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American Women: Topical Essays

Part of the American Women series, this essay, by Susan Ware, traces the evolution and current status of the field of women's history, highlighting major research themes and scholarly concepts.

American Women: An Overview

Abstract: A pioneer in the field of women’s history and a leading feminist biographer, Susan Ware is the author and editor of numerous books on twentieth-century U.S. history. Educated at Wellesley College and Harvard University, she has taught at New York University and Harvard, where she served as editor of the biographical dictionary Notable American Women: Completing the Twentieth Century (2004). Susan Ware chaired the academic advisory board for the book American Women. Ware has long been associated with the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study where she serves as the Honorary Women’s Suffrage Centennial Historian. The Library of America will publish a women’s suffrage anthology edited by Ware in 2020. In this introductory essay, Ware traces the evolution and current status of the field of women's history, highlights major research themes and scholarly concepts, and describes her own research experiences identifying and utilizing women's history materials in the various divisions of the Library of Congress.

[Women competing in low hurdle race, Washington, D.C.]. [between 1920 and 1930]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

In the classic feminist text A Room of One's Own (1929), Virginia Woolf tells the story of going to the British Museum to do research for an upcoming lecture on women and fiction. “If truth is not to be found on the shelves of the British Museum,” she asked herself, “where . . . is truth?”1 Her search was not an especially satisfying one. She found many books written by men on the subject of women, all of them totally useless to her task at hand. She left discouraged, feeling an outsider in the men's world of knowledge and scholarship.

If Virginia Woolf were to walk into the Library of Congress or any major library or research facility today, she would have a far different experience. Instead of finding the subject of women neglected, excluded, or marginalized, she would confront a wealth of information on topics concerning women and gender that would have been inconceivable in the 1920s, or even as late as the 1960s. Now the problem is not too little material on women: it is how to master and find one's way through the explosion of feminist scholarship of the past three decades. Just as important, a whole range of previously overlooked documents and sources unearthed by feminist scholars sheds new light on women's experiences in the past and present.

This website is designed to introduce researchers to the enormous opportunities for discovering American women's history and culture at the Library of Congress. In addition to textual sources, it covers materials such as films and sound recordings, prints and photographs, and other audio or visual material. Its intended audience includes academics, advanced graduate students, genealogists, documentary filmmakers, set and costume designers, artists, actors, novelists, photo researchers, general readers, and, of course, the modern-day equivalents of Virginia Woolf.

[Modelès de Madame Carlier]. [1897]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Few fields of American history have grown as dramatically as that of women's history over the past several decades. Courses in women's history are now standard in most colleges and universities, taught by specialists who have trained in the field; many schools also have interdisciplinary women's studies programs. Professors and graduate students continue to produce a wide range of scholarship on issues of women and gender. Textbooks that once relegated their coverage of women to luminaries such as Abigail Adams, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sojourner Truth, or Eleanor Roosevelt now include full discussions of major topics and viewpoints in women's history as an integrated part of their general narrative. Although there is still controversy about how American history should be taught, it seems unlikely that we will ever return to the days when women were totally absent from history books or broader historical narratives.

The challenge of women's history is not a simple question of “add women and stir.” It means rethinking and rewriting the story. Linda Gordon, whose pioneering work in the 1970s on the history of the birth control movement helped spur the development of the field, explained: women's history

“does not simply add women to the picture we already have of the past, like painting additional figures into the spaces of an already completed canvas. It requires repainting the earlier pictures, because some of what was previously on the canvas was inaccurate and more of it was misleading.”2

That ability to force us to look at history in new ways, with new questions and a much wider array of historical actors, is one of the most important contributions that women's history has made, and continues to make, to the writing and teaching of American history. Gerda Lerner, another pioneer in women's history and a leading feminist theorist, remarked in 1981:

“What we have to offer, for consciousness, is a correct analysis of what the world is like. Up to now we have had a partial analysis. Everything that explains the world has in fact explained a world that does not exist, a world in which men are at the center of the human enterprise and women are at the margin ‘helping’ them. Such a world does not exist—never has. Men and women have built society and have built the world. Women have been central to it. This revolutionary insight is itself a force, a force that liberates and transforms.”

