Family History and Gender

What does an analysis of family history and gender reveal for a specific time period, geographical location, social class status, and racial/ethnic community? Writing in 1990 about “Beyond Separate Spheres: Feminism and Family Research,” Myra Ferree wrote, “Gender theory explains how specific behaviors and roles are given gendered meanings, how labor is divided to express gender symbolically, and how diverse social structures – rather than just families – incorporate gender values and convey gender advantages” (p. 868). She also emphasized recognizing “the diversity of family forms by race and class.”

I will suggest a few areas family historians might analyze by gender, then give an example of a pattern a historian found in his own family.

Household as distinct from family: Members of a household may overlap with who is related to whom, but these concepts are not synonymous, such as in the case of divorce or remarriage of a parent. Census records can be used to identify second marriages, servants, hired laborers, multiple families living in one household, boarding houses, and so forth. Ferree points out that the gender significance of households as distinct from family is that they may redefine prevailing gendered conceptions of work and responsibility within the household. For example, an absent parent may take up parenting responsibilities less than or differently from one who is present; a servant likely takes up much of the domestic work. Two unmarried members of the same sex in a household may (or may not) be gay or lesbian. Paying attention to ways in which household membership differ from family can open up questions.

Marriage and childbearing. It is easy to estimate the ages of spouses from census records, and the number of children they have. Of course, the census does not specify who actually gave birth to (or fathered) the children in the family, obscuring things like adoptions, children born out of wedlock, and so forth. However, one can still get clues as to the relative status of men and women from these data. Depending on cultural context, bearing a large number of children may indicate the expectation that women’s work is in the home (unless servants in the home help care for them), and that it is not necessary to educate women formally. On the other hand, giving birth to a large number of children may augment a woman’s status, depending on cultural context. A significant age gap between husband (older) and wife (younger) may indicate more status among men. Be careful not to over-interpret individual cases, but use them to explore wider patterns that may have existed.

Unmarried adults. Are there unmarried adults in the family tree? If so, are they more likely to be men or women? Who do they live with? What kind of work did they do? Was it acceptable for unmarried women to live alone, for example? Were there unmarried women with children in the family tree? If so, what can you determine about their living circumstances? Their income? You may find that unmarried women had opportunities for work that married women did not have, for example. 

What happens after death of a spouse. Are there any patterns in what happened to a widow or widower after the death of a spouse? In my own family tree, for example, I found two great-great-grandmothers who remarried, but the circumstances seemed different. The one who lived in the Midwest remarried several years after her first husband died; the other, who lived in the South, remarried (twice) immediately after her husbands died. Wondering why, especially why the one who lived in the South remarried so quickly, I discovered differences in state laws regarding women’s property rights. The one who remarried immediately did so for survival, having no right to property, even property she brought into the marriage; the other who waited several years seemed to have better property rights.

Ownership of property. You might not be able to tell much about gender and property ownership from the census, but perusing through deeds records and wills will give you an idea of the extent to which women owned property. It’s useful to check what you find against state laws at that time regarding women and property ownership.

Work. From the census, you can get a preliminary idea of who did what kind of work, and which gender had access to what kind of work, although census data only give you an approximation. Married women are often described as “keeping house,” which obviously involves work, although not paid work. In a discussion of what she calls the “politics of counting,” Ferree points out that the census tends to under-count women’s contributions to family economy, such as sewing for others in an informal economy or selling small amounts of crops from a family garden. Even the concept of “keeping house” means different things in different context. In wealthy families, servants may be doing most of the work; in families with few economic means, both spouses may hold jobs, and “keeping house” may seem like an unaffordable luxury.

Membership in organizations outside the home. Finally, through things like church records, digitized newspapers, diaries, letters, and so forth, try to identify any organizations men and women belonged to outside the home. What was the nature of any such organizations? Who belonged, and what did the organizations do? You may find, for example, women’s service organizations organized through the church, women’s auxiliary organizations, or political action organizations. To what extent did any such organizations open up opportunities or destabilize patriarchal relationships? To what extent did they reinforce existing gendered relationships?

P. Bradley Nutting reports an interesting study that illuminates an aspect of white middle class men’s and women’s lives in the nineteenth-century Great Lakes region of the U.S. By pursuing an entry in his family Bible, he noticed a great-grandfather who had been absent from the family for extended periods of time. Looking into this situation, asking questions such as those above, he realized that not only did men and women tend to live in separate spheres (termed the “cult of success” and the “cult of domesticity”’ p. 330), but that men’s extended absences due to work created a pattern of semi-nuclear families he called “absent husbands, single wives.” While husbands were away for long periods of time, the wives stayed near home, but in that context assumed a tremendous amount of authority over the family. He suggests that this pattern gradually led to an elevation of the power of women and a decline of patriarchal authority.

Let me just stress once more the importance of not over-interpreting individual pieces of information about family history and gender. As you trace your own family history and try to figure out how its story relates to a wider context, keep your mind open to possibilities and look for as much information you can find to substantiate any conclusions you come to.


Myra Marx Ferree, 1990. “Beyond separate spheres: Feminism and family research.” Journal of Marriage and the Family, 52: 866-884.

P. Bradley Nutting, 2010. “Absent husbands, single wives: Success, domesticity, and semi-nuclear families in the nineteenth-century Great Lakes world.” Journal of Family History 35(4), 329-345.

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