception Room on the Titanic

Photo: First Class Reception Room on the Titanic. Credit: National Maritime Museum, Flickr: The Commons.

Women: Tracing Your Female Ancestry

photo of the family of B. F. Clark

Photo: “Family of B. F. Clark, 219 N. 4th Street.” Credit: Library of Congress.

Enter Last Name










I’ve had the opportunity to write about female ancestors quite a bit, including how to trace them, and unique sources to use. One of my favorite articles about female ancestors on the GenealogyBank Blog is one that I didn’t write. A must-read for every genealogist is Mary Harrell-Sesniak’s 8 Genealogy Tips for Tracing Female Ancestry. Do yourself a favor and read and re-read this important post to better understand how to find your female ancestors. If you want to learn more about name variations, another one of Mary’s articles, Ancestral Name Searches: 4 Tips for Tracing Surname Spellings, is very helpful. Sometimes it’s the way we search that makes it difficult to find our ancestors in the newspaper.

Researching Old Newspaper Advertisements

personal ads for missing husbands, Dallas Morning News newspaper advertisements 12 September 1907

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 12 September 1907, page 8

I have to admit that the one aspect of newspaper research I would have never guessed that I would enjoy is the advertisements. It’s here that you can learn everything, from what your ancestor valued by perusing the Lost and Found advertisements, to the heartbreaking advertisements women placed looking for missing (or perhaps purposely absent) husbands. Think old newspaper advertisements have nothing to do with “real” genealogy? Take a look at some of the rich content newspaper ads provide in my articles How to Use Newspaper Lost & Found Ads for Genealogy Research and Missing Men: Lost Husband Ads in Newspapers for Genealogy.

Enter Last Name










Ephemera

photo of an old letter

Photo credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega

I love ephemera. It’s such an important part of genealogy but it’s something not many family historians are familiar with. Ephemera are loosely defined as items that were not meant for long-term archiving. Such items might be letters, postcards, images, maps, posters, even newspapers. Ephemera tend to be things that are thrown away. Not only are newspapers an important source for genealogy researchers, they even give us a look at our ancestors’ ephemera. For example, letters of all kinds are published in the newspaper. You can learn more about researching correspondence in the newspaper from the article Genealogy Tips for Researching Letters in Newspapers. Another helpful article, Dear Mother: Family Letters and Your Genealogy, points out that not all family letters remain private between the writer and recipient. In some cases, letters were printed in the newspaper giving us a glimpse into our ancestors’ lives. Probably one of my favorite projects was researching the article Finding Ancestors’ Names Can Be Child’s Play: Paper Doll Comics. I was very surprised to learn that children (and in some cases adults) were encouraged to send in paper doll fashion designs. These were published along with the name and address of the creator. Just one more way kids were documented in the newspaper.

Food History

photo of a book filled with newspaper recipe clippings

Photo credit: Gena Philibert-Ortega

A question I’m often asked at genealogy presentations is: why should a family historian care about food history? The answer is quite simple: food history helps us better understand our ancestors, and brings interest to the stories of their lives. When I ask family historians to think about a Thanksgiving from the past, it’s the people who were there, the stories, and the memories of what was served that flood their memories. Those stories deserve to be written down to be enjoyed by our descendants. Want to know more about food history? Check out these articles: Rationing Thanksgiving Dinner during World War I; The First Foodie: Clementine Paddleford; and Find Grandma’s Recipes in Old Newspaper Food Columns. Take some time to peruse recipe columns in the newspaper from your grandma’s and great-grandma’s hometown to see if she submitted her favorite recipe to the newspaper, and if you happen across one join GenealogyBank’s Old Fashioned Family Recipes board and share it with the Pinterest community.

Why read the GenealogyBank Blog? Because it is where you will learn more about genealogy, history, and newspaper research. Whether it’s tips, new ideas, new content or personal research examples, you’ll find them here (check out this one written by Scott Phillips about a GenealogyBank member’s discovery: A Fascinating Genealogy Success Story: Mystery of Missing Ancestors Solved). The GenealogyBank Blog provides you with continuing education for your newspaper research and genealogy in general.

