Earlier this week, on the eve of International Women’s Day, I read an article on so-called “mill girls” in the current issue of the BBC Who Do You Think You Are? magazine. It mentioned the suffragette Annie Kenney (1879–1953), who spent 15 years as a Manchester mill worker before becoming a prominent figure in the WSPU.
My first response on reading about Kenney’s life was to indulge in a brief fantasy about finding someone like her in my own family tree. This led to the vaguely disturbing thought that even if she’d been there herself, I might well have overlooked her historical significance. How worryingly easy would it be, after seeing a mill worker on a couple of decades’ worth of census forms, to pigeonhole her as “yet another working-class woman in my tree about whom I can never find out much” before moving on, oblivious, to look up another name?
All right, I’m maybe underselling my skills a bit there for the sake of the theory; I am, in fact, reasonably methodical, so hopefully wouldn’t have missed Kenney’s importance if I’d been lucky enough to find her in my tree. But it did give me pause to imagine how easily an interesting female ancestor could slip through the net, given the pressures of time and the fact that most family historians do tend to focus on male ancestors. There’s just, broadly speaking, a lot more information available about men. We all know this, therefore we expect to find less about women, and therefore (I reckon) we’re in danger of unthinkingly slipping into the habit of working that little bit harder at researching men. I’m sure I’ve done this now and then, and I’m someone who actually does find women interesting (sadly not a given in the family history community).
All this can be hugely frustrating – somehow, though, before the train of thought sparked by Annie Kenney, I’d never seriously considered changing my approach to make a point of prioritising the women in my tree. After all, why not? So I might not find as many mentions in town records or obituary columns. So what? It’s not really about spectacular results or box-ticking, anyway; it’s largely about the process of searching, thinking about human nature, putting lives in context.
At this point it occurred to me that there was probably lots of stuff online about feminist approaches to family history. I searched. There wasn’t. Unbelievable, no? Possibly I didn’t look hard enough (it was late), but I was really surprised by the handful of tenuous hits I got. I fell back on habit and asked about it on Mumsnet, where someone directed me to this interesting thread. Then I started thinking, for the millionth time, about how I really should read more on feminism; and finally I decided to put it all together, tie the reading loosely in to the research, and start this blog. International Women’s Day spurred me on. I’ve ordered Sheila Rowbotham’s Hidden from History from the library (thanks to MNer sethstarkaddersmum for suggesting the book) … and we’re off.