Sometimes women can be very hard to find, creating a lot of brick walls for their descendants. This does not mean that it is impossible. It just means you have to be resourceful and creative. In the March 23, 2012 episode of Who Do You Think You Are, Helen Hunt was lucky. Her great-great-grandmother, Augusta Barstow, left a lot of records. That was because she was actively involved in a lot of causes and organizations. Augusta was president of the Women's Christian Temperance Union, an organization that eventually resulted in the passage of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote.
My mother was born in 1905 when women were not allowed to vote. In 1920 at the age of 15 she was given the right to some day cast her vote along side of her brothers. I was born in 1940 when women were housewives and men ruled the roost. By the time I was in my 30"s women were gaining equal rights with men. Today my daughters take for granted the opportunities that are available to them. I only hope they realize how much their ancestors had to do with making that possible.
In the censuses taken before 1850, very few women were recorded by name. I think it would be safe to assume that many of these women were widows, especially if children were noted. And, they probably remarried before the 1850 census, thus changing surnames one more time, but not always. So, you need to do a little bit of detective work involving the census. If you have children listed with the same surname as the parents and one or more older children with a different surname, that is a clue that the mother might have been married before. However, it could be a sibling of the mother, which would indicate a maiden name. It was possible for a women to have several surnames in her lifetime beginning with her maiden name and ending with the surname of her last husband.
Other clues found in the census could also help determine a woman's maiden name. A person with a different surname living with the family and close in age to the mother might be a brother or sister. Possibly even a cousin. This gives you a name to look for in an earlier census. Take a look at the neighbors. Are they old enough to be the wife's parents. Could it be a sibling of the wife? Maybe the oldest son in a family has the same name as a neighbor old enough to be Grandpa! If you are lucky enough to have a family that stayed in the same place for a long period of time, you can go back and forth between the censuses and find the entire extended family. And don't forget that beginning with the 1880 census, in-laws were identified if they were living with a family.
Maiden names can be found on marriage licenses, birth certificates, and death certificates. On the first two, the information should be accurate since it is provided by the woman. On a death certificate, if the informant is the husband, you can be pretty confident that the information is correct. Anyone else, and you should verify the name with a little more research.
Wedding announcements, gossip columns, and obituaries in newspapers are excellent places to find information about women. Of course wedding announcements can provide parents' names, plus names of siblings and cousins. Obituaries usually give siblings names and sometimes parents' names. Gossip columns from early newspapers of the 1900's are notorious for telling who had a party and who was there -- especially in small communities! Newspapers also contain information about local women's organizations, church groups, and ethnic organizations.
Helen Hunt's great-great-grandmother not only generated many records for herself, she also was instrumental in creating situations that provided more records where we can find our female ancestors. You should be able to find membership records, minutes of meetings, correspondence, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, and photographs at local libraries and repositories. And, after women gained the right to vote, a whole new set of voting records was created. It seems to me that we owe Great-Great-Grandmother Barstow a great big thank you!
Don't forget, Friday, April 6, 2012, 8/7central. Who Do You Think You Are. Edie Falco traces her family and a mysterious Mr. Brown.