March being Women's History Month (in the United States) and yesterday having been International Women's Day (most countries), we have been reading others' blogs about researching female ancestors with, forgive us, a trace of smugness. The subject is nearly always covered with the inclusion of adjectives of despair: "difficult", "tricky", "impossible", "absolute brick wall", "invisible". Not so for your French ancestress.
We do not mean to imply that women somehow have more rights in France than elsewhere. Not at all. In fact, according to a recent report by the World Economic Forum on the gap between men's and women's rights and privileges in various countries -- the narrower the gap being the better -- France does not even appear in the list of the top ten countries (nor do the United States, Great Britain, Canada or Australia). If school marks were being given, France would get a B minus or so. Just this year, after much campaigning by women, the number of women buried in the Panthéon, that mausoleum of the country's worthies, will be doubled...to four out of more than seventy. No, the reason that it is so much easier to trace a female ancestor in French records is not because of any sense of women's equality, but because France has a somewhat over-developed sense of the need to document individual citizens' lives.
Very soon after the French Revolution, in 1794, the law known as Loi du 6 fructidor an II was passed, stating, among many other things, that "no citizen may use any surname or first name other than those given at birth." Since that time women's birth names have been used on all official and legal documentation. At the same time, a married woman probably would have used her husband's surname socially and would have been known by this nom d'usage of Madame Quelquechose to her friends and acquaintances. This means that the best way to find records and genealogical data on a female French ancestor is to search for her using her birth name when searching official or notarial documents and her married name when searching letters, diaries or private archives.
Not so long ago, the French government banned the use of titles for women that indicate their marital status; Mademoiselle will no longer appear in official documents or correspondence and Madame will be used exclusively. In the past, the nom d'usage often appeared on some official documents as the Livret de famille or the carte d'identité, even though this was illegal. The government is currently working on a law to narrow that gender gap which will ban any appearance of the nom d'usage on any document unless a woman specifically requests it (the bill goes quite a bit further on women's rights; the French are staunch believers that legislation can change society). Future researchers will have an even easier time of it.
So, each time you come across an ancestor who was French -- whether female or male -- rejoice, for your brick walls may be fewer.
©2014 Anne Morddel