Where have all the women gone?

To mark International Women’s Day I wanted to have a look at the key records that we use to research our English & Welsh family history, and to consider how those records routinely under-represent the roles played by our female ancestors, both in domestic settings and in the workplace. This under-representation can be seen as a natural consequence of the patriarchal society in which our ancestors lived but it’s also sometimes the direct result of the legislation behind the creation of the records themselves.

It’s not difficult to find examples of this phenomenon. The very nature of the English legal system sees women habitually defined by their relationship to their male next-of-kin – ‘the wife of…’, ‘the widow of…’, ‘the daughter of…’ etc. – but we also need to examine the tendency to under-record evidence of women’s employment in the records.

Parish Registers

Prior to the mid-18th century, the legislation concerning the keeping of parish registers by the Church of England offered little in the way of guidance about what should actually be recorded in the registers. The legal requirement was simply to keep records of the baptisms, marriages and burials taking place in the parish and it was largely left up to the officials in each individual parish to decide how much information should be recorded.

The amount of detail varied greatly from parish-to-parish but while there was a marked improvement over time it’s not at all uncommon for baptismal registers in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries to record only the name of the child’s father. Similarly, with infant burials, on those relatively rare occasions where any parental details are recorded, it’s most often just the father’s name that appears in the register. The – let’s face it – rather important role of the mother here is effectively suppressed. At best this is an example of lazy record keeping; at worst it’s a denial of the pain and grief experienced by women who had suffered the loss of a child. Perhaps the cruelest example of this particular phenomenon is where the burials of stillborn children are recorded with phrases such as “The abortive daughter of John Smith…”.

Burial of the ‘abortive’ daughter of John Smith, St Edward, Leek. Staffordshire Record Office reference. D1040/5/1. Accessed via Findmypast

Other examples can be found throughout the Church of England’s parish registers, notably the custom of recording the burials of married or widowed women as ‘the wife of Thomas Brown’ or as ‘Widow Evans’, denying these women even the simple dignity of a forename.

The introduction of printed registers under the terms of Rose’s Parish Register Act of 1812, together with the earlier Hardwicke’s Marriage Act which specified the details to be recorded in marriage registers, saw the end of some of the worst practices in this area.

Census Returns

It’s very easy when looking at 19th century census returns to get the impression that most women lived a life of leisure and that in the majority of households, men were the sole means of financial support for the family. Yet we know from countless other contemporaneous sources that this is far from being the case.

In order to understand what’s going on here, we need to look at the instructions issued to the census enumerators. The following notes appeared in the instructions issued in 1841:

The profession, &c., of wives, or of sons or daughters living with their husbands or parents, and assisting them, but not apprenticed or receiving wages, need not be set down.

This policy was not advocated in later censuses but it’s possible that a principle had already been established. A long list of ‘Instructions for filling up the Column headed “RANK, PROFESSION, or OCCUPATION” was printed on the reverse of the householders’ schedules in 1851. The final item on the list was headed ‘WOMEN AND CHILDREN’ and included the following directions:

The titles of occupations of ladies who are householders to be entered according to the above Instructions. The occupations of women who are regularly employed from home, or at home, in any but domestic duties, to be distinctly recorded.

However, despite these clear instructions, it’s obvious, even from a cursory glance at the returns, that women’s employment is, by and large, under-recorded in the 19th century censuses.

1851 census, Aldenham, Hertfordshire. The National Archives reference: HO 107/1714 f.7 p.7.
It is extremely unlikely that Mary was not working with Henry, preparing leather, stitching, finishing etc.

Civil Registration

The introduction of civil registration of births, marriages and deaths in July 1837 led to a significant increase in the amount of detail recorded, compared with the equivalent Church of England parish registers.

The new civil birth registration records effectively granted women full ‘archival’ equality. In fact, whereas the mother of the child is always recorded, it’s the father whose name is occasionally missing from the certificates, specifically in the case of (some) illegitimate births. It’s also worth noting that mothers were frequently the informants, registering the births of their children.

But when it comes to registering the other two vital events (marriages and deaths) any sense of equality quickly disappears…

The form of the marriage certificate introduced in 1837 is still in use today. No provision was made to record details of the mothers of the bride and groom which, in addition to contributing to the invisibility of women in the records, makes researching our English & Welsh ancestors that much more challenging. Legislation to change this, and to include the name and occupation of the bride and groom’s mothers, is currently in the process of passing through Parliament and is scheduled to come into effect on 4 May 2021.

There’s a space on the standard marriage certificate to record the occupation of the bride but more often than not, this is left blank, although we know that the vast majority of working class women would have been actively employed at the time of their marriage, particularly the agricultural labourers and their urban cousins in the mills and factories.

Civil death registrations are where we see the worst manifestation of patriarchal Victorian attitudes. Married and widowed women were routinely described as ‘the wife of…’ or ‘the widow of…’  and children were described as the son or daughter of their father. And this was also the case with unmarried adult women. Perhaps the most startling example of this phenomenon is to be found on the death certificate of the nurse and statistician, Florence Nightingale in 1910. Florence is described as a ‘Spinster and Daughter of William Edward Nightingale (deceased) of Independent Means’. Florence was 90 years old and her father had died 36 years earlier.

Death certificate of Florence Nightingale, Mayfair, 1910. General Register Office SEP 1910 St George, Hanover Square vol.1a p.204


Roughly 20% of wills proved in England and Wales were left by women, but these are almost entirely those of spinsters and widows; wills of married women are conspicuous by their absence. And this is because prior to the passing of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1882, a woman’s personal property automatically became her husband’s on marriage. A marriage settlement (an agreement signed prior to the marriage) could provide some protection for a woman, but the vast majority of married women were entirely financially dependent on their husbands.

