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Feminism and family history - v long sorry

(18 Posts)
sparkle12mar08 Wed 01-Dec-10 11:32:25

I've never posted here before and I know family history isn't everyones cup of tea, but I've recently read two such contrasting books on the subject and wanted to post here to get more views.

The first is by a male author and while technically correct in its terminology I suppose, demonstrates the incredibly ingrained presumption of male importance in the subject. There is also such an air of arrogance about it that I couldn't actually finish the whole thing. Seriously, it was awful. Take for example these two passages:

"...a family consists of people of the same surname and blood i.e. those descended in an all-male line from a common male ancestor. A family may consist of a number of collateral branches stretchin down from brothers....It is quite incorrect to speak of a person's maternal lines of ancestry as branches of a family"

"A greater thematic advantage is the social continuity conferred by the historical role of the husband/father as breadwinner. His occupationdecided the family's social status... But what fundamentally makes the male-line story the only practical one [really? the only one, please!] is the sad fact that owing to the social and legal position of women in past ages and in spite of recent work done by 'herstorians' [the use of inverted commas there my my blood boil alone!] almost all the surviving evidence is of the activities of men."

So women in history are just an inconvenience then, and can be safely brushed off to one side. Why bother being interested in the women who made us what we are, why bother fighting against the patriarchy to try and discover the meaning in their lives, eh? After all if it's just too hard don't bother, they're only women...

Contrast that with the following author Margaret Ward:
"The importance of our female relatives in bringing up their children cannot be over-emphasised. Historically women returned to their own mother's home to have their first child, it is her sisters she gossips and writes to, she learns her mother's style of cooking and passes it down. Men carry the surname and they have an occupation we can find out about; they go to war and sometimes lead lives of more obvious action. Women may just slip through physical documentary history, but they had a critical influence on the people around them that we still feel today in our families.

Furthermore, the great majority of our female ancestors worked for their living at some point in their lives, yet there is often little evidence to show what work they did. Women's occupations if they had them are rarely recorded on census returns, and in any case, after marriage women were expected to stay home and look after the children, right through to the 1960's. Indeed even when women started entering the workplace in greater numbers after the first world war, working after marriage was not just discouraged but often forbidden. But to dismiss the work of our women over the last 200 years is to dismiss their memories. From 1800 to 1950 women are found in every corner of agriculture, heavy and light industry, manufacture, the service industries and the professions: all deserve our recognition."

I've been very inspired by Margaret Ward's writing in the field and have spent considerable time and effort in trying to contruct the female sides of my trees. I'm not sure what I want to get from this post but I would really welcome the thoughts of those of you much more experienced than I am in feminist analysis.

ElephantsAndMiasmas Wed 01-Dec-10 12:48:47

Well I think Cock A's theory is pretty full of holes isn't it? Although difficult out of context - what was the book about?

For one thing, a family does not just descend through an all male line. Does my big macho friend not have a family then, since he has four daughters?

The main and obvious flaw to me, is that amongst all this descending from a common male ancestor/from brothers etc there is no way of knowing whether the children were really their descendants or not . Everyone knows who their mother is, but it's a wise child who knows his own father. So it's more likely that you're looking at a genetically linked family if you go through the maternal line.

sethstarkaddersmum Wed 01-Dec-10 14:12:33

ha ha ha ha ha @ the pompous wanker. grin
(will that do for profound feminist analysis?)

sparkle12mar08 Wed 01-Dec-10 14:55:58

The books were both about how to research and write up a family history. Another passeage in the same section of Cock A's book (love that btw!) dealt with exactly that question of paternity, Elephants and his position was that such a conjecture is actually an 'uncalled for insinuation against good women', 'a smear', an insult', 'an aspersion'. It smacked of there, there, pat the little women on the head, put them on a pedestal type attitude. 'Nice' girls don't have affairs etc. In fact the passage about the difficulty of female line research was his 'serious answer to the question that female lines were excluded just because they were female'. If that was his attempt at serious consideration of the issues then just how shallow is his research? Yet he will deign to accept that one's immediate family i.e. siblings and children can be called family. His beef seems to be with lines of descent in particular.