Have a favorite GenealogyBank Blog post? Let me know what it is in the comments section below.

Happy reading!

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8 Genealogy Tips for Tracing Female Ancestry

Introduction: Mary Harrell-Sesniak is a genealogist, author and editor with a strong technology background. In this guest blog post, to celebrate March being National Women’s History Month, Mary provides practical tips to help you search for your female ancestors.

You know that age-old expression, What’s in a name? Well, it means absolutely nothing if you can’t find your female ancestor in any of the records—much less her maiden name.

Since the majority of “dead end” ancestor quests are for women, I’d like to share some overlooked avenues for breaking through those genealogy research brick walls, in honor of Women’s History Month.

photo of the B. F. Clark family

Library of Congress Photo: “Family of B. F. Clark, 219 N. 4th Street” www.loc.gov/pictures/item/ncl2004002862/PP/resource/

(Note: all of the newspaper articles used to illustrate this Blog post come from GenealogyBank’s online Historical Newspaper Archives.)

Tip #1: Know All of Your Ancestor’s Identities

This tip suggests that when searching the women in your family tree, you need to search for every name she ever went by, whether it be a formal first name (given name) or an informal nickname.

Most women, including myself, have multiple identities, depending upon the context.

Someone might have a pet name within the family, a formal name on a birth record, and might also gain a new name in a religious setting. And a woman might also go by one spelling as a child, and then choose to spell her name differently as an adult.

Nickname References and Examples

  • Abigail: Abbie, Abby, Gail, Nabby
  • Adeline: Addie, Aline, Dell, Della
  • Clementine: Clem, Tina
  • Henrietta: Etta, Henry, Etty
  • Margaret: Daisy, Greta, Madge, Maggie, Mamie, Marge, Margery, Peggy
  • Roberta: Berta, Bertie, Bobbie, Bobby, Robbie, Robby
article about Daisy Walker, Freeman newspaper article 20 March 1909

Freeman (Indianapolis, Indiana), 20 March 1909, page 4

Tip #2: Search All of Your Ancestor’s Titles

Titles aren’t always formal. They can be applied according to the role one takes in the community, and vary from situation to situation. Take, for example, Mary Jane Smith, a popular neighborhood mom in Atlanta. It’s possible some genealogical records only call her Mama Smith, whereas others might name her as Mary Jane Smith.

article about Mary Jane Smith, Marietta Journal newspaper article 4 June 1985

Marietta Journal (Marietta, Georgia), 4 June 1985, page 6

Ancestor Title examples:

  • Aunt, Aunty, Sis, Mama, Mother, Grandma, Grannie, Nana
  • Goodwife or Goody Jones (a Puritan title)
  • Miss America
  • Mrs. Peabody, Mrs. Juan Moreno
  • Nurse Miller
  • Widow Channing
article about the Puritans' use of the terms "goodman" and "goodwife," Heraldo de Brownsville newspaper article 4 July 1937

Heraldo de Brownsville (Brownsville, Texas), 4 July 1937, page 5

Tip #3: Search for Pseudonyms

If a woman wished to compete in a man’s world, she typically used a pseudonym.

Many people have heard of Louisa May Alcott, who wrote the beloved novel Little Women. However, few know that Louisa used the pseudonym A. M. Barnard to publish a series of “potboilers” that were thrilling Gothic stories.

book review of Louisa May Alcott's book "Plots and Counter-Plots," Dallas Morning News newspaper article 26 September 1976

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 26 September 1976, page 5aaa

Tip #4: Search by Her Initials

Many assume that men are more prone to be recorded by their initials, but it is common for women also, depending upon the circumstance.

Competing in a Man’s World

Female authors and artists very often use initials to compete in a man’s world.

Mary Jane (Olmstead) Stanton was a suffragette and author who appears in records under the name M. O. Stanton. In this 1890 newspaper article, written when Stanton was involved as a founding member of the Woman’s Press Association of the Pacific Coast, some women were referred to by their initials (Mrs. E. T. Y. Parkhurst), others by their own names (Mrs. Sarah B. Cooper), and one by her husband’s name (Mrs. Sam Davis).

