Archive for the ‘Women’ Category

After sixteen years researching my families on three sides – mother, father and stepfather – there’s no doubt the folk I enjoy discovering the most are the naughty ones. Those who broke society’s rules, willingly or not.

Many of my researcher friends say the same, but there are plenty of others who find ancestral transgressions hard to think about. It’s interesting to consider why there’s such a need for rosey specs when we build the lives and characters of our relatives beyond the bare bones of BMDs.

I guess we all prefer to feel proud of our kin and often that means being able to tell positive stories of work success, personal achievement, happy marriages, warm homes and plenty to eat, much like the Christmas Round Robin.

For people my age, born in the fifties, and particularly for the next generation back, there’s still a powerful fear of social shame even though society has changed so much since our childhoods. The old stigmas that tainted so many lives in the past can still hold sway: being ‘illegitimate’, an unmarried mother, divorcee, deserted wife, on the dole – or simply poor. Not to mention gay. Or criminal – lugged to court or serving time. Women who ‘slept around’ or left their husbands were scandalous, even when escaping violence (which of course was never spoken of).

All these pulls of shame can still operate when we discover an ancestor was one of the above – there can be an anxious urge to tug a curtain over vintage shame. But I’ve found myself becoming increasingly proud and happy with my family transgressors. Maybe that’s because I’ve found so many of them, especially on my father’s side. First in the league is my great-granny Isabella Clavering, whose life was so eventful I’m currently writing a novel based on her life.

As a taster (far from the complete story), I now know that Isabella’s second husband, William Danforth (a south Yorkshire steelworker) married her bigamously, that his first wife Elizabeth Ellen had run off with another man, steelworker Richard Price, and lived with him ‘as married’ until his death. I’ve found that Isabella’s sister Dora ran off to Scotland with another steelworker, Charles White and also lived with him ‘as married’ until her death, while he stayed in contact with his legal wife and three children in Sheffield.

Effectively triple bigamy in one family. Maybe it was part of a steelworker’s job description.

To add to that, Elizabeth Ellen returned with ‘husband’ Richard to her birthplace Hoyland Nether in Yorkshire, and he died there (what?). Her legal husband Bigamous Bill Danforth returned there too from Glasgow after Isabella’s death, to live with his son from his first marriage (what?). For the last few years of his life, Bill and Ellen were living within a few doors of each other in Hoyland (what?). As for Charlie White, after Dora died, he married twice more in Glasgow, the last one, Annie, being only 22 when he was 62. And Annie went to visit Charlie’s Sheffield family in the 1930s, probably at the time of his death in 1938 (what?).

All those whats relate to the fact that bigamists and family-deserters never normally returned to their old haunts or kept contact with those left behind. My family seem to have made a habit of it.

I’m delighting in all this non-conformity, and it certainly makes for good plot-lines in the novel, but I do wonder how other descendants of Bella, Bill, Richard, Ellen, Dora and Charlie might feel about their ancestors’ transgressions being laid bare with scant rosiness applied. It comes down to a question all family researchers have to face – how much truth to tell.



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Since I moved to Sheffield in March, I’ve started to write a novel. It’s based on the life of my favourite ancestor, already mentioned several times on this blog – great-granny Isabella Clavering (1845-1906).

The facts about Bella that I’ve collected work well as a ready-made chapter list and there’s a consistent theme in her life that can be woven in : secrets and lies. She also experienced a dreadful amount of bereavement, so much it’s a challenge to think how I can introduce humour and positive notes. No-one will fight their way through to the end if it’s unceasing tragedy. We don’t relish death and melodrama in the way the Victorians did.

Now that I’m picturing her as a real person and not a set of dry facts, I see an incredibly resolute and strong woman, to have survived what she did.

But of course, she was not alone with these challenges in the late 19th century. At that time, the majority of people in Britain were in the ‘working classes’ or, even worse, among the destitute. The dividing line between those two states was fine and porous. A drop to the very bottom was easy for anyone. I can still remember how that felt in my own time, when my father was too ill to work, reliant on a ‘sick club’ that paid him a few shillings a week for only a short period. And how the older generation in the sixties, who’d grown up in the pre-welfare-state, worried mightily about how their children would pay for a burial. Many took out small insurance policies just for that, doing without essentials to cover the cost. It accompanied the terrible prospect of a ‘pauper’s grave’ if no provision was made during life.

So, in trying to picture great-granny Bella’s life in 1870s Manchester, I’m trying to see the ordinary details of every poor city-woman’s life back then, not just hers. I’ve discovered quickly how little I know. Questions fill my head. She had babies – were there nappies? How did baby poo get disposed of? Where was the nearest drinkable water? How was food prepared – was it just bought, as pies and fish-and-chips perhaps? Or was their only food bread? How did she do her hair? Did she have a mirror, or brush? What clothes did she possess? Maybe just one dress?

I haven’t considered a work-life for her yet because in the 1870s she appears to have helped out at her brother-in-law’s pub, the Crown and Anchor in Lever Street, Manchester. But it might be easier for me as a writer if she’d had occupations – servant, mill-worker, dressmaker, charwoman, etc. – because books have been written about 19th century female occupations, providing helpful details (though any or all could have been euphemisms for the oldest job in the world. It’s not beyond possibility that Isabella did as so many other women, turning to the street for income when she had no other option).

But, from a first look around, it doesn’t appear that many books have been written about the lives that most poor and working-class women had in their own domestic environments. Those mundane, ordinary details, even as basic as the location of a loo, or a sink, seem barely documented. Go up a step to middle-class and much more was written about women’s lives (or how they were supposed to live), both at the time and since. Newspapers at that period are full of stories and adverts we can use as guides, but not for writing the life of a poor woman, unless she got hauled before magistrates for soliciting, thieving, drunkenness or fighting.

I’ll gladly hear of suggestions from readers for books and articles that throw light on poor city-women’s lives during the full onslaught of industrialisation, in the last quarter of the 19th century up to the first war. Otherwise, I’ll have to rely on my own imagination to conjure up the missing details. But how can any of us know, from our present-day experience, how our ancestors lived 150 years ago? That question leads me to the sad thought that no matter how many ‘facts’ we dig up, we can never pay our foremothers the full respect they’re due, of really ‘knowing’ them.

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In 2008, during BBC4’s ‘Medieval Mind’ series, TV historian Michael Wood presented what I consider the best single historical TV programme, ever. It shows us in words and pictures the ordinary lives of ordinary people in a period we usually only know from stories of kings, queens and warring nobles. Michael explains and demonstrates how people lived on a daily basis – their homes, food, animals, faith – and the disasters that beset them, killing vast numbers, in the 14th century. He shows how these details of ordinary lives can be found in documents normally used only by academics – manorial and tax records. In some cases, these ancient documents, six or seven hundred years old, look as fresh as the day they were written – the ink still dark, handwriting neat and legible on clean parchment. Nowadays we have trouble with the Latin but help’s available for that, should we venture to look. Seeing Michael unroll and read those records was like watching Tut’s tomb being opened!

Most importantly though, the programme focuses fully on the life of one medieval woman – Christina Cok. She stands for the millions of women whose lives have been lost to our history, even when records about them exist. A female voice-over, speaking in the words and accents of Middle English, movingly talks to us from Wills and letters written by women at the time. And at the end, we’re taken through a montage of pictures of women over the centuries, while Michael tells us: this is the forgotten half of our ancestry – the women.

The programme has been re-broadcast numerous times and I’ve watched it every time. I never fail to shed tears at the end – in my aching regret for the forgotten half of my ancestry. In my experience, no other TV historian has highlighted the lost history of ordinary women in this way – something that was very long overdue in 2008 and much more is still needed.

“Christina – a Medieval Life” may be available to buy on DVD from Maya Vision International, as listed here: http://bufvc.ac.uk/dvdfind/index.php/title/av74666. And you may also be able to view it on Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/102878103.

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When I started researching my family tree in 2002, there was one thing I felt absolutely sure about, and that was the number of aunts and uncles I had.  I grew up knowing my mum’s two brothers in England and my dad’s sister in Scotland, and there were photographs of my dad’s two Scottish brothers.  So, while most things in family history have to be hedged about with maybes, the number of my parents’ siblings was surely incontestable.

Well, as my last article showed, even when we think something is 100% true about a family tree, we still have to be cautious.  Thirteen years into my researches and I have suddenly learned the almost unbelievable fact that my dad had another sister and brother.  Whether he knew both of them is another question, but they were certainly real.

The reason I never knew them is simple: they were both ‘illegitimate’ and therefore taboo, hinted and whispered about at best, but mostly unmentionable.  And if I’m finding it hard to come to terms with having an aunt and an uncle who both died unknown to me simply because they were born “out of wedlock”, how much harder must their own lives have been?

I think we can barely appreciate how tough life was for people in the past who were born on the ‘wrong side of the blanket’.  So, as a little compensation and belated as it is, I am celebrating my aunt Christina’s and uncle Willie’s lives, here on this blog, starting with Christina

Christina Inch or Jeffrey was born on 21 December 1902 in Glasgow Maternity Hospital on Rotten Row.  Only her mum (my grandmother) is named on the birth certificate: Cecilia Inch, occupation Steel Filer, who gave the hospital as her home address, an immediate indication that she couldn’t be open and frank about this baby’s birth.  Cecilia was aged 22 and probably still living with her parents, Robert and Cecilia, since she was resident with them in the 1901 census at 67 Kilbowie Gardens, Clydebank.

It seems possible that Christina was passed off as the child of her grandparents because in the 1911 census she was with them at 7 Barnes Street, Clydebank and described as their daughter.  Evidence suggests that after her mother Cecilia married Ernest Danforth in 1907, the couple lived with Ernest’s father William in Glasgow and only moved to Clydebank after William returned to his birthplace (Hoyland Nether, Yorkshire) in 1909-10.  It’s highly likely that Christina remained with her grandparents during those first years, and perhaps didn’t know for some time that her ‘sister’ Cecilia was actually her mother.

She did eventually find out however.  By the time she married for the first time, in Detroit in 1923, she gave her mother’s name as Cecilia Inch – and her father’s as Daniel Jeffrey.  So she had found out both her parents’ names.

With that information in hand, I was able to discover that Christina left Scotland for the USA in 1919, when she was only sixteen.  She sailed from Liverpool on 27 June  1919, aboard the Metagama bound for Quebec, travelling as Christine Jeffrey, schoolgirl, with a note next to her name saying: “to Father, 1571 Nabush Avenue, Detroit”.  They were together on 1 January 1920 in the US census, living in a lodging house in Detroit.  Four months later, on 25 April 1920, Daniel died in an Ontario hospital as a result of diabetes, and was buried back in Detroit.  His death is recorded as a military casualty, because he had fought with the 20th battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in WW1.

So we can see that Christina had sailed to the USA, alone, at the young age of sixteen, knowing who her father was and using his name, only to have a bare nine months with him before he died.  On the card recording his death, his next of kin is given as: “Daughter, Miss Christine Jeffrey, address 18 Alfred Street, Detroit, Michigan” but these details have been scored out, replaced by the name of Mrs Anne Mabee (Daniel’s sister) and her address in Michigan – evidence perhaps that Christina was unwelcome to the Jeffrey family?

We know from the 1921 Canadian census, that Christina (using the surname Jeffrey) then went to live with her mother’s sister Susan Smillie in Winnipeg, Manitoba.  Two years later, on 7 July 1923, she married in Detroit to Richard Alexander Pulfer.  This ended in divorce on 8 March 1929 citing Richard’s “extreme cruelty” and Christina remarried shortly afterwards to Alexander Stobo Crighton, on 18 July 1929 in Lucas, Ohio.  Christina probably spent the rest of her life with him in Detroit, and was naturalised in 1942, though I haven’t yet found her death certificate or burial record.  Alexander died in Detroit in 1972.

But there was an interesting turn of events before the divorce from Richard Pulfer.  On 6 August 1926, Christine Pulfer arrived in Glasgow aboard the Montrose, a housewife resident in the USA, aged 23, visiting 38 Livingstone Street, Clydebank.  This was the address then of her mother Cecilia and Ernest Danforth.  With them would have been their sons Ernest jnr, aged 18, Robert aged 14 and Walter John (my dad) aged 7, and their adopted daughter Margaret aged 3.  Christina did not sail back to the USA until 19 March 1927, seven months later – which strongly suggests that her existence was known to the whole Danforth family.  And that makes it even more surprising that my dad never mentioned her.

On the bright side, it’s heartening to know that my grandmother Cecilia saw her daughter again, and Christina’s aunt Mary (sister of Cecilia) stayed in touch, sending Christmas parcels to the USA until sometime in the sixties when (my Scottish cousin remembers) one parcel was returned with “deceased” written on it.

So far I haven’t found any children for Christina from her second marriage – there were none from the first, according to the divorce decree.   And I’ve also failed to find living relatives from the Jeffrey and Crighton families.  I have no photograph of her, my one hope being that her naturalisation file will contain one – an American friend has applied for the file, but it’s a long wait.  So Christina remains a shadowy figure, hidden away by prejudice and shame while she was alive and for years afterwards.  She certainly had a traumatic time from 1919 into the 20s, finding and losing her father, and a difficult first marriage, in a foreign country far from family.  I can only hope she found happiness with her second husband and acceptance, perhaps, from her Crighton in-laws.

If anyone reading this knows more about Christina, or the Jeffrey and Crighton families, please message me on Facebook.

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My creative writing group recently held a workshop at Chesterfield Museum. Arriving late, I had only a few minutes for the task in hand, to write about something interesting in the museum, so I looked around for what was nearby. Immediately I spotted a portrait hanging on the wall opposite, a head and shoulders of a middle-aged woman looking directly at me. There was nothing dramatic about the picture but the eyes were arresting and have haunted me since. In the two minutes available, all I could note was:Self-portrait1

“She stares from a featureless landscape
Flat green grass stretches behind her, two trees on the horizon
Her gaze is hard, slightly fearful
As though she says ‘I’m not really here,
Don’t capture me, pin me down, there’s more to me than meets the eye,
more than you will ever see.’”

Our tutor told us the artist was Phyllis Hanson and her biography, on the wall behind me, spoke of how her father Fred refused to let her attend art college. Instead he took her into his saddlery business, which she continued after his death. But she produced her art anyway, proving by the collection on the walls that there was indeed plenty more to her than first meets the eye.

Phyllis Annie Hanson (1910-1994) spent her life in Chesterfield, though her parents Fred Hanson and Lizzie Ann Parish were both from Lincolnshire. After marriage in 1902, they moved to Chesterfield, where Fred worked as a saddler. They had two children: Phyllis and her older sister Kathleen May, who married Edgar Ernest Sharp in 1938.

In 1924, Fred Hanson bought up the Bennett saddlers and leather-working business at 49 Beetwell Street and operated there until its demolition in 1939. Fred and Phyllis then ran the business from 19 Cavendish Street until his death in 1952, when she took over, selling up thirteen years later. Throughout these years, Phyllis practised her art and continued to work from home at 24 Albion Street until her death in 1994, when her art collection was donated to Chesterfield Museum. Their biography of her continues:

1996.1967Phyllis was a talented artist and she became part of a local group of artists which included James Arundel Massey. Some of her most interesting works are the narrative sketches and etchings she made of everyday happenings in Chesterfield. She was also a violinist for Hasland Hall String Orchestra. She was a familiar figure in the town, and in later life was often seen selling produce from her allotment on the WI Market stall in New Square.’

I found it fascinating to learn more about this woman artist I hadn’t heard of before, whose eyes had held mine on that day in the museum, and to learn that Chesterfield had a thriving cultural scene in the 20th century. There should be plenty more to learn about that.1996.2011

Chesterfield Museum provided the images of Phyllis’s pictures which are reproduced here with their kind permission. You can see the display of her collection at the Museum in a room up the stairs from the main galleries.

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I dislike the word ‘illegitimate’ with all its negative connotations. What did it mean? A child whose parents weren’t married, or whose father was unknown or too irresponsible to claim his child. But why would that make the child unlawful? These days we accept that children born to unwed mothers are as legitimate as those born to married couples, so I’d like to confer the same respect on our ancestors. Unless we are quoting documents written in the past, we can use a simple alternative expression: ‘out of wedlock’. Once I asked another web-writer to use this instead of ‘illegitimate’ and he responded that it was too long and awkward. But ‘out of wedlock’ has only 4 syllables and ‘illegitimate’ has 5 – which is the longest and most awkward?

This came to my mind today after an American colleague, researching her 19th century relatives in the industrialised parts of Lancashire, commented on the number of children born to unwed mothers, the high rate of mortality for those children and the numbers of early births to newly-married couples. She could see a lot of pre-marital sex so she asked if I knew what attitudes were like at that time to ‘illegitimacy’ and unwed mums.

My answer has grown out of research done previously into conditions in 19th century Gateshead and my recent visit to the Mitchell Library which houses the City of Glasgow Archives, including a huge collection of Poor Relief Applications. Among them, in their fat, closely-written tomes, I found a dozen made by my relatives, from the 1850s through to the early 20th century. Distressing is too mild a word for their contents.

There was a TV programme in the UK recently looking at the history of cities. The presenter emphasised repeatedly that from the Victorian period, through to the slum clearances of the 1920s-30s and after WW2 (I can remember the clearances happening in the 1960s in the industrial town near where I lived), one third of the British population lived in abject poverty. One third!

What I saw in the Glasgow Poor Relief Applications was the evidence of that dire poverty, but it existed in all the industrial cities of the UK, in Lancashire, Yorkshire, county Durham/Northumberland, in London of course and in places not often thought of as industrial, eg. Bristol and in Wales.

Imagining the unimaginable

I think if we try to imagine ourselves into the severest levels of poverty, the worst housing conditions, the unemployment, dangerous, underpaid and insecure jobs, the lack of education, inadequate levels of charitable and religious support, the total absence of sanitation… it’s not hard to believe that what we regard as ‘normal’ things, such as registering births, marriages and deaths, baptising children, waiting until after marriage to have them, getting married at all – norms of behaviour that go with a settled, basically OK way of life – simply break down. We can also understand that people in these circumstances, if they had some money, were likely to spend it on drink, as an escape. Alcoholism and violence were common among the poorest classes, petty crime too, as people did what it took to survive. Another activity that people with no prospects in life did to find some happiness and pleasure was, of course, sex. For women, add in to this picture, their lack of civil rights and education or employment opportunities. It was normal for poor women to be treated without respect and for them to turn to the oldest game in the world when they needed money to survive, or simply looked for fun, warmth or love. Without contraception, children inevitably resulted. It’s not surprising many babies died young, considering the environments they were born into but I think we can also accept that early deaths might have been hastened on through neglect or worse by young women who had no way of supporting a child, and no access to abortion.

Doing family research, we rely on written records and we tend to think that birth, marriage and death certificates, and family events like baptisms and marriages were the norm for everyone but in fact they only consistently exist for those who lived beyond the worst poverty levels, ie. those who had at least a little in life, a little hope, some stability, just about enough to live on.

My Scottish great-great-grandmother, Cecilia Beaton was “born in fornication” in an industrial village called Campsie outside Glasgow where conditions were like the ‘wild west’ in the USA. She had four known ‘husbands’ without a single recorded marriage, and nine children, none baptised. Two of her daughters also had children out-of-wedlock, as I discovered for the first time this year in the Glasgow Poor Relief records. Two of those three children died as infants and there’s a note that one of them was “passed up by the police having been found exposed on a stair”. I confess I cried at that. I would not have been able to trace this family at all if it wasn’t for the poor relief records, because of the lack of other recorded events.

What I find amazing is how much, in those appalling conditions, people did manage to uphold some levels of dignity and pride, and in some cases to find their way out of the pit.

Necessity not immorality

For poor women, just about the only way of surviving, other than prostitution, was marriage, so of course they held hard to that once achieved. We know from court records and stories of the time, as in Dickens, how frequently women were abused by husbands – or deserted. But most found ways to endure marriage, even when treated terribly, because all other ‘choices’ were worse. If they were ‘lucky’ and husband stayed around until his death, at that point we often see the woman applying for poor relief or entering the workhouse (unless a child could manage to take her in) – the poorest of the poor were widows.