Knowledge is power, says Lerner: “Women's history is the primary tool for women's emancipation.”3

Writing Women's History: The Early Years

Home Washing Machine & Wringer.. ca. 1869. Popular and Applied Graphic Arts. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Although the revival of feminism encouraged a giant leap forward in the 1970s, women's history did not start from scratch. Women's history itself has a history, which, in turn, has influenced how the field developed, what kinds of questions were asked at various points in time, and how the field interacted with larger contours of American history in general. This process is ongoing. One of the most vibrant things about the field of women's history is its determination to avoid complacency. According to Linda Gordon, women's historians have been “continuously self-critical of our generalizations.”4 To revisit some of those earlier generalizations and to examine how the questions have been recast and deepened over time provides a good introduction to the field as a whole.5

Some of the earliest work in American women's history dates to the nineteenth century. Usually produced by amateur historians, these works are often referred to as “compensatory” or “contributory” history because they focused on previously unknown or neglected contributions that women had made to various aspects of the American experience. Many of these early historical works were biographies of famous women, often authors, first ladies, or women otherwise defined by their relationship to prominent men, a focus that became less dominant as the field matured. Not terribly sophisticated methodologically but often written in a lively and accessible style, these early attempts to put women in history were nevertheless important for showing that the materials and resources existed to write about women's lives and their contributions to American life.

As certain American women, primarily those of the white middle class, gained access to higher education and professional training in the late nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth centuries, the range of scholarship expanded, although it remained on the margins of how American history was taught and conceptualized. Women were just not seen as subjects worthy of historical inquiry. That did not stop scholars from publishing in this field. Mary Beard's Woman as Force in History (1946), for example, challenged the view of women as victims by emphasizing women's agency, and Eleanor Flexner offered a meticulously researched narrative of the women's rights movement from Seneca Falls through the winning of suffrage in 1920 in Century of Struggle (1959). When women's history as an academic discipline began to grow dramatically in the 1970s, these pioneering books, along with feminist classics such as Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (published in France in 1949, and available in translation in the United States in 1953), became highly influential texts for second-wave feminism.6

Writing Women's History: 1960's - 1990's

Various factors came together in the late 1960s and 1970s to fuel the growth of women's history:

  • the waves of social protest set in motion by the civil rights movement in the 1950s, in which women as well as men participated;
  • the climate of protest prompted by the war in Vietnam;
  • the revival of feminism as a national issue, sparked in part by Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique (1963) and also by the emergence of women's liberation separate from the New Left;
  • the demographic changes in women's lives, including higher workforce participation and widening access to higher education;
  • an especially critical intellectual factor was the emergence of social history, which looked at the lives of ordinary Americans, and thus challenged the traditional focus on wars, presidents, and great men.
The Black Patti, Mme. M. Sissieretta Jones the greatest singer of her race. [1899]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Emboldened by the revival of feminism, many female scholars (and a few male colleagues) began actively asking new and different questions from history, often linked to the sweeping changes going on in their own lives. As historian Linda Kerber noted aptly, “activists are hungry for their history.”7 Professors who had been trained in traditional fields such as diplomatic history or Russian history switched their research interests to women's history, almost training themselves as they went. So new—and to some departments and university administrators, so threatening—were the first courses in women's history that it practically felt like a revolutionary act to teach or take one. As these scholars taught, researched, and wrote, they developed new approaches to history: the concept of separate spheres, recognition of difference, the concept of gender, construction of masculinity, qand focus on language and discourse.

In this exciting and creative time for women's history in the 1970s, much of the early research focused on the concept of separate spheres in mid-nineteenth-century America, that is, the way in which women's lives were directed toward the familial and private whereas men inhabited the wider world of politics, work, and public life. Although much of this early work targeted separate spheres as an example of the oppression of women, there was also a competing, and at times simultaneous, emphasis on the empowerment and autonomy women could enjoy in a world where, in Carroll Smith-Rosenberg's phrase, “men made but a shadowy appearance.”8 This balancing act between victimization or oppression on the one hand and women's agency or activism on the other continues to shape the field today.

Exciting as this outpouring of new research was, the limits of the separate spheres paradigm soon became apparent, one of many instances where women's history has shown its ability to criticize itself and move beyond working generalizations, or to discard them entirely. African American scholars pointed out that the separate spheres concept had little relevance to the lives of black women, for whom restriction to a domestic sphere was virtually negated by institutions like slavery or the need to seek paid employment outside the home. Scholars who studied working-class or immigrant women made the same point. The separate spheres model was also very dependent on sources from New England, with less bearing for the South or, especially, the West. Furthermore, it began to dawn on scholars that white middle-class women might have as much or more in common with men of their own social and economic class than with other women. Later scholars chipped away even more at the notion of a universal female experience by demonstrating that the line between public and private was much more fluid than prescriptive literature reflected.

