It is National Women’s History Month. For most of us, the women in our families are nearly invisible and often history is presented in a series of vignettes that leave you with the appearance that it is men that make history. But from the earliest moments of recorded history, it has been both men and women who create the big flows of historical events and it is both men and women who make up our family histories and the life events around our ancestors in the Florida panhandle. Let’s take a quick ride through both in celebration of Women’s History.
In their roles as movers of history, women held down positions in two somewhat separate spheres-of-influence: 1) the home and local community and 2) the economic and political environment. As family historians, we often tend to focus on just the first when thinking about our female ancestors, maybe because some of them can be so difficult to tease out of the world of men they lived in and maybe because we are products of our own upbringing and environment. But also because genealogy, in a patriarchal world, tends to just focus on the paternal direct line up the tree. That’s unfortunate and simply a factor of social conventions and not hereditary facts. Each of us gets half of our genetic makeup from our mothers, more than half if you consider mitochondrial DNA. All children carry their mother’s mitochondrial DNA, as well as the maternal half of our chromosomal DNA. So, there are a number of reasons to “remember the ladies” as Abigail Adams exhorted her husband to do in 1776.
Gaining the Right to Vote
Let’s start with the second of the spheres-of-influence: the economic and political environment. Voting is a hot topic in the U.S. these days, not always for the right reasons. It is, at least on paper, considered a basic right in a representative democracy. But a large segment of America’s population had to fight for the right to vote: unpropertied white men, blacks men, Native Americans, and women of all colors fall into that category. Women in the United States struggled many decades before they finally managed to be granted suffrage in 1920. I found this ad in the Pensacola Journal, 29 Sept 1920, very enlightening as some of the women in the Florida panhandle began expressing their voting interests. A few years before, in 1917, female teachers made a compelling case for female teachers receiving equal pay and voting rights (see Resources below).
The first two decades of the 20th century were extraordinarily dynamic in the U.S., with a great deal of change occurring in both the sweep of history and in the microcosm of families. Working people were becoming much more politically active in furthering decent wages and working conditions and for women, this also included equal pay and voting. As family historians, we should not fail to look deeply at how these larger events impacted those in our family. Did our grandmothers and great-grandmothers advocate for women’s suffrage? And once given, did they vote or participate regularly in the voting of their community. I know my maternal grandmother worked regularly at the precinct voting place until it was moved from Yellow River Baptist Church, and she voted regularly. Since my grandfather could not vote, he lost his right to vote when he served time for bootlegging during the Depression, my grandmother felt it was even more important for her to exercise her right.
What Did Your Female Ancestor Do?
Did your female ancestors work outside the home? Was there an obvious reason for that? Was she a single head of household, a farmer’s wife helping to provide for the family, was she educated beyond high school and one of the local teachers, did she go to work during the WWII effort to mobilize women in the workforce and stayed in the workforce afterward, or did she serve in the military in WWII? Was she active in civic or advocacy work? If her work was at home, what was that like in any given week? On what did she likely cook, did she make all of the family’s clothes and if so was it by hand or on a sewing machine? Did she make quilts? Did she do any of these activities for sale to community members? How did she preserve the family’s food? What did she do when a family member was sick? Did she make some of her own remedies? Was there a doctor nearby? Asking the questions can provide ideas for finding the answers if family members don’t know or aren’t sure. Research the times and the places for clues about her daily life.
The Struggle to Do It All
World War II wasn’t the only war that moved women from the home sphere into the economic and political sphere; so did the War for Southern Independence (aka Civil War, aka War Between The States). Because the Florida panhandle was thinly populated between Pensacola and Tallahassee, the removal of nearly all the able-bodied men between 18 and 50 over the course of the war left women with little choice but try to keep the family alive and together as the war dragged on. Much has been written about the letters from home that troubled men in the Army and encouraged some to come home, with or without permission. And we do know that there were a good number of men in the panhandle of Florida hiding from conscription agents and militia rounding up deserters. These women had to do the farming, do all of their usual chores and raise and nurse the children when they were sick. It was hard going for these women and some did not succeed. This would have certainly been an area where the community support from neighbors might make the difference between life and death. From the records you’ve found on your female ancestors from this period, can you surmise the struggles she experienced?
The massive social changes that occurred after the War for Southern Independence and the significant gearing up of the Industrial Revolution led to a bit less heavy work at home for women but if they needed to produce income it likely decreased the opportunities. Women began to benefit from new equipment that was made for the home and made to industrialize what had once been activities done in the home or on a small, community scale. Some of the earliest transitions were thread and cloth. Thread had been made for centuries with spindles or treadle spinning wheels and cloth made on looms. While piece work was still done in the 19th century, it was rapidly moving from piece work in homes by women and their daughters to industrial activity on equipment that could be worked by men. We see a number of spinners and weavers in the 1870 Walton County census but that work opportunity is non-existent a decade later on the census. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t still done on some scale but it was no longer recorded.