Woman's Press Association, San Diego Union newspaper article 9 October 1890

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 9 October 1890, page 2

Official Government Records

Official government records, such as patents, are sometimes recorded by the inventor’s initials—so if you search only by the obvious names, you’ll miss them.

  • The invention of the modern form of the rolling pin was patented by C. Deiner (Catherine Deiner) 17 March 1891 under U.S. Patent 448,476.

Tip #5: Incorporate Cultural Considerations in Searches

As a country of immigrants, we shouldn’t be surprised that name spellings vary from country to country, or that a bilingual family might interchange names according to the cultural setting. A woman might be called by her Old World name in the family setting, and recorded in other ancestry records by the more common American spelling.

For example, an ancestor named Mary might also be known as: Maria if your family came from Spain; from the Netherlands, as Marja or Maaike; and if your female progenitor was Welsh, she might also be recorded in records as Mair.

article about Marja Rufa, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 11 February 1909

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 11 February 1909, page 3

Research Considerations

  • It can take several generations before Old World names are Americanized.
  • American and foreign versions were often interchanged, depending upon the cultural setting.
  • Names are typically recorded differently in English-speaking newspapers than in foreign-language editions.

Tip #7: Search Multiple Sources for Marriage Records

There are more ways to prove a marriage than almost any other event—but many sources for marriage evidence are overlooked. Some will not be found on the Web, so think creatively if you haven’t been able to locate a woman’s maiden name or marriage record.

Marriage Record Research Suggestions:

  • Bibles
  • Biographies
  • Cemetery Records
  • Church Books and Minister’s Records
  • Church Newsletters
  • Civil Registrations (courthouses)
  • Consent Affidavits
  • Courthouse Records
  • Death Certificates
  • Diaries
  • Divorce Decrees
  • Engagement Notices
  • Frakturs (form of artwork common with the Pennsylvania Dutch; see “Frakturs & Family Bibles Can Provide Proof of Marriage”)
  • Immigration Records
  • Journals
  • Land Records
  • Marriage Banns—or Publishing of the Banns (see “Understanding Terms Found in Historical Newspapers”)
  • Marriage Bonds
  • Marriage Certificates
  • Marriage Licenses
  • Marriage Permits
  • Naturalization Papers
  • Obituaries of Family Members
  • Orphan Court Records
  • Pension Files (widows)
  • Probate Records
  • Town Histories
  • Town Records (prior to civil registration)
  • Wedding Showers
  • Wills
article about marriage permits, Cincinnati Daily Gazette newspaper article 16 July 1878

Cincinnati Daily Gazette (Cincinnati, Ohio), 16 July 1878, page 3

Tip #8: Enter “Maiden Name” as a Search Engine Keyword

When I discovered this last genealogy research tip, it was a real “Aha” moment!

If you are looking for a maiden name, use “maiden name” or “maiden name was” as keywords in your search. Notice how many results were returned when I tried it in the GenealogyBank search box:

  • “maiden name”: over 125,000 results
  • “maiden name was”: almost 35,000 results

screenshot of GenealogyBank's search page for keywords "maiden name was"

Now incorporate those keywords with a name search, and see what you find! When I entered “Sarah Furman” “maiden name,” this record identifying her as a Strickland appeared—a fantastic research find listing her 260 offspring!

obituary for Sarah Furman, Boston Post-Boy newspaper article 22 February 1742

Boston Post-Boy (Boston, Massachusetts), 22 February 1742, page 3

Yes, finding all the genealogy records for your female ancestors can be tough, but employing these eight research tips—plus a little patience—might turn up some solid results for you in your family history searches.

Please share with us in the comments section any successes you’ve had from using these tips, and any additional methods you’ve used to find the females in your family tree.

Find Your Female Ancestors This Women’s History Month

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena helps celebrate Women’s History Month by providing search tips to help you find your female ancestors in old newspapers.

