Finding female ancestors

How often does your family history hit a brick wall because you can’t find information about a female ancestor? Locating information on your female relatives from times past can be challenging, but well worth the search when you hit that perfect nugget of information.

Why is it so tricky? Many historical records for women only list them by their first name or their married name, or even just by their husband’s name. Prior to the 20th century it was men who owned land, ran businesses, voted and more, and so most pre-20th century historical records relate to men, not women.

Hints and tips

Make a note of all the names you know connected to your female relative - husband, children, siblings and any other close relatives. Take special note of unusual middle names that can reflect possible maiden names or places of origin.

Create a timeline with all the information you have. Include historical events and make a note of government laws or policies that were passed in their lifetime, such as the right to vote. This information can help you pinpoint where to look next.

Check the records of close male relatives - husband, brothers, father, and any other relatives your female ancestor may have been associated with. She may have witnessed a marriage or been included in a will. This can point you to further records or confirm information you already have.

Portrait of five sisters from the Steindl family

Some interesting enquiries received and answered by State Library staff.

Example one

I have a female ancestor, Grace Marion McDonnell, wife of Alfred Napoleon Bemi, [who] died in Sydney in 1906. Her death notice spoke of a sister Mrs John Fotheringham. Would you be able to uncover any information regarding this sister please?

The first step was to locate the death notice to confirm the information provided. This was found on Trove digitised newspapers in The Sydney Morning Herald. From there a search of the NSW registry office for births, deaths and marriages online indexes revealed a possible marriage between a John David FOTHERINGHAM and a Mary MACDONNELL in 1856. This provided a first name, Mary. Also discovered in this search was the death of a Mary FOTHERINGHAM in 1913 that lists the father’s name as MACDONNELL.

Death notice for Grace Marion BEMI, The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 August 1906, p.10,

Going back to the Trove digitised newspapers, a funeral notice in The Sydney Morning Herald in 1913 for a Mary FOTHERINGHAM shows that Mary died in Waverley. This matches her place of living in the original death notice. Also, the husband is listed as the late J D FOTHERINGHAM, which correlates with the marriage index.

Using the NSW registry office for births, deaths and marriages online indexes, the marriage of Grace Marion MACDONNELL in 1853 to an Alfred BEMI can be found, as well as the death index entry for Grace BEMI nee MACDONNELL. Using the dates of the marriages to search the NSW State Archives & Records online NSW immigration indexes brings up a Grace and a Mary MACDONNELL arriving into Sydney in 1852 aboard the vessel "Tartar".

The passenger list, which is the Government Board list, provides additional information such as parents' names. The names listed for the parents of Grace and Mary MACDONNELL on this vessel are Charles and Grace Grantley. The father matched the information available on the NSW death index for Grace. This information confirmed that the Mary MACDONNELL who married John David FOTHERINGHAM in 1856, was indeed the Mrs John FOTHERINGHAM in the death notice for Grace BEMI in 1906.

Passenger list entries for Grace and Mary MACDONNELL, vessel "Tartar", 1852

Example 2

I would like to locate my 2 x Great Grandfather on (1) Electoral Roll (2) Post Office Directories for the period 1872 onward. NAME: GALLAGHER, James (family - Wife: Eleanor. Children: Emma, Amelia, Edward, Harry, Eleanor, Annie, Elizabeth, Maude Mary, John Thompson). James arrived in Australia c. 1872/1873. His wife and eight children were passengers to Brisbane by the last trip of the "Gauntlet" in 1876. It would be fantastic if I could find where he and his family lived between 1872 and the year he died - 1884. Plus where his widow resided from 1884 onwards.

Where did Mrs Eleanor GALLAGHER live after 1884? A search of Trove digitised newspapers located the first clue - a marriage notice, published in The Telegraph (Brisbane) on 28 December 1889 for her daughter Eleanor. This states that the bride was married at her mother's residence at Kangaroo Point.

Further searching in online newspapers uncovers a reference to an Eleanor GALLAGHER, Thomas Street, in connection to a petition in 1889 for the establishment of a Borough of East Brisbane.

Petition for new borough called East Brisbane, The Telegraph (Brisbane), 3 December 1889, p.3,

From there a search of the Queensland Post Office directories, available at State Library (and also online via Ancestry) confirmed an address in 1885 for an Eleanor GALLAGHER at Thomas Street, Kangaroo Point (KP). Listed at the same address is an Edward GALLAGHER, the same name as one of her sons. In 1887 in the post office directory she is listed as a Mrs Eleanor GALLAGHER, running a boarding house on Thomas Street, KP. Searches of early 20th century Queensland electoral rolls, available at State Library, confirmed that Eleanor GALLAGHER was still living in Thomas Street until her death in 1908.

Eleanor GALLAGHER, Queensland post office directories 1885 and 1887, Ancestry (Library edition)

Tracing female relatives, especially before 1900, can be tricky. Try using different sources to confirm your findings and remember to consider their married names. Newspapers can provide clues that can be used to search more traditional sources such as birth, death and marriage indexes. For suggestions on where to look for information visit State Library’s family history pages, including our family history research guides. And if you get stuck and not sure where to search next please Ask Us for help.


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Dear State Library staff
I really appreciate your article including details of my x2 grandmother Mary (MacDonnell) Fotheringham. I only had her birth, marriage and death dates, but am very keen to find as much as I can about her. so thank you so much for your input.

Dear Kathryn, thank you for your comment. If you would like any further help in your family history research please visit our Ask us page,, and fill in the Research and information enquiry form. One of our staff would be happy to help. Regards Kirsten