New research reveals that only three in ten Canadians know inspiring stories of women in their family tree

Ancestry yesterday issued a news release about a recent poll on how much Canadians know about their female ancestors. It reveals a number of interesting findings.

Too often, people — including family historians — focus on what their male ancestors did, while ignoring the stories about their female ancestors.

I do, however, have an issue with only one of Ancestry’s comments.

To be provocative, as a new release should be, the headline is More Canadians know Laura Secord’s story than their own grandmother’s birthday.

The background to the headline is that a third (33%) of those surveyed know their grandmother’s birthday.

I’m not surprised or distressed by this number.

To be honest, as a longtime family historian, even I need to look up the birthday of my grandmother who lived in another city.

What’s probably more important than a birthday is for people to know the maiden name of their grandmothers and great-grandmothers.

Annie Young and her mother Elizabeth Young (née Webster), 1875, Montreal, Quebec. Photographer: William Notman, II-20331.1.

Here’s Ancestry’s news release. It’s worth a read.

Ahead of International Women’s Day, a new Leger Marketingi survey, conducted on behalf of Ancestry, the global leader in family history, reveals that Canadians find female historical figures, such as Viola Desmond and Laura Secord to be the most inspiring kind of women (35%), ahead of female celebrities (15%) or women in public office (24%).

Women throughout history have changed the world with their strength, intelligence and determination to create a better future. This International Women’s Day, Ancestry is encouraging Canadians to seek inspiration from the achievements of women in their family history – particularly given that people are more likely to find inspiration from female family members (30%) than friends (20%), athletes (18%), or colleagues (11%).

Canadians want to know more about their own legacy with most (68%) in agreement that knowing more about the challenges and achievements of the women in their family history would be inspiring and empowering. Yet only 15% of respondents said they were very familiar with the women in their family history.

Indeed, Canadians are more aware of the achievements of Canadian women from history than those of the women in their own family:

  • 44% know the story of Laura Secord who warned the British of a surprise attack by the Americans in the War of 1812,
  • 40% know that Viola Desmond is featured on the $10 bill,
  • A similar proportion (37%) are aware that Roberta Bondar was Canada’s first female astronaut.

By comparison, whilst half of those surveyed (49%) believe that the women in their family history have made an impact on women’s rights and equality, the majority (70%) are not aware of any stories from these women regarding the achievements they reached or challenges they overcame.

Interestingly, when it comes to the achievements of current female Canadian celebrities, less than a third (29%) claim to be able to name two books by Margaret Atwood and only one in ten (11%) know the name of Canadian YouTube sensation Lilly Singh’s new late-night show – A Little Late with Lilly Singh.

The poll also showed a third (33%) of those surveyed know their grandmother’s birthday and 14% know how many siblings their great-grandmother had.

Lesley Anderson, family historian for Ancestry said, “We know that Canadians are eager to learn more about the women in their family tree so this year, to mark International Women’s Day, we are encouraging everyone to discover more about these women and draw upon their legacy as a source of inspiration and empowerment. Whether they changed the world, changed a community, or simply changed a life, these women and their incredible stories are worth honouring and celebrating this International Women’s Day.”

Dunnville, Ontario resident Chris McEvoy wanted to learn more about his family history and after conducting research and building his family tree he discovered a familiar name — Secord. He then learned that his 6th great-grandmother, Mary Secord was an aunt to the famous Laura Secord.

Mr. McEvoy said, “I was amazed to discover through building my family tree that I was connected to Laura Secord who is such an inspiring historical figure in Canada,” said Chris. “But what was even more fascinating to me was learning about my 6th great-grandmother Mary. Her story is one of courage and resilience. She survived three husbands, two wars, a hard and long journey from the US to Canada, a refugee camp, and then went on to live to 106.”

Ms. Anderson encourages people to explore the stories about the women in their family.

She said, “To get started, ask your oldest living relative about the women in your family tree, get as much information as you can – birth, marriage and death dates and places, and occupations. Listen to their stories, take notes, and then head onto to build a family tree and learn more about their story from the historic records available.”

As we unite this International Women’s Day to support a gender equal world, Ancestry is encouraging Canadians to reflect on the collective achievements of the women that came before us. We all have these stories of incredible women in our family trees — they’re just waiting to be discovered. 

I say, “Well said, Ancestry.”

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3 Responses to New research reveals that only three in ten Canadians know inspiring stories of women in their family tree

  1. Sharon Relkey says:

    Its wonderful to celebrated International Woman’s Day and encourage everyone to research the women in their families. I find it very frustrating that throughout Canada and the USA, many women are only listed as Mrs John Smith etc. The woman’s first names are not published.
    I would like to see these women recognized for their own first name rather than just their husbands. Its like their own identity was taken from them when they married.
    Fortunately, women currently are not identified as Mrs John Smith etc.

  2. Nancy Cutway says:

    Since Secord was Laura’s married name — she was born Laura Ingersoll — I doubt that Mr. McEvoy’s Secord relative was an “aunt” to Laura: she could have been an aunt to Laura’s husband, Thomas.

    • Gail Dever says:

      Good catch. My blog post (and Ancestry’s news release) should have included Laura Secord’s maiden name, Ingersoll. Not using or mentioning their maiden name is another way we lose our female ancestors.

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