There is another question from my US colleague I haven’t answered. “Were women ostracised for having an out-of-wedlock child?” The evidence I’ve seen points to hypocrisy and contradiction. On the one hand, everyone knew pre-marital sex happened and that children resulted. But it was still usually seen as a disgrace and the fault of the woman not the man. She wasn’t virtuous enough, she didn’t resist enough etc. Many women were ostracised, thrown out by their families. But there is also evidence that many were supported, as best their families could manage, though the fact of the birth would often be hidden away in shame. ‘Adoption’ by grandparents as though the child was a late one of their own was a frequent method of hiding the truth. An older married sister or a childless aunt might take on such a child too. Most common of all, family support took the form of ‘shotgun weddings’ either with the child’s real father or someone else (who perhaps never knew an early-born child wasn’t his own).

Even up to the present day this ‘shame’ still exists of having had pre-marital sex and a child born ‘before it was due’. I know a couple who celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary on the wrong day, three months early, so that their eldest child would not know he was conceived before the marriage. Perhaps sadly, the truth came out when one of the family got the couple’s marriage certificate as a gift. I discovered (with a little pleasure I must admit) that a relative known for her fierce morals and disapprovals, had had a Register Office wedding herself because she was already pregnant, a fact the family had never known.

It’s surely time to remove from our ancestors – especially the women – the last traces of this damaging and unnecessary shame for ‘illegitimacy’ and ‘immorality’ and to give them the respect they always deserved.

A day late for Women’s History Month (March 2014) but better late than never I hope.

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Today the British media is full of commentary on the disciplining of two veteran Sky News sports reporters for sexist comments they made about Sian Massey, one of our few female football referees.  The BBC’s online article tells us that, out of a total of 853 women football referees in England, just three officiate at the professional level, though the overall percentage of women’s involvement in the sport and its management is improving.

Normally football news would not interest me much but this story caught my eye.  It cast my memory back to when I played football myself, in the mid-60s, as part of a mixed team. 

The team, about 1967
Me the footballer, front row, first on left.

Recently, I rediscovered my teenage diaries and was fascinated to read how much I enjoyed playing, how satisfying and exhilarating it was to acquire the skills our country was celebrating so heartily in 1966 when England, in its finest hour, won the World Cup.

What I also remember is: not even for a single moment did I imagine that I, a mere female, could have any kind of future in football.  Judging by the BBC’s article, in forty years since then, things still haven’t changed significantly despite the heroic entry of pioneer women to club management and football journalism.  Now you may wonder what any of this has to do with family history and, in particular, to our ‘lost’ female ancestors.

So let’s look at some historical facts.  On 9 May 1881, the Glasgow Herald published what is probably the earliest record of women playing association football on an organised basis in the UK, reporting on a Ladies’ International Match between Scotland and England (Scotland won 3-0).  In other words, women were playing football in the UK almost from the start of the game.  The British Ladies’ Football Club was founded in 1894 and the English Ladies’ Football Association in 1921.  During the first World War, women’s teams, especially those drawn from munitions factories in the north-east of England, became highly skilled and immensely popular, their matches often drawing huge crowds.  Often they practised and played at men’s clubs and, in some cases, the male and female teams were equally popular.  These facts are taken from an excellent, detailed account of women’s football history by Patrick Brennan: http://www.donmouth.co.uk/womens_football/womens_football.html

In December 1921 came the backlash, when the (male) Football Association declared: “Complaints having been made as to football being played by women, the council feel impelled to express their strong opinion that the game of football is quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged…  the council request clubs belonging to the association to refuse the use of their grounds for such matches.”  Thereafter, despite women’s continuing interest in all aspects of football, progress towards professionalism and national recognition in the women’s game has always been in the teeth of the bitter winds of patronising disrespect and opposition.  Not surprising perhaps that today, in January 2011, two male sports reporters still talk about a female football referee with the same disrespect.  There is still a long way to go.

On his website, Patrick Brennan names many of the women players and entrepreneurs of football in the first quarter of the 20th century, so any of us might find a grandmother or great-grandmother there.  This slice of women’s history tells us several things.  It tells us that women can be just as good and popular as men in arenas where they are not regarded as such and illustrates a recurring theme: that women’s past achievements become ‘lost to history’ so even a generation or two later we know little or nothing about them.  We can also see that, unless we are ready to dig about for more facts about our female ancestors, it is extraordinarily easy to misunderstand the reality of their lives.  I plan to do some of that extra digging and in future posts to tell some more of our foremothers’ lost stories.

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