Industrialization of Home Activities
The Singer treadle sewing machine hit the market just before the War for Southern Independence and by the late 19th century was something most households had or dreamed of having. It made the activities of clothing the family and quilt-making much easier and gave some women an opportunity to make money as a dressmaker. And then there was the kitchen, the center of the well-equipped household. Ice houses gave way to ice boxes (they really were insulated boxes with ice in the bottom) and ice boxes gave way to refrigerators. Large fireplaces that were heaters, stoves, and ovens gave way to wood-burning stoves and ovens and they gave way to gas and electric stoves and ovens.
The Florida panhandle was likely a bit slower to accept these changes; lack of wealth and credit not yet the way to buy everything were both driving factors, but it is hard for me to imagine that some of these items didn’t quickly seem essential. Speeding up the sewing process meant keeping up with the needs of growing children and keeping the family warm in winter. Ice boxes and refrigerators might mean less illness from tainted food and wood stoves likely meant fewer fires that took the family’s belongings up in smoke. Women’s roles in the household also made them a key constituent in the economic sphere of consumer goods.
Two of My Female Ancestors
I don’t have a lot of evidence that I had many female ancestors who were politically active before female suffrage. Most of them appear to have been farmers, millers, postmasters, and general store owners’ wives which placed their sphere-of-influence squarely in the home. But I do have two that very obviously lived differently than was the norm during their time. The first, Lydia Olive GASKINS, I wrote about, along with her husband, in 2016. After he died at the end of the War for Southern Independence, she filed for a widow’s pension and lived the rest of her life, raising her four children by herself. Her run-in with Yellow River Baptist Church over going to a dance tells me she did find time to get out of the house. I would imagine they raised some of their food but I’ve always wondered if she might have also done a bit of bootlegging. The upper Yellow River was known for its excellent quality of hooch, from the settling of Barrow’s Ferry right down to modern times. For some reason, Lydia Olive intrigues me. I carry her mitochondrial DNA so I do feel a bit more connection to her than some of my other female ancestors but her choices make me want to know more.
The other female ancestor that I have did not live in the Florida panhandle but in south-central Georgia. Margaret PITTS, also known as Peggy, was born in August 1815 in South Carolina and appears to have moved to Telfair Co, GA with her parents and grandparents. I believe she is part Native American, and several other researchers of this family agree with me. Her father and his parents are all listed as mulatto in the 1820 census and her father is not listed as the head of household in 1840 but his wife, who was white, is. He, and possibly one son, are listed as free persons of color. He either dies or leaves between 1840 and 1850 and she and her mother are never far from each other after that. There is never a male in Peggy’s household old enough to be a husband, though she has at least 8 children and maybe one more. For years I did keep thinking she married into the Pitts family and that the woman I now believe was her mother was her mother-in-law. Then I sent for the death certificate for her son, and my ancestor, John C. PITTS, and was surprised to find his father listed as Ephraim YAWN and his mother as Margaret PITTS. So far, a fair amount of circumstantial evidence supports that but no hard evidence yet.
Peggy was always head of household and this family, even when the children were grown, stayed in close touch with each other. In 1850, Ephraim YAWN was nearby, with his legitimate family. This would seem similar to my shared story in my last post. If she was Native American, or more likely part Native American, this might help explain the family dynamics. He had a legitimate white family. He died around 1869 and she never married anyone else that I can find but did list herself as widowed on the census. Her son John C named his oldest son John Ephraim, who was my ancestor. John E. stayed in Florida after his father came to Holmes County between 1880 and 1885, settled some land, and then went back to Georgia. But it is Peggy that fascinates me. I have much more research to do on her.
So, as we celebrate Women’s History Month this March, I will share a post about my paternal grandmother, a true one-of-a-kind woman of the 20th century and share a bit more social history on our female ancestors as they helped to keep the family warm and well. Meanwhile, pick a female ancestor and see what you can dig up by climbing her branch of your tree.
Until Next Time
- The Pensacola Journal, February 4, 1917, The Woman Educator and the Vote
- The Hidden Half of the Family, Christina Kassabian Schaefer
- A Genealogist’s Guide to Discovering Your Female Ancestors: Special Strategies for Uncovering Hard-to-Find Information About Your Female Lineage, Sharon Debartolo Carmack
- Bringing Your Family History to Life Through Social History, Katherine Scott Sturdevant
- At Home: The American Family 1750-1870, Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett