Guest Post: Turning the hearts of the children

the family plot
Guest Post by StarFoxy

I did not grow up in a feminist household. My parents (read: Dad) are strict conservatives, and would likely even call themselves anti-feminist. But while my Dad doesn’t call himself feminist, something has definitely changed.

When I was in high school my parents were called to serve in the stake family history center. Their advanced age, lack of young children and moderate computer skills were big selling points and they remained in that calling for several years. In the time since then my Dad has thrown himself into his family history with great gusto. After retirement he started spending 2-5 hours daily doing family history
research.

Because he spends so much time working on it, family history is his favorite topic of conversation. In the past few months especially I’ve noticed a trend, I would come home from visits to my parent’s house with stories about awesome women (women I’m related to!), and kept thinking to myself “I’ve gotta write a post about that!”

Now, surely, I have just as many male relatives as I do female relatives, but dad doesn’t tell stories about them. There are several possible reasons;

1. Maybe the men in my family history are simply a very mediocre bunch.
2. Perhaps since women’s lives were so constricted the awesomeness threshold is much lower for women, the mere act of thriving or surviving made them awesome.
3. Perhaps my Dad tells more stories about women because those are the ones that interest him most.

Options one and two are plausible, but, in my opinion, option three is the most probable.

I think it all started because my Dad prides himself on being thorough and meticulous. He likes getting *every* piece of information that he can. Due to the practice of women taking their husband’s name, finding information about women is difficult. The name on the birth certificate is different than the name on the death certificate. This is further complicated by additional marriages, divorce, abandonment, and so on.

In order to fill in all the blank boxes on the forms my Dad had to do a great deal of research about individual women. In obtaining the same amount of basic facts, he’s done more research about his female ancestors than his male ones, and he’s come to empathize with his female ancestors.

He is baffled and frustrated by documents that name a couple as “John Doe, & Wife” or similar. Just the last time I was home he was talking about a particular woman whose name he was looking for, and he had nothing to go on. Even her gravestone called her ‘Mrs. John Doe.’ About which my dad exclaimed “That was a person for crying out loud! It’s like she didn’t even exist.”

He’s also noted the birth records for individual women and been appalled at how rapidly children came (and went). He’s talked about how awful it must have been to have 11 babies in 11 years. He understands that women often had no other choice- if they were married they more or less had to accommodate their husbands, husbands who frequently had little regard for the health and welfare of their wives.

He is also taken aback by the role insane asylums played in the lives of women. Women were institutionalized whether they were insane or not, and even then the definition of insane for women was often as little as “isn’t happy about having 11 kids in 11 years.”

All of this has conspired to soften his stance on women’s roles and expectations. He’s more forgiving of mothers who have jobs or fewer kids. He’s more appalled at domestic violence, and how society still doesn’t do right by women.

My dad’s heart has turned, but not to his fathers; his heart has turned to his mothers.

Note: Picture is of the Alcott family plot in Concord, MA

Jana

Jana is university administrator and History professor. Her soloblog is http://janaremy.com/pilgrimsteps/

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No Responses

  1. kicam says:

    I love this post! It is refreshing to hear that a man, of any generation, can appreciate the lives of our ancestral sisters.

  2. Janna says:

    The last line of your post brought a lump to my throat. The thought that little old “us” could actually impact a man. Now there’s an idea…

  3. Caroline says:

    Way to go, family history! Who would have thought that that activity could make a man more sensitive to women’s issues. Very cool post, Starfoxy.

  4. CatherineWO says:

    Thank you for this post. I have spent most of the past year researching and writing stories of my female ancestors, and I have run across all the same things your dad has. A few of the stories are tragic and others have their triumphs, but all of them tear at my heart. Most wrenching are the stories of women who either never married or married but had no children. These women are the most difficult to find. It truly is as if they never existed. I call them my “lost sisters.”

  5. Anita says:

    Love it! I know how excited I was to finally discover the maiden name of one of my ancestors–opens up a whole new line of research. The people really come alive when you can think like your dad “Wow, 11 babies in 11 years!” instead of just noting the names and dates. Adding the human content to the facts–“how sad that must have been to have her daughter die on her husband’s birthday!”–is so meaningful. Thanks for reminding us.

  6. Lindsey says:

    I love it. And that’s coming from someone who’s only had three kids in 3.5 years.

  7. EmilyCC says:

    This is beautiful, Starfoxy. Thank you for sharing!

  8. Violet says:

    Love this post. Just beautiful! Thank you!

  9. esodhiambo says:

    Lovely post.

    I would add, however, that not every woman who had a baby a year would have blamed it on the husband. I am sure there were many who felt that was their very purpose (or expected some to die later and were doing it as insurance). I don’t think it’s entirely fair to blame it on an uncaring husband. Of course, I know a woman or a few who have had and wanted many more children than the husband would have chosen to have.

  10. Cynthia L. says:

    I really enjoyed this, Starfoxy.

  11. Ziff says:

    Thanks, Starfoxy. I really like this post. It can surprise me what will awaken latent feminism in different people. I would never have guessed family history would do it.

  1. May 9, 2009

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