52 Ancestors, Week 21: Brick Wall

In genealogy, a brick wall is a point at which one ancestor brings you to an abrupt halt in your effort to trace your family tree. Further information on this person is elusive, or you know who it was, but cannot seem to find the records you need in order to determine who the ancestor’s parents were. Everyone who tries to research a family tree hits a brick wall at some point. And that is why Brick Wall is the theme of this week’s 52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks challenge.

My most frustrating brick walls occur when female ancestors’ lineage has been erased by history. Like many Western cultures, Italy has a history of patriarchy. Until recently, women routinely changed their names when they married. This is no longer true. It is now illegal for a woman to change her name upon marriage; in fact, almost all name changes of any kind are prohibited in Italy. The name on the birth certificate is final, for life. I wish that rule had been in place before my ancestors immigrated.

Here is a gravestone for some of my ancestors. Notice that Biagio Manganiello’s name is given in full. His wife is listed on the stone only “Carmela His Wife.” The stone prioritizes his history over hers. Their daughter is given both her birth name and her married name — but if she had been buried with her husband instead of her parents, that would likely not have been the case.

In so many cases, my female ancestors appear to have no surname of their own, and therefore, no history. Many Italian records are not digitized, indexed, and posted online. And almost none are available in English, though I’ve had some success translating the ones I have found, using my scant Italian-language skills and online tools such as Google Translate. That means it is difficult to find a record for a female ancestor — a birth certificate or marriage certificate, for example — that would provide the name of her parents.

Have you ever walked through a cemetery and paid attention to the differences between the inscriptions on women’s gravestones, as opposed to men’s? So often, the man’s name is given in full, as in “John Smith,” while his spouse’s name is listed only as, “Beloved Wife Mary.” Her life before her marriage, and her family before her marriage, is erased from the record. I have never once seen a stone that lists her full name at birth, and gives her husband’s name as “Beloved Husband John.”

Until it is commonly accepted that a woman’s history is just as important as a man’s, these walls will impede genealogical research in the future, as well.

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