Fabulous Firsts for International Women’s Day

When you research your own family for a while, you start to see patterns. Being a woman myself, I tend to notice the patterns in how women lived. And wow, has that changed over the last couple of hundred years! Here are some “firsts” that I noticed in my tree.

First woman known to have a profession. 99 percent of my female ancestors are listed as “keeping house” on the census. Not that “keeping house” wasn’t a profession! Imagine having and raising a dozen kids while being co-manager of a farm on the frontier. That was a serious job, not doubt about it. If we ladies think we are multi-tasking now, I am pretty sure those earlier generations of women could teach us a few things.

Jane Marie Shaw Kelly
Jane Maria Shaw Kelly, town tailor.

Many farm wives also had side businesses. For example, I am pretty sure my 6th great-grandmother Nancy Ann Bryan Bembry sold homemade hard cider to thirsty Scotsmen in North Carolina. All these jobs were considered to be a part of “keeping house,” yet another reason that a woman’s work was never done.

My great-great-grandmother, Jane Maria Shaw Kelly, however, was the first woman in my family that was recognized to have run her own business apart from house keeping. She was a tailor, with her own tailoring shop in White House, Tennessee in the 1880s and 90s. Later on, my grandmother and a great-grandmother also ran dressmaking businesses out of the home. But Jane was the first to actually hang out a shingle, as far as I know.

First woman to sign her own name to documents. While earlier generations in Europe and New England may have been literate, once people migrated to the frontier, education became a lower priority. For that reason, nearly all the women (and many of the men) in my family during the 18th and 19th centuries were illiterate. Only in the last decades of the 19th century, when public education became more common in the South, did women begin to indicate literacy by signing their own names to documents.

The first woman’s signature that I have seen in court records is that of Laura Lanier Harrison, my great-great grandmother. In 1889, she and her husband Alexander Harrison sold a plot of land together (in itself unusual, as men generally conducted all the financial transactions in a family.) This makes some sense: unlike practically everyone else in the family, Laura was actually a city girl, having grown up in Nashville and Gallatin, Tennessee. Her father was a Justice of the Peace, one of a family of middle-class merchants and lawmen. She would have have much more opportunity for education than her farming cousins did.

First women to deliberately limit their family sizes. I don’t know how they did it (and I’m not asking how) but around the turn of the century, the birth rate on most branches of my family abruptly plummeted. Previous generations birthed babies every two years, like clockwork. Most families included nine or ten kids, often more. But my maternal great-grandmother, Ruth Esther Dickerson Cole only had four children, spaced up to four years apart. My paternal grandmother held the line at five. In one generation, average family size was halved. The next generation halved it again: none of them had more than two kids. Women (and genealogists) everywhere sighed in relief!

Cole, Carzy Clifford and Ruth with kids
Four is enough: Carzy Clifford and Ruth Cole with their children in the 1920s.

First woman to finish high school. On my father’s side, my grandmother, Lucy Jewell Smith Bembry, was the first woman to get a high school diploma. But my maternal great-grandmother, Mary Pearl Harrison Kelly, Laura Lanier Harrison’s daughter, beat her by a few years and was the first woman in my direct line to make it all the way through high school as far as I know.

Kelly, William Jasper and Mary Pearl Harrison high school photo
A school photo from White House, Tennessee. Mary Pearl Harrison Kelly is at far right: I believe that this is a graduation photo with Jasper Kelly, her future husband, standing next to her.

First woman to get a college degree. On my paternal side, my dad’s sisters were the first women to graduate from college. But a couple of decades earlier, on my mother’s side, the same Mary Pearl (“Mama Kelly”) made darn sure that all six of her daughters graduated high school and then some. I am not sure which was the first to get a full four-year college degree, but several of them did, and all had careers outside the home.

Kelly, William Jasper Family
Mama Kelly with five of her six daughters.

On my direct maternal line, (the Coles) the first woman to get a college degree was…me! But my mother and grandmother caught up quickly. My mother graduated college shortly after I did, and my grandmother, Ada Ruth Cole Kelly, who had attended business college in the 1930s, completed her degree in English literature at the age of 72.

My grandmother, “Nanny,” at her college graduation with my daughter.

Fast forward to today, and my daughter is nearly to the finish line for a PhD from Princeton University. She won’t have to worry about a dozen kids and a truck farm, but she will no doubt have her own 21st century work-life balancing act to figure out.

Her many multi-tasking grandmothers are there to back her up, all the way!

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