Women's History

Spanning all time periods, classes, races, and occupations, the Library's sources for the study of women's history are among the finest and most comprehensive anywhere. Contained in nearly every collection are materials of interest to women's historians reflecting the full range of women's experiences, from Abigail Adams's declaration to her sister in 1799 that she would "never consent to have our sex considered in an inferior point of light" 1 to the remarks of cabinet secretary Patricia Roberts Harris, who, nearly two hundred years later, told a skeptical senator at her 1977 confirmation hearing, "If my life has any meaning at all, it is that those who start out as outcasts can wind up being part of the system." 2 The Manuscript Division's collections document Harris's and other women's struggle not only to join "the system" but also to reform and transcend it. These women, in the words of pioneer physician Elizabeth Blackwell, "did not wish to give them[selves] a first place, still less a second one--but the most complete freedom to take their true place whatever it may be . . ." 3 Shaker religious greeting, watercolor

Although there had long been an interest in the lives of notable women, the field of women's history, as it is practiced today, began in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the new emphasis on social history. The Manuscript Division was well prepared to support this emerging area of scholarship because its first curators, at the beginning of the twentieth century, had the foresight to begin assembling one of the nation's best collections for the study of women's experience in America. In 1903, the same year that President Theodore Roosevelt directed the transfer to the Manuscript Division of the State Department's presidential papers and historical manuscripts, Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford acquired the personal library and manuscripts of his friend Susan B. Anthony, the noted suffragist and reformer. Accompanying Anthony's papers were four portfolios of documents from her mentor, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the founders of the women's rights movement. Throughout the next half-century, the Manuscript Division augmented the Stanton and Anthony collections with the papers of other prominent suffragists--notably Carrie Chapman Catt and the Blackwell family--amassing in the process an unparalleled source of documents relating to American women's fight for the vote.

The division supplemented the papers of individual suffragists with the records of two significant organizations, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and its more militant offshoot, the National Woman's Party (NWP). Once suffrage was secured, the NAWSA regrouped as the League of Women Voters (LWV), whose records are also held by the division. The league, which initially worked with the NWP on a variety of women's and family issues, split with the more radical group over the NWP's campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), drafted by Alice Paul in 1923. Scholars researching the long and ultimately unsuccessful ERA campaign have available in the division numerous congressional collections as well as the records of both the Women's Joint Congressional Committee (WJCC), an umbrella organization of approximately ten women's and social reform groups which resisted the ERA, and the records of ERAmerica, a nationwide alliance of more than 130 civic, labor, church, and women's organizations founded in 1976 to promote ratification of the amendment that had passed Congress in 1972.

Many of the early suffragists and women's rights leaders came to the movement by way of the abolitionist cause; in their struggle to free the slaves, they became more aware of their own secondary status. The division's collections of Julia Ward Howe and Anna E. Dickinson papers are excellent sources for understanding women's involvement in the antislavery movement and the adoption of techniques and strategies from that struggle for use in the woman suffrage campaign. After women secured the right to vote, many former suffragists and their daughters became active in a variety of other reform initiatives, including advocacy of child-labor and child-abuse legislation, world peace, birth control, civil rights of minorities and women, conservation of natural resources, workplace safety, hour-and-wage legislation, fair labor standards, and consumer issues such as pure-food-and-drug legislation. The papers of Belle Case La Follette, Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, Sophonisba Breckinridge, Mary Church Terrell, and Margaret Sanger provide superb examples of women's twentieth-century reform impulse. Collections of personal papers are supplemented by large and extensive organizational records of the National Women's Trade Union League (NWTUL), National Consumers League (NCL), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), and Child Labor Committee.

In addition to documenting women's political activities, the division's holdings also serve historians attentive to women's everyday existence and the ways in which gender has shaped cultural affairs and domestic politics in the United States. Letters, diaries, and other papers of Elizabeth Shaw, Mercy Otis Warren, Dolley Madison, Anna Maria Thornton, Mary Todd Lincoln, Issa Desha Breckinridge, Edith Bolling Wilson, Evalyn Walsh McLean, Elizabeth Pennell, and the unknown female relatives corresponding with the hundreds of male politicians, soldiers, and sailors represented in the division's collections reflect the daily activities, concerns, and observations of American women from the colonial period through the twentieth century. Many of these women were less involved in reform crusades than in the daily struggle of existing in a society that devalued their contributions and restricted their activities. Their lives are recorded, if only because their papers often arrived in the division with the papers of a more famous husband, father, or brother.

Women's labor outside the home is also well documented, especially for the literate white middle class. Nineteenth-century work as missionary, teacher, and nurse is represented, for example, by the papers of Fidelia Church Coan, Myrtilla Miner, and Clara Barton. More recent collections reflect the expansion of women's employment opportunities in the twentieth century. Included, among others, are the papers of government officials Clare Boothe Luce, Ruth Hanna McCormick, Katie S. Louchheim, Shirley Hufstedler, and Patricia Roberts Harris. Anthropologist Margaret Mead, actresses Lillian Gish, Margaret Webster, and Ruth Gordon, aviator Marjorie Claire Stinson, sculptor Adelaide Johnson, and authors Shirley Jackson and Edna St. Vincent Millay are also represented. Moreover, diplomat Florence Jaffray Harriman, judges Florence E. Allen and Sandra Day O'Connor, and journalists Ruby Aurora Black, Bess Furman, Janet Flanner, Elisabeth May Craig, and Ethel L. Payne all have papers in the Manuscript Division.

Aside from the collections already mentioned, letters and other documents written by and about women are scattered throughout the division's voluminous holdings. By exercising some imagination and research skill, one can uncover fascinating letters from both well-known women, like Varina Davis, Helen Keller, Amelia Earhart, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Jacqueline Kennedy, and obscure women, such as those whose diaries and papers comprise the division's Shaker Collection. Through a combination of collections documenting the lives of both notable and unknown women, the Manuscript Division provides an unparalleled source for students of American women's history.

Selected items relating to:

Women's History

1. Abigail Adams to Elizabeth Shaw, 19 July 1799, Elizabeth S. Shaw Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

2. New York Times, 11 January 1977.

3. Elizabeth Blackwell to Baroness Anne Milbanke Byron, 4 March 1851, Blackwell Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Women's History Items List | Words and Deeds

am Sep-8-97