Researching your female ancestors can be difficult. Women can be hard to track because of the standard practice of changing their surnames after marriage. Many historical records also focus on men, with women listed only under their husbands’ names. Below we offer some guidance for researching female ancestors, including information about sources at the BPL and beyond that you may not have thought to check.
Ask anyone still living who might remember or have information about the woman you’re researching. Someone who knew her (relative, friend, neighbor, etc.) may know more about her, and someone who has a collection of records or other information about her family may be able to share it.
Check Different Names
Search for every possible name variation that you know of. Women may be listed under their maiden name, married name, a nickname, initials, their husband's name, or their name might be misspelled. If she was ever married, search for her married and maiden names. If she was married multiple times, try all of her married names.
Look at the Details
Pay attention to details in a record aside from a name. If other information in a record is correct (i.e. birth date and birth place, address, spouse's name,) even if the name is wrong it may be the right record anyway.
Look for Other People
Search for her husband, anyone else she might have been living with, or any known male associates. She may have lived with another relative (i.e. sibling, aunt/uncle, adult child, cousin, in-laws, etc.). She may also be listed as a witness or other participant in records involving her neighbors, friends, godparents/godchildren, or others she knew.
There are many types of records that can be useful when researching your female ancestors. Below are just a few of them.
Published local histories
- Histories of cities/towns, counties, and states
- May contain information about a woman's maiden name, parents, birth place, or descendants
- You can search for published local histories in the BPL's online catalog
Directories and member lists
- City directories, lists of residents, professional & trade directories, and society directories
- May contain information about a woman's education, occupation, birth place, professional awards, and club memberships
- Learn more about how to access these materials in the Directories section of the BPL's Genealogy Research Guide
- Eugenics Record Office records, insane asylum records, settlement house records, and tuberculosis sanitarium records
- May contain information about a woman's marital status, maiden name, children, birth place and birth date, place of death and date of death, medical history, education, occupation, physical description, and religious affiliation
- See the Archives section below for more information
- Notices repudiating wives’ debts, unclaimed mail notices, and women’s sections
- May contain information about a woman's maiden name, husband's name, marital status, address, and social life
- Learn more about how to access newspapers at the Newspapers at the BPL Research Guide
- Including: Daughters of Rebekah, National Association of Colored Women's Clubs, Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, and Young Women’s Christian Association
- May contain information about the member's names, ranks or offices within the organization, dates of membership, participation in meetings, and photographs
- Records for most of the above organizations will be held by institutions in the areas where individual chapters were located, see the Related Archives tab in the box below for more information
Here are a few books held by the BPL that can be useful in researching your female ancestors:
- The Hidden Half of the Family: A Sourcebook for Women's Genealogy by
- A Genealogist's Guide to Discovering Your Female Ancestors by
- Colonial American Doctresses: A Genealogical and Biographical Account of Women Who Practiced Medicine and Chirurgery in Colonial America by Ethel Smith
- America's Women in the Revolutionary Era: A History Through Bibliography by
BPL Research Guides
These research guides produced by BPL staff contain information about and links to records that may contain information about your female ancestors.
- Boston (City) Departmental Reports
- Boston Government History
- Boston Lists of Residents
- Boston Public Library: Historical Documents Online
- Boston Public Schools Historical Research
- Boston Tax Records: 1780-1821
- Directories (People) at the Boston Public Library
- Newspapers at the BPL
- Trade Catalogs at the Boston Public Library
- Vietnam War Resources at the BPL
- World War II Document Sets at the Boston Public Library
The databases listed below may contain newspapers and other records with information about female ancestors.
- 19th Century U.S. Newspapers, opens a new window- Provides access to primary source newspaper content from the 19th century, featuring full-text content and images from numerous newspapers from a range of urban and rural regions throughout the U.S.
- ArchiveGrid, opens a new window- Includes over three million records describing archival materials, bringing together information about historical documents, personal papers, family histories, and more.
- Archives of Sexuality & Gender- Contains documentation of LGBTQ history through fully-searchable newsletters, government documents, manuscripts, pamphlets, and other types of primary sources.
- The Boston Globe (1872-1990) via Proquest, opens a new window- The Historical Boston Globe collection offers both full page and article digital images in PDF format with searchable full text back to the first issue.
- Gale Newsvault, opens a new window- Allows users to simultaneously search or browse across multiple historical national and regional newspaper and periodical archive collections licensed from Gale.
- The Irish Times (1859-2020)- The Historical Irish Times collection offers both full page and article digital images in PDF format with searchable full text.
- The Jewish Advocate (1905-1990)- The Historical Jewish Advocate collection offers both full page and article digital images in PDF format with searchable full text.
- The New York Times (1851-2018), opens a new window- The Historical New York Times collection offers both full page and article digital images in PDF format with searchable full text back to the first issue.