Do our family histories matter?

Author: Tanya Evans, Associate Professor and Director of the Centre for Applied History at Macquarie University

One of the reasons I became a historian of the family was because I grew up troubled by my own mother’s life. History can show us how mothers’ lives have changed and how political the seemingly natural category of motherhood is. The familial is always less familiar than it seems, as many millions of family historians continue to discover around the world.

Julie Poulter is a family historian who was actively involved in the writing of my third book on the history of the family Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial NSW. She had always enjoyed the stories her grandmother told her about her family’s lives. When she was still a teenager Julie took detailed notes as she and other female relatives spoke. This laid the groundwork for her love of history. Lots of family historians in varied national contexts tell me how their passion for history was fostered in this way – through conversations with older, often female, relatives. Julie acknowledges her family history research, like many family historians I have collaborated with, as a feminist project:

Perhaps why I have become so attached to Jane’s story is informed by my own mother’s family history. … On my maternal side I come from a long line of strong independent women… I am the beneficiary of those who have come before me and fought for equal rights… researching history and genealogy gives me a more rounded view of how marriage/motherhood/fatherhood has changed over time and allows me to advocate for a fairer system all round for fathers, mothers and most importantly, the children.

Picture taken at the launch of Fractured Families – Julie Poulter is on the right, beside Tanya Evans

Julie claims that “Family history research is almost my favourite thing in the world to do! I have decided to not have children, and as a result have much more time to devote to the family history cause! This will be my legacy.”

It is due to the diligence and detective work of an army of family historians like Julie working globally and often collaboratively that we can learn about our maternal ancestors. Julie gives voice to these women in the present, whereas past societies tried to marginalize and silence them.

Using surveys and oral history interviews conducted with family historians in Australia, England and Canada, my research analyses the labour of family historians. I examine people’s motivations for undertaking family history research and the transformative impact of knowledge about family history on individuals as well as on society more broadly. I show how family historians are motivated by their affective ties to ancestors to undertake their research; how feminism often informs their work and the ways in which they are using family history to learn about women’s history; how that produces new knowledge about mothering, which urges them to challenge the gendered expectations of women’s labour in the present, amongst other gender norms. Many family historians begin to produce their family histories because they ‘owe’ their ancestors the benefit of their research skills, their historical knowledge and the time it takes to reveal their life stories.

It has become obvious to me that research and communication about the past has enormous pedagogic and political potential providing family historians with social, emotional and cultural capital that transforms their understandings of themselves and the world in which they live. Julie Poulter, for example, after reading Fractured Families post-publication, wrote to tell me how much she had appreciated the focus on the ‘failures’ of colonial Australian society. Family history often involves the rediscovery of women’s lives in the past; this knowledge is being used to reimagine present-day families, familial relationships and female legacy. Millions of family historians busy producing women’s, feminist and gender history around the world have the potential to have a far greater impact on our collective knowledge of motherhood and family life than most academic historians of the family. This is why I think public historians need to collaborate with them and engage with their insights in our work.

Further Reading:

Jerome De Groot, DNA and the Past, April 2018.

Laura King, Living with Dying

Associate Professor Tanya Evans is Director of the Centre for Applied History, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia.

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