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Reading the Lives of Women through Their Obituaries: With Tips for Searching in Historical Newspapers

Michelle Harper

Director, Product Management, Readex

"In the management of her household, she displayed every good quality necessary to form a prudent and beloved Mistress of a family—regularity and order, neatness and exactness," said the Pennsylvania Gazette about Ann Ross, who died in 1773.

Historical obituaries record what society deems to be of value in a person's life. Death may be the great equalizer but class and gender shape what is remembered and valued. Frederic Endres suggests that studying obituaries "may tell something about the cultural values of a given society, as well as something about the values and attitudes and vocational socialization of the editors who wrote and published the obituaries." [1] Although women's obituaries are generally shorter than men's and are shaped by gender stereotypes, they are one of the few sources that allow insight into the lives of women and their changing roles over time.

In the late 18th century, women were described mostly in terms of their domestic attributes and Christian virtue. Women were judged primarily in terms of three categories: as wives, mothers and as domestic managers. If a woman had a role outside of the home, it was primarily through church activities. It is common to find many obituaries where women are pictured as being blessed with many children, faithful, as a dutiful wife or daughter and praised for their regular church attendance.

During the Civil War, women's roles began to expand and this was reflected in their obituaries. In 1861 Isabella Beeton, author of the 19th century classic "Mrs. Beeton's Book of Household Management," coined the term "Household General" to indicate a woman's dominance over the household. Being a good housekeeper and practicing excellent domestic economy became increasingly important, particularly in the newly impoverished South. The home took on increasing importance as a place of solace and women drew praise for being able to create a comfortable shelter from the outside world.

Click for larger view of full obituary

In the late 19th century, women's most important public roles were as social reformers. The 1880 obituary of the famous abolitionist and women's rights activist Lucretia Mott in the Philadelphia Inquirer began with the simple declaration "Lucretia Mott is dead." It went on to list her many accomplishments in great detail, citing many of Mott's own writings and speeches. However, this was a rarity in historical newspapers, where even suffragists were often described in terms of their relationships with the men in their lives with sparse mention of their own contributions to society.

On the other hand, local newspapers were more likely to present a fuller picture of women's roles, especially if the women had a prominent role in the community. Very often these were clergymen's wives.

Frequently a woman's obituary recorded the public or business accomplishments of a husband or father in great detail. If a woman remained unmarried, she was often described in terms of her support for a father's or brother's accomplishments. If she were married, the virtues commemorated were those deemed to be important to help her husband in his career. Such women were said to be "graceful," "vivacious," "a good hostess" and of pleasing manners.

Also in the late 19th century, more women had occupations and interests outside the home and this was reflected in their obituaries. Traditional occupations for women included teaching and nursing, and for some gifted women, writing was also an acceptable occupation. If a woman remained unmarried, it was a fact that was noted and remarked on. Men were also expected to marry, and it was remarked on as "unfortunate" if they did not, but it did not draw the same comment as a woman remaining unmarried, which was often dwelt on at great length.

While the lives of "virtuous" women were recorded in greater numbers, perhaps some of the more interesting obituaries are those of "notorious" women such as Mary McGlumphrey, who "fell into a life of sin" after she was deserted by her husband when their second child was born. Reflecting a trend to sensationalism, Mary's life of petty crime and as a keeper of houses of ill fame is recorded in much detail by the Wheeling Register in 1895. Known to be quick-tempered and of a "vicious disposition," Mary shot a "well known man about town" called Pat Quinlan as he was trying to force his way into her home. Later, she served a prison term for knifing a tenant but was reportedly quite well to do at the time of her death.

Lest the reader become too intrigued by the tale, the obituary writer remarks solemnly, that Mary "was said to be possessed of many personal attractions;" however, "every trace of beauty disappeared through the succeeding years of debauchery and dissipation." He ends by assuring the reader that it is probable that while serving out her sentence she recalled all the circumstances of her past life and determined to reform. At any rate, when released she appeared to be truly penitent and it is said that she cried bitterly and advised her old associates to give up their life of sin.

Such obituaries were designed both to titillate and to provide a moral example to the reader. These are only a few examples of women's stories that may be found in historical newspapers. In America's Historical Newspapers, millions of obituaries covering over 273 years can provide invaluable information to students and scholars studying the lives of women.

Tips for Finding Women's Obituaries in Historical Newspapers

It can be tricky to find women in obituaries. Increase your odds of success by searching by both given name and husband's names. Often women were listed by their husband's names and the title, "Mrs.," such as Mrs. John McNeal or Mrs. J. McNeal instead of by their first and last name. Even Harriet Beecher Stowe was sometimes referred to as Mrs. Stowe by newspaper writers.

And in an era where spelling was not standardized, names may be spelled differently with variations such as Mary M'Glumphrey for Mary McGlumphrey. Try using wildcard and truncation search operators. Wildcarding, or truncation, is the use of certain symbols (? or *) to replace one or more letters or characters in a search term. For example, you search for St*nbock, instead of limiting your results to Steinbock. This allows for greater flexibility in searching and increases your chances of finding a hit.


Works Cited and Consulted

[1] Endres, Frederic F. "Frontier Obituaries as Cultural Reflectors: Toward 'Operationalizing Carey's Thesis." Journalism History, 11 no. 3-4, (1984): 54.

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