One of the biggest roadblocks genealogists find when researching female ancestors is the lack of resources that document their lives. This is especially true of government records, which don’t always tell us what we want to know about our ancestresses’ lives. Fortunately, there is a good source for information about the women members of our family: old newspapers. The great thing about using historical newspapers is that they document the lives of common people and their everyday events, special occasions and activities—for women as well as men.

Where can you find your female ancestor in the newspaper? A complete discussion of all newspaper article types would be too lengthy for a blog post—but to start with let’s consider the following three categories (Death, Milestones & Activities) that you can find in the newspaper pages of GenealogyBank.

One caution before you start your female ancestor search. As you will notice from the following articles, it’s important to consider how you will search for your female ancestor’s name. Until very recently married women were most likely identified by their husband’s names. So searching for Mary Jane Smith might not yield any hits, but a search for Mrs. Aaron Smith or Mrs. A.P. Smith very well might. As you search, keep an Internet research log and note the variations of your ancestor’s name that you find and the date of the newspaper. GenealogyBank adds more newspapers to its online archive collections daily, so what you don’t find today might appear tomorrow or next week.

Female Ancestor Death Records in Newspapers

An obvious place to start researching any ancestor’s life is with their death. While we often equate death with obituaries, remember that other types of notices and articles about someone’s death may also exist in newspapers.

This list of death notices from a Philadelphia newspaper provides information about each individual’s death and funeral.

death notices, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 8 March 1904

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 8 March 1904, page 7

Throughout this list many women are identified—such as Anne C. Winkworth, wife of the late Thomas A. Winkworth, who died in her 80th year.

death notice for Anne C. Winkworth, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 8 March 1904

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 8 March 1904, page 7

Major Life Milestones in Newspapers

Milestone wedding anniversaries are something to celebrate and newspapers have done that with photos and articles about the wedding anniversary couple. If your ancestors celebrated 50 or more years of marriage, you may want to see if their golden anniversary was documented in the newspaper.

This old wedding anniversary article from a Portland newspaper doesn’t give us too many clues about Mrs. Austin H. Gates—in fact, her birth name is never printed. However, we are provided with her photo, as well as her descendants’ names.

Mr. and Mrs. Austin H. Gates Celebrate 50th Wedding Anniversary, Oregonian newspaper article 20 March 1908

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 20 March 1908, page 6

Do you have an ancestor who lived to be the ripe old age of 100 years or beyond? That significant milestone is often documented in the newspaper, as in this old Philadelphia newspaper article reporting that Mrs. Eliza Stranahan survived an entire century—from 1800-1900!

Mrs. Eliza Stranahan Today Celebrates Her 100th Birthday Anniversary at Sharon, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 5 September 1900

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 5 September 1900, page 4

As you create a timeline of your female ancestor’s life, note any milestones she may have achieved and look for these in the newspaper.

Women’s Activities Are Recorded in Newspapers

What organizations, activities or events was your female ancestor a part of? Her name could appear in articles associated with those activities.

Women were members of all types of groups. Consider church groups, auxiliaries to male membership organizations, benevolent groups, and social causes as you search for records of your ancestor.

In this small article about the Women’s Relief Corps in Wilkes-barre, Pennsylvania, an auxiliary of the Grand Army of the Republic, the occasion of their elections provides us with the names of members.

Officers Elected by Women's Relief Corrps, Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader newspaper article 3 December 1912

Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader (Wilkes-barre, Pennsylvania), 3 December 1912, page 13

Women and their church activities were often published in the local newspaper. In this article highlighting the fundraising efforts of female church members, even a few street addresses are included. It’s interesting to note that even though the women failed in their three-day fast (most suffered from thirst and hunger after a dozen hours), the article was still published.

women Fast to Raise Money to Repair Their Church, Omaha World Herald newspaper article 19 November 1899

Omaha World Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 19 November 1899, page 26

The great thing about old newspapers is that your ancestor didn’t have to be wealthy or famous to be mentioned. Newspapers document communities, and it is in that documentation that you just might find mentions of your female ancestors.

Enjoy the Women’s History Month celebrations and good luck with your own female ancestry research!