Wills can bring our ancestors to life in a way that other records, particularly those created by the Church and State, can never come close to achieving. When we read an ancestor’s will, we’re reading their words and hearing their voices. But due to the restrictions imposed by English law, around 30% of the adult population is unlikely to appear in the records, and the voices of these women are lost to us.

There’s no shortage of examples of the silencing of women’s stories in other record sets. Army service records and muster rolls, for example, give few clues to the huge contribution that women made to the regiments, providing vital services such as washing, mending and cooking. The names of these women, often the wives or daughters of serving soldiers are not recorded in the records, so their stories can’t be told.

‘Soldiers Cooking’, 1798 (c), Sepia aquatint after Thomas Rowlandson, British Army on Campaign 1798.
National Army Museum, Accession Number: NAM. 1983-11-63-1 (Out of Copyright)

As researchers, it’s our job to familiarise ourselves with these issues and, when researching our own ancestors, to attempt to fill in the gaps; to reconstruct the lives of our female ancestors and to understand and appreciate the crucial roles that they played, both in a domestic context and in the wider workplace.

© David Annal, Lifelines Research, 8 March 2021

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9 Responses to Where have all the women gone?

  1. Glenys Sykes says:

    Thank you for another interesting and thought-provoking piece.
    I am currently transcribing Marriage Registers (for FreeREG) for the early 1850s for the parish where I was born and grew up. Many of my ancestors were from the small village in the Black Country and at that time hand nailmaking was the main local business, much of it done in domestic workshops attached or adjacent to homes. I know from Censuses and other sources that women and children, from as young as seven or eight, were nailers, as well as the men. Some of the men had outside jobs – in the local quarry or mines, in addition but women carried on nailmaking (chain-making in adjacent villages) around their domestic duties and child-rearing. So I’m finding it very interesting that in the 150 marriages I have transcribed so far, not a single one records any occupation for the bride.
    Two of the regular witnesses to many marriages were a local grocer and his daughter, Thomas and Emma Smith who lived close enough to the church to be able to stand witness for couples who did not provide their own witnesses. Both were literate enough to sign, unusual in this village at this time. So I was very interested to transcribe the marriage of the same daughter and to see that no occupation was shown for her. The 1851 Census, taken one year before the wedding, has her listed as a shop assistant in her father’s shop, opposite the church, perhaps the Vicar didn’t shop there! Another bride was listed in the 1851 census as a dressmaker but, again, no occupation was entered for her in the Register. I had already noted, whilst transcribing Baptisms for the same parish, that mothers of illegitimate children never had any occupation recorded, even though they were almost certainly engaged in nail making, with their families, since childhood and were recorded as such in censuses.
    So it appears that there was a consistent policy on the part of the church in completing the Register of ignoring any occupation of women, even skilled ones, whereas even the humblest occupation of the men is faithfully recorded. Another instance where the official record keeping treated women differently to men, even where there was a column in which this information could and should have been recorded and incidentally depriving family historians of later generations of information which would potentially add to the picture of their lives.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for this Glenys. It’s good to see a worked example of this phenomenon. I mean, it’s NOT good, but.. well, you know what I mean!


      • Glenys says:

        This has got me thinking about other such patterns in the Marriage Registers. I’m now up to 214 marriages in this register and had noticed that, of the two witnesses to each marriage, the first witness always seemed to be a man. If a woman was a witness, even if the man was the usual church witness Thomas Smith and therefore presumably unrelated to the couple and the woman appeared to be a family member, who you might think would be of more importance to the couple, the man was first witness. Even if the witnesses appeared likely to be a married couple, there was no ‘After you, my dear’ for the lady, the man signed first!
        So this morning, out of interest, I ran my eye down the column for first names of witnesses. And, quel surprise, all the first witnesses were men. I was slightly more surprised to realise that all the second witnesses were women! One in each column only had an initial so they cancelled each other out. I did think for a moment when I found a Noah as a second witness that I had found a man but Noah rang a bell and when I checked I had also transcribed her marriage in the same Register. Noah was a woman.
        I have to wonder now whether there was a conscious policy of having a man and a woman as witnesses, perhaps a practice just in this parish, I haven’t transcribed any other parishes but may mention it in one of our transcribers’ newsletters to see whether others have noted it.
        But in the meantime, it appears, men as witnesses were consistently more important than women. As my archivist daughter commented to me, unsurprised, when I mentioned the issue of brides’ missing occupations, she merely considered this another example of ‘the institutionalised misogeny of the Church of England’.


        • That’s a great find. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such a strict pattern when it comes to witnesses.


          • Glenys Sykes says:

            Following on from this, I am now transcribing some Marriage Registers for a Methodist church from 1907 -1924. You may not be surprised to hear that suddenly, especially from early 1915, many of the brides have occupations! It may partly be because the Methodist church or even this Minister, was more open to the importance of the roles of women in society, more prepared to accept that some, many women did have work. Or perhaps the Registrar General advised that this information should be noted, I may try to find some Anglican Marriage Registers for the period to see whether this happens in those, too. Some are clearly war related, including a bomb riveter and another in munitions but I have also found many in other occupations including a Nut and Bolt Warehousewoman , a school teacher and numerous women in shop and factory jobs. How long they kept those jobs after the war is another matter, of course but it is another thing which makes transcribing so interesting in terms of social history to be able to observe these changes.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Beth Walsh says:

    Thanks for calling out the patriarchy once again. The more we do, the better chance there is to eliminate be erased from culture again.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. David Wharton says:

    William Waylett, the male midwife of Lydd in Kent, kept a notebook of births 1757 to 1815. The vast majority give only the father’s name.

    Liked by 1 person

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