This dethroning of the concept of sisterhood, and its replacement with a recognition of difference (the diversity of women's experiences, not their commonality), was well under way by the early 1980s. Difference has continued to be one of the most important organizing concepts of women's history. No longer was it enough to say “women”—scholars had to make it clear which women they were talking about. Women were divided by a range of factors that included race, class, ethnicity, religion, geography, age, sexual orientation, and so forth.

This scholarly trend interacted with the emergence of identity politics, that is, the tendency to situate oneself politically and socially in relation to a range of self-defined identities. There was also increasing recognition of conflicts among women and the unequal power dynamics shaping relations between women: mistresses on Southern plantations and their female slaves; white professional women whose careers were made possible by cheap domestic help, usually black or minority women; or white native-born social workers and their working-class and immigrant clients. Suddenly it became much harder to make generalizations about the category of woman. Jacquelyn Dowd Hall challenged historians, “Think simultaneously about the construct ‘woman’ and about concrete, class- and race-specific historical women.”9

Currier & Ives. The good husband: the fruits of temperance and industry. c1870. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Another new trend in the 1980s was the growing acceptance of the concept of gender, a term that was virtually nonexistent in 1970s scholarship. Gender refers to the historical and cultural constructions of roles assigned to the biological differences and attributes of men and women. If one could do a key word search of women's history scholarship of the past twenty years, “gender” would probably rival “women” as the most frequently cited word. Although there is no single women's history methodology or approach, the emphasis on gender provides a unifying theme to much of the scholarship on women being produced today. Joan Scott's enormously influential 1986 article “Gender: A Useful Tool of Historical Analysis” played a key role here.10 Another way to date this shift is to examine the number of book titles that began to use the word in their titles, such as Ruth Milkman's Gender at Work: The Dynamics of Job Segregation by Sex during World War II (1987).

In addition to its fruitfulness for women's history, gender analysis has also spurred new scholarship on the construction of masculinity and the way men's roles have changed over time, although some scholars fear that this new trend is just an excuse to deflect attention away from women. In any case, the concept of gender has been stretched far beyond the realization that individuals are influenced by gender roles and expectations. Because all historical actors have a gender, practically any historical question or topic from diplomacy to leisure to state policy can theoretically be subjected to a gender analysis. As Kathleen Brown shows in her study of colonial Virginia, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs (1996), gender never functions in isolation, but in relationship to other factors such as race or class. Karen Anderson argues that gender should be seen “as a constituent element in all social relations, particularly race and class, and in all institutions, including families and political and economic systems and associations. Gender identities are understood as politicized identities that women and men seek to enact or reform in specific historical contexts.”11

In the 1990s, in addition to widening attention to the intersections of race, class, and gender, practitioners of women's history and gender studies took what has been called a “linguistic turn.” Spurred in part by writings from French scholars such as Jacques Derrida and especially Michel Foucault, American historians began to analyze more deeply questions of language and discourse, that is, the ways in which underlying power structures and inequalities were forged and maintained in words, speech, and other representations (see “With Peace and Freedom Blest! Woman as Symbol” in this volume).

Literary criticism and cultural analysis challenged the authenticity of the text itself, questioning its voice by showing that experience and identity were never simple or unmediated. For example, categories such as “heterosexual” and “homosexual” were shown to be historically constructed, not innate or immutable, with the emergence of a heterosexual identity (as well as other sexual orientations) a fairly recent development.Women's historians incorporated insights from much of this theoretical work into their own scholarship, deploying the use of language and the analysis of words to scrutinize topics like the body and further illuminate the arenas of race, class, and difference.

Writing Women's History: Today

Edward S. Curtis, photographer. Hupa female shaman. c1923. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

One way to think about women's history today is to realize how many of its major concerns are focused and oriented toward relationships: in addition to the reigning trilogy of race, class, and gender, the field addresses relationships between groups of women, between structures of power and their subjects, between regions and nationalities, and so forth. Many of these relationships are power relations, as Mary Beth Norton cogently documents in Founding Mothers and Fathers:Gendered Power and the Forming of American Society (1997), and they are all fluid formations, constantly shifting and mutating. What women's history seeks is a multifaceted approach that will be sufficient, in the words of Joanne Meyerowitz, “to illuminate the interconnections among the various systems of power that shape women's lives.”

One of the most far-reaching items on the women's history agenda is the continued interrogation of the concept of whiteness. Too often in the literature white women have appeared as raceless, their experiences shaped entirely by gender. In contrast, African American women and other women of color were viewed primarily in terms of their race, to the exclusion of factors such as class and gender. Yet historians now realize that everyone has ethnicity and race, that whiteness is as much a racial identity as being black or Latina. As a result, historians have been able to unmask the embedded racism of much of past white middle-class women's experiences, where such women, claiming to speak for all women, were in fact speaking from their dominant race and class positions. Such insights have significantly shaped new research in areas such as women's suffrage and the history of imperialism.

A multicultural approach, that is, one that recognizes difference and diversity in women's experiences, is also at the center of contemporary scholarship on women and gender. One of the important contributions of this approach is that it moves the field of history beyond the old framework of seeing race matters solely in terms of black and white. Here the contributions of Western historians have been especially important, because the geographical region they are describing fails to fit neatly into anything resembling a biracial dichotomy. Where would that leave Native American women, Latinas, and Asian women, who often existed side by side with black and Anglo women in Western communities?

This widened field of vision once again forces historians to put issues of diversity in race, class, and gender relationships at the heart of all questions under inquiry. There is an important caveat, however: multiculturalism and diversity cannot become a question of merely recognizing and adding previously excluded groups because then diversity runs the risk of normalizing white middle-class practice and marginalizing everyone else as “other.” Such an outcome, in turn, is simply a cover for existing race, class, gender, and heterosexual domination. Like most other things in life, conceptualizing women's history is always a balancing act.

One of the greatest accomplishments of women's history over the past three decades has been the extensive documentation of the contours of African American women's history. This rich outpouring of research, on everything from education to suffrage to work to slavery to music, has brought the enormous contributions made by African American women to their communities and to the country at large into the historical record. As monographs were being written and oral history interviews conducted, new documents and sources were uncovered which are now available to scholars and researchers.

Research on Asian American women, Latinas, Puerto Rican women, and immigrants from the Caribbean and South American countries has also begun in earnest, but because the fields are much newer and the number of practitioners smaller, they have not yet had the impact on broader scholarship that African American historiography has. These areas are likely to experience major growth over the next decade. From these subfields and the fruitful scholarship being done on the multicultural West, women's history has already learned the utility of concepts like borderlands, intercultural borders, frontiers, and contact zones. Once again women's history will be pushing the boundaries as it ventures into new areas of exploration and research.

Rewriting Women's History

R.W. Harrison, photographer. [Six generations] c1823. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Contemporary women's history scholarship also rewrites topics that had once seemed settled or fully explored by asking different questions and using new approaches. An excellent example is the women's suffrage movement (see “Marching for the Vote”). Documentation of the history of women's suffrage began in 1881 during the movement itself, with the compilation of the multivolume History of Woman Suffrage by Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, and Matilda Joslyn Gage, an important if flawed source (it focused on only one wing of the movement, ignoring the contributions of the other). Eleanor Flexner's Century of Struggle (1959) brought the story to a new generation of readers, and the early women's rights movement became the focus of some of the most influential early works in women's history, such as Gerda Lerner's The Grimké Sisters from South Carolina: Rebels against Slavery (1967) and Ellen Carol Dubois's Feminism and Suffrage: The Emergence of an Independent Women's Movement in America, 1848-1869 (1978).

Interest in suffrage has ebbed and flowed, but it has risen recently as historians probe more deeply into the embedded racism of much of the suffragists' ideology and leadership strategies. Spurred in part by scholarship on the often troubled relationship between white and African American suffragists, as well as by the new emphasis on analyzing whiteness as a category, historians have demonstrated how white suffrage leaders basically privileged the white middle-class female as the norm, the standard to be aspired to, in the United States and throughout the world. A topic that once seemed to be mainly about winning the vote now presents a window on issues such as racism, imperialism, and power.

The growing interest in suffrage is also part of a resurgence of interest in political history. In the early days of women's history, inspired largely by the dramatic growth of social history, most attention focused on the lives of ordinary women, with political elites or prominent women given a lower priority. Partly as a byproduct of moving beyond the separate spheres paradigm, historians began to realize that women had been much more involved in the public sphere than previously suspected. They may not have been voters or held political office, but they influenced public policy nonetheless: through voluntary associations, churches and charities, family connections, or even participation in mob actions or other public demonstrations not usually associated with “the weaker sex.” Any former notions of women as nonpolitical have gone by the wayside. Or to put it another way, women's history has helped broaden the definition of what is political in ways that have been productive not only for research on women and gender but also for the field of American political history.

