Matrilineal dissent

or, how your family tree ignores Women

If you’ve ever created a family tree beyond a few generations, you’ll know that it’s far easier to trace male lines than  Female ones. The main reason, in the the West at least, is that surnames pass down from the father. (i’m assuming you’re almost certainly in the West, reader, because the WordPress analytics tell me so).

If you’ve tried it you’ll know that tracing your male line is like driving down the broad and sunny autobahn, your tyres hissing willowtide, willowtide, willowtide, – or whatever your surname happens to be – as you sail effortlessly across the generations. One name, one path, or so it seems. If  you’re lucky, there’s even a family house to bind them all together from one end of the nineteenth-century to the other, with endless wills and probates, testaments to the passing of property from male hand to (eldest) male hand. One day, son, this will all be yours.

This is monumentally misleading, of course, because the male line is only one of thousands you can follow, each equally valid in terms of its contribution to who you are. Unfortunately, tracing a Female line is like bumping down a farm track; hard work, slow, and liable to throw you off course at any moment. Any genealogist will know the feeling; my seven-greats Grandmother was called Emily; She married Her man in 1802; She had eighty-four children of whom a dozen survived, and outlasted Her own husband by twenty-three years; but can i tell who She was, i mean apart from a total badass-in-bombazine? Not a hope. i can only see Her in the mirror of Her husband’s polished waistcoat buttons*.



Great-Great Grandmother says:

“Don’t you dare forget who I was…”



i don’t have a magic solution to that, of course; Emily may have to remain forever obscured by the frilled parasol of the passing years. men had public lives, recorded in public; Women, for the most part, had private ones.

i know it sounds like i’m about to go off on one about how men should take their Wives’ surnames, but that isn’t the point of this post. (Of course, it would make better sense, partly because, you know, wombs and everything, and partly because if there’s one parent you can’t be sure about, it’s your father, not your Mother. A family tree should be about whose eggs did what, with a sidenote on the much-appreciated contribution of mr so-and-so and his special gene-mixing stick. A man, is, after all, just a Woman’s way of making another Woman).

No, i’m not going to go on about that. At least as far as genealogists are concerned we have to have a system and then stick to it, and your Mother’s maiden name was, after all, nothing more than Her father’s name. As someone once said, marriage means a Woman swapping her father’s name for Her husband’s. Perhaps that’s why They don’t seem to mind.

An honourable mention has to go to the Icelanders at this point, by the way. If you’re not familiar with their marvellously individualistic naming system, do look it up [Wikipedia]. Admittedly i’m glad i’m not trying to assemble a genealogy with that methodology, but in Iceland maybe you can just look your great-grandparents up in the sagas. Anyway, although children most usually take their father’s first name as the basis of their surname, it does happen that some children take their Mother’s, which is a beautiful idea. Personally i’d much rather meet Asdis-the-Daughter-of-Helga than Asdis-the-Wife-of-Gunnar, thank you very much.

But there is one thing you can do, apart from move to Iceland. If you do have a family tree, you can reframe it so that you can see the problem more clearly. For example, you can all too easily find yourself wheedling away at a distant male-line cul-de-sac somewhere oblivious to the fact that it is dwarfed by the vast, glaring hole that is your failure to track down your great-great-Grandmother’s maiden name. With a standard family tree layout, it’s all too easy to overlook such things because the Female line is an offshoot of the main branch (ie the surname you know from later generations), and you don’t really notice when an offshoot isn’t there.

But try setting it out this way instead:


this is you (you’re looking great, btw)…



and here you are with your parents…




…and with their parents…


…etc. Now carry on adding as many rings as you need, filling in all the gaps you can.

With this layout, those holes in your Matrilineal lines will jump out and beat you around the ears with their rolling pins or fans or whatever are most appropriate to the period, because not only is the gap right in front of your eyes, but so are the missing names all the way behind them, fanning out in ever-widening ranks through ring after ring after ring, as a host of blank ancestors (of both sexes) sit there grumbling pay more attention to your Matrilineal lines, sonny.

And then you can put your new-found Ancestresses (try saying that word out loud) in a Gynarchic genealogy like this one:


– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

* footnote: With one exception. In England, at least, and i dare say in the USA, if any part of your family had pretensions of gentility you may find the occasional snapshot of their Women in astonishing detail: local newspaper reports of what They wore at weddings. It seemed to be a big thing about a hundred to a hundred-and-fifty years ago, when some of my Ancestresses suddenly emerge from the mist and have a high-resolution imagination portrait taken before fading back into obscurity. The Bride, you will be told breathlessly, wore duchess satin and old lace, and the Bridesmaids looked something-or-other in pink silk. And then, decades of ringing silence, until She dies, the widow of so-and-so much lamented of this parish, and so the leaves fall.

Cover image: from burne-jones, The Golden Stairs


3 thoughts on “Matrilineal dissent

  1. Good post. I wonder why more people do not wonder about this, as well as seek out those societies that do things differently – as you have done here!


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