by Carolyn L. Barkley

I’m writing this evening from my hotel room in Manchester, New Hampshire, at the end of day one of the New England Regional Genealogical Conference: “Woven in History – the Fabric of New England.” Although I have lived in Virginia for many years (with brief stops in Pennsylvania and West Virginia along the way), my roots are in New England, Massachusetts and Connecticut specifically. Therefore, it is particularly exciting to be surrounded by so many people (word is that registration is more than 850) who are researching in the same general geographical area.

The opening general session, “Millhand Migrations to 19th Century Lawrence and Lowell,” was presented by Sandra MacLean Clunies. It provided an excellent introduction to the conference theme. I was attracted to the topic as my Portuguese grandfather was a loom mechanic in a New Bedford cotton mill (where my grandmother was also employed), albeit in the 1920s. This lecture began what turned out to be a “day about the ladies,” as I attended sessions about research concerning the women in our families.

I was particularly interested in Ms. Clunies’ information about the New England farm daughters, aged 16-25, who were recruited to work in the mills of Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts, in the early and mid-1800s. So many “answered the call” that by 1831, 39,000 women were employed in the several mills that were in operation by that time, mills – Pacific Mills, Atlantic Mills, the Pemberton Mill, and the Merrimack Mill, among others.

Awareness of this movement of young women from the farm to the mill might prove very important to your research. For example, you are searching in the 1830 or 1840 census for one of the New England states and are trying to compare the children’s names and ages you previously have documented in a particular family with the number of children of each gender and age category for a specific head of household identified in the census. You might analyze the enumerated children , however, and assume that the family was not the correct one due to one or more missing females who you expecteto find listed in the age categories 15 to 20 or 20 to 30. If, however, you had been previously aware of the textile recruitment programs and the number of young women who subsequently became employed in the industry, however, your criteria for analysis could be adjusted accordingly.

A lecture by Laura Prescott, “Spinsters and Widows: Gender Loyalty within Families,” provided my second look into research about our female ancestors. This lecture began by outlining the trends affecting women in the nineteenth century: migrational, educational, intellectual, literary, social, industrial, and legal. We often consider “spinster” a slightly perjorative term, however a spinster has had many definitions over time. Ms. Prescott shared the “Spinsters Numeration Table,” originally published in The Idler, and Breakfast-Table Companion (13 January 1838; available now on Google Books) with its humorous look into such definitions.The article states, “…it is from seventeen, however, that the numerals figuring the age of our spinster friends become emblematical of their persons and qualifications…the spinster of 17 – vast notions of a love-match. Enthusiastic… [age] 21 – beginning to understand the meaning of the word younger brother. Anxious to postpone my sister’s debut…28 – Nose a little red before breakfast. Thinks it possible to marry a widower…31 – Waist increase, smiles diminished by a speck upon a front tooth…34 – Flattered by the attentions of a boy of eighteen…” The observations continue until age 55 when, perhaps, an unmarried woman was considered hopeless with regard to her marital future. More serious and significant to our female line research, however, is the fact that the term “spinster,” more than describing a woman’s marital status, may instead describe her legal status as a woman with her own rights and property, a woman who was responsible for herself. (Christina Schaeffer’s Hidden Half of the Family (1999, Genealogical Publishing Co., reprinted 2008) provides a state-by-state listing of women’s rights and when pertinent legislation was enacted.) This legal concept shifts our view of the power of nineteenth-century women through deeds, wills, and personal accounts, and widens the scope of our research to include not only maiden aunts, but also any woman with property, including women with children.

My final lecture for the day was Lisa Alzo’s “Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters: Researching Your Female Lines.”  This lecture provided a good overview of why the females in our families often represent the most difficult research problems. Perhaps the message that was most compelling in Ms. Alzo’s presentation was that each of us has an obligation to not only research our female ancestors, but to write about them, sharing their stories, and giving a voice to the often silent women in our families. This opinion echoes the RootsTech conference message that every individual has a right to be remembered and cannot be unless his, or in this case her, story is discovered and shared.

This conference is another example of the quality life-long learning experiences that are available to each of us as genealogists. NERGC occurs every two years, with the next conference scheduled for April 2015 in Providence, Rhode Island. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s comments on day 2 from Manchester.

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