Currier & Ives. The age of brass. Or the triumphs of woman's rights. 1869. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

As part of a new attention to the making of public policy and how public authority is forged, historians have also turned a more critical eye to areas like the growth of the state and state policy, especially on issues affecting women and children such as welfare laws. As another example of how topics in women's history continue to grow and deepen, early work on the New Deal in the 1930s focused on the contributions that an elite band of women—primarily white but also including Mary McLeod Bethune—made to the formulation of New Deal policies. Building on that basis, later studies asked harder questions. It was no longer enough to know that women administrators were active in the New Deal; historians wanted to determine how the attitudes of those women affected the policies that they were developing and administering. In the case of social security, first passed in 1935, the law was written from a very conservative premise: that men were breadwinners, that women were primarily wives, and that any system of old-age insurance should be built on that dichotomy. Women administrators bought into this deeply gendered conceptualization and perpetuated it, despite the fact that their own lives diverged from such a model. Similar investigations into Progressive-era labor legislation and public policy from the 1960s and 1970s have uncovered previously undetected gender assumptions that now shape how historians view these periods of legislative activism.

Another field to which women's history has increasingly turned in recent years is biography. Of course, biographies of famous women have been standard fare since the nineteenth century, but in the excitement of the rediscovery of women's history in the 1960s and 1970s and the ascendancy of social history, biographies of well-known or influential women were fairly uncommon. (Gerda Lerner's book on the Grimké sisters and Kathryn Kish Sklar's 1973 biography of Catharine Beecher are notable exceptions.) And yet historians were intrigued by biography because it allowed them a window into many aspects of women's lives, be she ordinary (like Martha Ballard in Laurel Thacher Ulrich's A Midwife's Tale) or extraordinary (Eleanor Roosevelt as portrayed in Blanche Wiesen Cook's volumes). Especially important to the field of biography as a whole has been the insistence of feminist scholars that attention must always be paid to the interplay between the personal and the professional in forging an interpretation of a subject's overall significance.

One of the strongest continuities of women's history scholarship, stretching back to Progressive-era investigations of conditions of women's industrial work, such as Margaret Byington's Homestead: The Household of a Mill Town (1910) and Katherine Anthony's Mothers Who Must Earn (1914), is its focus on women's work, and this emphasis is alive and well. “Women have always worked” is a generalization that truly does stand up to scrutiny, and historians have documented the range of women's contributions, from industrial work to labor organizing to the significant theoretical recognition that women's unpaid domestic labor is critical to (and usually undercounted in) the wider economy. Also of interest have been the sectors of the economy where women traditionally have clustered: domestic service, waitressing, teaching, nursing, clerical work, librarianship, social work, and the like. How these occupations became typed as female, and why they have stayed that way despite monumental changes in the meaning of work and in the realities of women's lives, is a question that still tantalizes historians.

Model dining room at Agricultural and mechanical college, Greensboro, N.C.. 1899?. African American Photographs Assembled for 1900 Paris Exposition. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Another question that has been a constant on the women's history agenda concerns women and social change. From the beginning, historians have documented the wide variety of women's contributions to their communities and to public life. Through voluntary associations, religious groups, professional organizations, activist groups, and other forums, women have often been in the forefront of movements of social change, not always as the leaders, but certainly behind the scenes. Until recently these vital contributions have often been hidden from history, or at least overlooked. Women's activism, on the left and on the right, confirms the importance of expanding historians' notions of what constitutes the political.

An area that has always fascinated women's historians is that of sexuality. Because sexual practices are both a private activity and a public concern (expressed in such ways as laws regulating prostitution or homosexuality), it has often been easier to document the latter than the former. As part of the general challenge to a notion of a universal female experience, and influenced by the emergence of an activist gay liberation movement, innovative research has uncovered a far wider range of sexual identities and communities than previously recognized. Nor is this phenomenon limited to sophisticated urban areas like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. Same-sex friendships, a topic that received a great deal of attention in the 1970s because of the separate spheres ideology, also continue to intrigue historians, who try to understand what these relationships meant to the women involved and then try to place the friendships into their broader historical context.

