Finding a whisper of ourselves in the lives of our female forebears

Uncovering female family history at the Mackay Regional Council Libraries
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In 2016 librarian Donna Kellion from the Mackay Regional Council Libraries and author and researcher Jennifer Perry came together to create a family history learning program for members of their community to uncover information about their female ancestors. The program shares digital and physical resources and skills and makes use of an innovative video-diary format. Six years later, the program has been a huge success, with participants from all years of the program continuing to meet fortnightly to support each other in their research and lives.

We chatted with Jennifer and Donna to hear all about the origins, outcomes and meaning of this remarkable program.

Where did the idea for 'Who do you think she is?' come from?

Donna: As Digital Literacy and Young Adult Librarian, Family History does not really fall into my library job description. However, I have an interest in the area so I received permission from my supervisor to try a couple of programs. These were quite successful and caught the attention of Jennifer Perry, a former president of the local Family History Society, an author and academic with particular interest in women in history and the effect lives of our female ancestors can have on us in the present day.

In late 2015 Jennifer and I had a meeting and about an hour or so later we had drafted the bones of the 'Who Do You Think She Is?' (WDYTSI?) program, using Jennifer’s idea for the name.

We began the first eight-week program in February 2016, and it has been held annually since then. During COVID we were forced to cut short the 2020 program.

After the initial program, the participants did not wish to stop meeting. So, with support from Mackay Regional Council Libraries, they continued to meet fortnightly to go on with research, share their wins and frustrations, and generally support each other. Women from the second year joined them, the third year and so on. Jennifer is still a driving force behind the regular group, but they take turns in discussion topics, presentations and planning. I drop in every couple of months to show something of a digital nature, or to organise a video presentation via the State Library of Queensland, for example.

A group of women smile for the camera

The first group of 'Who do you think she is?' participants in 2016. Back row (left to right): Karen Gower, Roseanne Wood, Margaret Hall, Jill Butler, Zelda Warner-Hall, a guest, Rhonda Head, Janette McGrath, Donna Kellion and her collague Delveen Icardi. Front row (left to right): Daphne Grinberg, Denise Neville and Sandra Winton.

Did you feel that family history could often be a bit male-dominated?

Jennifer: The records are often skewed towards the patriarchal, yes. Raising the research skills of participants, in order to navigate those records and glean the women’s history from them, is one of the chief aims of WDYTSI?

Are there any common reasons why people sign up to be involved?

Jennifer: I believe its more than just curiosity. Perhaps the participants are searching for a whisper of themselves in the lives of their female forbears. Many of the women studied survived unimaginable hardships and abuse. Many of the same women showed incredible resilience to eventually thrive and become highly respected members of their communities. Some did not. However their stories may unfold, none of the women have failed to be touched in some way by their female forbears.

Many of the participants have said that until they saw an advertisement about researching women’s history, they had not thought of researching the women in their family. They had just assumed either the male version was the only one – or that their females had not done anything.

A woman in a computer lab holds a print-out of a historical document.

Participants using digital resources. Sandra Winton (in front) with Roseanne Wood and Jill Butler (behind).

You ask participants to create video-diaries, providing interviews. Why? Did you find this was a useful process for family history researchers?

Jennifer: The video diaries were offered to participants as a method of recording their journey through the eight-week program. At the time I was thinking it would be more of a technical record as to how their research was progressing, next steps etc. Which it is, however, we have found the video diaries to be reflective of the emotional journey participants embark on as they take on and digest information as to their female ancestors’ lives. They can become quite entwined with the challenges and successes and speak to these during the interviews.

Excerpts from 2018 video-diaries.

What library resources to attendees use?

Donna: All Queensland public libraries offer access to Library edition (in house only) which is naturally very useful. Should the participants ancestor have history in the Mackay region, then we can naturally make use of the Heritage Collection housed locally. However, we take participants through all resources available at public, state and national library level, state and national archives, and overseas resources such as British Library Newspapers.

The incredible resource that is Trove is naturally at the top of the list for all kinds of research. I especially like to point out the ephemera that can be gleaned from Trove, assisting to build the life story around our ancestors. 

Family history research can be emotional. Exciting, moving and sometimes frustrating. Were attendees open about expressing these emotions in their videos and with each other?

A woman presents in front of a projector screen to a group of women learning

Donna Kellion presenting during the program in 2022. Attendees (left to right): Madonna Woods, Rosemarie Richardson, Anne Robinson, Daphne Grinberg, Janette McGrath, Linnea Phillips, Lisa Vassallo, Rhonda Head. 

Donna: Absolutely! While some participants took more time than others to really embrace the video diaries, they were very open with each other right from the outset. And those with local family history often found shared experiences and even common relatives. As to sharing frustrations, one of the enormous benefits of the ongoing group is that as the women become more adept at research and overcoming brick walls, they are enthusiastic helpers in assisting newcomers. The next time we hear a ”Whoop!” of joy coming from a couple of heads bent over a laptop will not be the first.

Did they find the experience bonding as a group? Does it provide opportunities for making friends, and community connection?

Donna: Jennifer and I have found it wonderful to observe the friendships formed via the WDYTSI? group. Some have traveled together through common family history landscapes, and many have supported each other through challenging times. Through their common interest they have formed their own wonderful little community group.

Women having tea together.

Participants having a tea party for a Christmas get-together 2021. From front left: Zelda Warner-Hall, Lisa Vassallo, Daphne Grinberg, Linnae Phillips, Rhonda Head, Ruth Wegner and Margaret Hall.

Have there been any research outputs from the program?

Donna: For International Women’s Day this year we tasked the women to write a short biography about a local woman. If the women did not have a local woman in their family history, they were encouraged to make use of the Heritage Collection here at the library. We were able to display 12 biographies in total, bringing forth amazing stories of the female contribution to the formation of the Mackay region.

Jennifer: A few of the women are in the process of writing up their family history and are now much more aware that history is the product of both male and female ancestors’ actions. Some have just focused on shorter writing concentrating on one female. A few participants have undertaken family history research trips inter-state and overseas.That sense of walking where a female ancestor has lived has been an emotional moment. It is lovely to share such stories in the group. We all ‘get it’.

What is the most meaningful impact of this work?

Jennifer: Exploring women’s history, especially through the prism of one’s own female ancestors affords participants the chance to develop perspective on how and why things are the way they are for women today. Reflecting on your own life is of course a worthwhile experience, however stepping just that bit further back to get a more ‘helicopter’ view of the conditions and circumstances that shape women’s contemporary and historical lives has repeatedly proven to be quite empowering. And a lot can be learned by taking an inter-generational perspective as well. Sometimes the reason an ancestor chose a particular action can best be understood by exploring what happened in the prior generations (her mother and grandmother etc). Similarly, it can be through exploring the lives of daughters that values and attitudes of the parents can be revealed.

Women exploring and knowing their female stories is a lot more than just a curiosity or a hobby – knowing their history gives women a context for their lives today.