Friday, 8 March 2013

Ranting about relatives, rape and "nonpaternal events"

Today is International Women's Day and at John Reid's indispensable blog Anglo-Celtic Connections there are links to genealogical tweets.  This morning, I happened to follow a link on one to this article by Belinda Griffiths at about tracing women on family trees .

Now, finding your female ancestors is always a challenge.  I've just had a major, family-tree-shaking breakthrough involving the discovery, after ten frustrating years, of the will of my great-great-great-great-grandmother, which reveals, among many other things, that two women whom I thought belonged elsewhere are actually her daughters and thus my 4xgreat-aunts.  I've been madly re-shuffling relatives and emailing fellow family researchers who share those particular ancestors.

The reason I had so much trouble finding my gggg-grandmother is that she was widowed four times.  Her first husband was my gggg-grandfather and the sire of all her children.  Her third husband was another of my great-great-great-great-grandfathers, resulting in my 3xgreat-grandparents being step-siblings (the subject of my previous post -- it's been a startling week!).

However, Ms Griffiths' article -- and I know I really should use more refined language -- pisses me off.

Ms Griffiths titters about cuckolded husbands wondering whether they were bringing up another man’s child or children. .  . .  Show me a family historian who can put his or her hand on heart and swear that there has never been in their family tree any instance of what the DNA experts call a non-paternity event and I will show you either a fibber or a gullible optimist!

I've recently had both the Resident Fan Boy's and my DNA tested, so have been attending information meetings about the use of DNA in family research.  I encountered a similar attitude there, a lot of chuckling about the possibility of what at least one DNA research company openly calls "infidelity".

To the smirking men at the DNA interest meeting and the tittering Ms Griffiths, I long to ask:  Is it "infidelity" when the woman had no choice?  Do you really think your foremothers had much control in their so-called sex lives?

 I'm in the midst of Ian Mortimer's  The Time Traveller's Guide to Elizabethan England. In a chapter entitled "Basic Essentials", he mentions in passing:
Young women also often have to put up with the unwanted sexual attention of their masters; it seems to be accepted that a master will normally have sex with his female servants. . . .To be a young woman in service is thus a double predicament.  To refuse your master is likely to result in dismissal; but to give in is to risk disease and pregnancy, as well as dismissal when the pregnancy is discovered.

I don't know about you, but I had several female ancestors in service.  I don't think the situation had changed that much in Victorian England, and, a century after that,  Peggy Seeger's musical diatribe "Gonna Be an Engineer" (written about 1970, I think) featured the lyric: It's the duty of the staff for to give the boss a whirl.  So, if you needed the job badly enough (and you usually did), you did what you had to do -- and if a baby resulted, well, it was your fault, of course.

And what about my four-times-married, four-times-great-grandmother?  Did she marry out of choice?  She was a wealthy woman.  It appears that she and two of her sisters married three brothers.  That smacks of economics to me, and I'll bet her three subsequent marriages were more pragmatic than romantic. In a world (not so very distant) where women didn't vote, didn't have legal status as persons, could easily be relieved of access to their children, a woman taking a lover in such a world would have been risking everything.

In short, I don't think wealthy women nor poor women had much right to say "no".  So I ask the amused Ms Griffiths and the chuckling gentlemen at my DNA information meeting to consider that their many-times-great-grandfather may not have been gullible.  He may have been protecting your many-times-great-grandmother by giving her child, conceived under duress, his name. It's not amusing to think about, but I think it happened more often than we care to admit.

I think in doing family research, we uncover many human failings, but -- especially on International Women's Day -- let's acknowledge what a very hard row our fore-mothers had to hoe, and how many millions of women today have little choice in what happens to their bodies.

If you suspect your family line has its genesis in a female ancestor's "infidelity", let's hope to heaven she had some say in the matter. And let's lose the smirk, shall we?