The major problem I had with it all was that his views on what consitutes family lines coloured his use and recommendations of sources. The Margaret Ward book for example covered swathes of resources that could be used for specifically female oriented research but also showed how to use other generic sources to get at female data etc. All Cock A could do was focus on male oriented anlaysis and resources. It makes me question the quality and completeness of his work and the wisdom of ignoring 50% of the subject area.

Is this kind of issue prevalent in other areas of research for example?

ElephantsAndMiasmas Wed 01-Dec-10 15:09:38

Sounds to me like he is just lazy. I'm going to presume from what he's said and what I know of the dear old patriarchy that looking up men is much easier, and that most books on research etc have historically focussed on their exploits and how to track them down etc. So he has given himself a lot less work by ignoring women on these pathetic pretexts, and enabling himself to rely entirely on previous resources.

Just guessing, mind.

ROFL at prissiness of "aspersions on good women" - if he already knows all his ancestors and what they were like (i.e. monogamous) then why is he even bothering with researching them? <eyeroll> The fact is if you want to track genetic relationships then you know that someone's mother is their mother, but there is always going to be a small percentage of doubt over the father's identity. And not always because of people being "bad". I'm sure there have always been men who marry (knowingly or not) women who are pregnant with other men's children. Or where a woman is encouraged to sleep with a fertile man to ensure an heir for the infertile husband. Or where women were raped (outside the marriage) etc. Or the couple may have been essentially separated but unable to obtain a divorce, in circumstances which the records would not show, in which case the woman could be cohabiting with somebody else.

Some idiots wankers people look on Victorian high society morals as the pattern for the rest of history/society's behaviour. Total rubbish. A lot of people have always e.g. lived in common law marriages etc. Bet Cock A gets a shock when he comes across an unmarried woman in his family tree <shockhorror>

LoudRowdyDuck Wed 01-Dec-10 15:12:15


When was Cock A writing? It sounds a very old-fashioned attitude to take.

Btw, Margaret Forster (who mostly writes fiction) also writes about her family in the female line - it's really interesting though not academic, so no help if that is what you need. She does make a good case for seeing women as the keepers/censorers of family history, the ones who determine how the family mythology develops. I think she is right, too - women are often the ones who do the communication in families, aren't they?

As to other areas of research, I don't know if this is the kind of thing you mean, but in my area (looking at who read which books in the medieval period), it is standard to assume all authors and book-owners are male, unless there is hard evidence to suggest the contrary. Usually there is no evidence either way, of course. It drives me up the wall, because it's such a self-reinforcing attitude: if you assume the default is male, you end up with ridiculously skewed data about the proportion of authors/book-owners who were women.

ElephantsAndMiasmas Wed 01-Dec-10 15:18:47

That is so infuriating LRD. It seems you practically need a signed certificate in triplicate verifying that women have ever done anything other than get married, cook, clean, bear children, go to church and die virtuously.

LoudRowdyDuck Wed 01-Dec-10 15:22:22

grin Nice ring of Nazi Germany there elephants.

ElephantsAndMiasmas Wed 01-Dec-10 15:26:19

hmm yeah I suppose so! But it seems there is a crowd of the patriarchy David Starkey learned chaps ready to pooh-pooh any suggestion that if one woman owned a book (and wrote her name in it, say) maybe more than one did? Maybe lots? Likewise running a business, being well-educated, travelling widely, being up to date with science, pursuing astronomy etc etc etc.

LoudRowdyDuck Wed 01-Dec-10 15:27:32

Well <considers feminist response with care>, David Starkey is a bit of a twat.

RibenaBerry Wed 01-Dec-10 15:55:37

Gosh what tosh from the male writer.

Mind you, and as a complete aside from the twattery of his comments, I don't agree that you always know that someone's mother is their mother. Recent generations are littered with 'big sisters' who are actually unmarried mothers, and I suspect it goes back long before that. There was a mass scandal in my family when a relative tried to represent the family tree correctly (with one of my grandfather's 'siblings' correctly shown as his neice). Unless you've actually tracked down the birth certificate, I suspect a lot of these deceptions from further back have passed into accepted lore and aren't always unearthed.

I take the point though that paternity is far more dubious.

StewieGriffinsMom Wed 01-Dec-10 23:20:32

Message withdrawn at poster's request.

sparkle12mar08 Thu 02-Dec-10 07:57:26

Absolutely SGM. In my own tree one of my greatgrandfathers was given his mother's mother's maiden name as a proper middle name. This had the virtue of making him very easy to trace, and as you say, became extremely important to his own subsequent family. But Cock A in his book would deem this unimportant. However I've found that the passing on of grandmothers maiden names as middle names was actually very common throughout the Victorian period and it seems very obvious to me that this was a way of keeping a little bit of female influence going, and a way of ensuring that they were not just erased from history as Cock A would be happy to do.

In terms of his own place in the timeline he was researching from the sixties onwards and wrote his book in the late 1980. This was well before the advent of electronic sources on the internet and a time when what would today take about ten minutes on a computer might take two days research in an archive, or a week to wait for a reply to a letter. And yes, male line research is probably easier in those circumstances, when documentary evidence is male biased, but it was far from being the only way to research, even back then. I just can't get over the blithe dismissal of over half of the people and influences in his tree/history purely on the grounds of their sex.

Or perhaps I feel that way because I am female, because I would hate to be so calmly dismissed two or three generations down the line? Similarly, I have been far more impressed on the whole with what I've been able to discover about my female ancestors, given the times they lived in and the things they've had to bear. I'm rather less impressed with some of the men on my tree and they way they've treated the women in their lives - take the 36yr old chap living next door but one to a 5 yr old girl who ten years later has already fathered her child and marries her the month she turned 16. Who then, less than a year after she dies just four years later, goes on to marry a second wife aged just twenty, and when she dies a few more years later, goes on to marry another twenty year old girl when he is aged 64. The whole thing left a nasty taste in my mouth and a very bad feeling about it all.

I do wonder if my own female bias afects my research, well actually I know it does. But not at the expense of my male line stuff. If anything it ensures that I am particularly thorough in my work and thus complements and completes those areas. The one thing I bitterly regret is that I didn't get into it much earlier, when I had living female relative in older generations to talk to. Even if not for genealogy purposes I would encourage everyone to talk to their oldest female relatives urgently. You never know how long they'll be here, and the stories of their lives and their own mother's and grandmother's are irreplaceable when they have gone.

SantaIsMyLoveSlave Mon 06-Dec-10 18:32:24

Go on, who is Cock A? I am intrigued.

He is correct in as much as there is, once you get back far enough, very little evidence left of the existence or activities of women -- to the extent that older parish baptismal registers often don't even bother to record the name of a child's mother. But that's not really news to anyone. And it's a drawback in building up a full picture of your family through history, not a reason for redefining "family" to exclude those burdened by an extra X chromosome.

By his definition, presumably those of us unfortunate enough to be female don't have a family at all, as we aren't descended in an all-male line from a common male ancestor...? hmm

And I love the way he ignores all the evidence that in almost every society (Even the very traditional) shows that a remarkably high proportion of children have a biological father different from their social and legal father. Because it doesn't fit with his preconceived ideas of gender roles and What Women Should Be Like, not because he has any actual evidence or anything...

Sakura Tue 07-Dec-10 02:09:42

elephants, so true- the obsession with virginity, with fidelity in women (infidelity often punished by death), access to a husband's resources and status in return for her's all about the paranoia of the patriarchy, of men, of never really knowing whether they are supporting a cuckoo.

SantaIsMyLoveSlave Tue 07-Dec-10 10:42:01

Mind you, have just ordered the Margaret Ward book so Cock A has achieved another sale, just not of his book (PLEASE tell us who he is; I don't want to accidentally buy it).

SantaIsMyLoveSlave Tue 07-Dec-10 10:44:03

Actually, have probably ordered a completely different Margaret Ward book ( The Female Line), assuming that you were quoting from Starting Your Family History.

SantaIsMyLoveSlave Tue 07-Dec-10 10:49:50

Is it Terrick FitzHugh?

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