Now that America has entered the twenty-first century, it is appropriate that a fast-growing area of historical inquiry concerns women's transnationalism and globalization. The increasing number of comparative studies that cross both political and cultural boundaries also reflects this trend. Paralleling the theoretical effort to challenge and displace a white middle-class experience as the norm for all human experience is a parallel effort to dislodge the United States, and Western civilization, from a privileged position as the universal (and only) model of progress. Historians who have studied the interactions between American women's organizations and their foreign equivalents have often been struck by how deeply, and unconsciously, women who consider themselves feminists will hold up the Western model as the only one for the advancement of women. As historians document the extensive contact that American women's groups had with similar organizations beyond national borders, they show one direction that women's history will likely take in the future.

As this necessarily abbreviated survey of the state of women's history has documented, the field is constantly generating new questions, new topics, and more sophisticated ways of interpreting and contextualizing material. But no matter what the questions are, research and documentation are needed to answer them. Sometimes it is a case of finding totally new sources and documents to tell a story that needs to be told, but far more often it is a matter of revisiting more traditional sources and asking different questions of them. That is where the rich resources of the Library of Congress come in. For practically any question in women's history, the Library of Congress is an excellent place to pursue in-depth research.

Research at the Library of Congress

When the Library of Congress was established in 1800, it did not necessarily plan to become a major repository for material documenting the contributions of women to American life, but that, indeed, has happened over the two centuries of its existence. This material has arrived by a variety of routes, some direct and others quite circuitous. As part of the copyright registration process, books, sound recordings, motion pictures, prints and photographs, and other unique historical sources were placed on deposit in Washington. Even though the Library of Congress does not have every book ever published, its massive collections make it the library of record for the rest of the country. Its holdings include many different types of materials specifically devoted to the topic of women, but also a vast array of sources that contain unexpected nuggets of data or information for unlocking women's history.

Charles Howard Johnson, artist. For the benefit of the girl about to graduate. [1890]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

A similar process is at work in the extensive manuscript and rare book collections: some collections, like those relating to woman suffrage, specifically relate to women, but many others, which on their face seem to have little to do with women, in fact hold major treasures. One example discussed in the chapter on manuscripts is the papers from members of Congress. Separated from their families and living a bachelor life in the nation's capital, what did congressmen do at night? They wrote home to their families about what was happening in Washington. And what did the congressional wives do? They wrote back detailed descriptions of their family and domestic concerns, and business concerns as well, thus supplying a rich source for documenting the lives of women of a certain class position. The collections were first acquired because of the importance of the male politicians, but the wives' letters are there nonetheless, ready for the kind of rediscovery and reinterpretation that is the bread and butter of women's history.

This web site is organized the same way that the Library of Congress is: by its major reading rooms. In each major section you will find descriptions of important holdings and collections that relate to women's history. Perusing these pages and seeing the wealth of material pertaining to women will suggest the kinds of topics and questions that could be researched. To demonstrate how researchers may actually use such material from the resources of the Library of Congress, five other essays have been included that touch on some of the significant issues with which historians of women have grappled. These essays figuratively are the end products of a process that might begin when a researcher walks into any of the Library's reading rooms. For advice on how to use the Library of Congress, see Planning Your Visit and Searching LC Catalogs. Researchers might also want to consult two previously published guides: The African-American Mosaic: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Black History and Culture (1993) and Many Nations: A Library of Congress Resource Guide for the Study of Indian and Alaska Native Peoples of the United States (1996), as well as the print version of this web site, American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women's History and Culture in the United States (2001).

Two tips for doing research run through the entire site and have influenced its organization and presentation. The first piece of advice is not to limit research to one type of source or document, but to sample the Library's many divisions in an interdisciplinary manner. The second is that there is no single way to approach the Library's collections. Researchers should explore the finding tools, indexes, and other resources described on this site and consult the reference staff in each reading room. Often the answers to the questions being researched can be found in a variety of places, and it is vital to cast the net widely.

One of the great attractions of doing research at the Library of Congress is the opportunity to consult many types of sources in one location, as I have found while researching a biography of radio talk show pioneer Mary Margaret McBride (1899-1976). From the 1930s through the 1950s, McBride built a loyal audience of millions of women (and not a few men) who tuned in to her program every day at one o'clock. A superb interviewer, Mary Margaret (her fans and guests were all on a first-name basis with her) welcomed the famous and the not-so-famous to her show, always eliciting interesting stories and ideas that connected her home-bound audience to the wider world. She even did her own commercials, earning a reputation as one of the most effective saleswomen on radio. If Mary Margaret said to buy a certain brand of carrots or gingerbread at the local store, her fans would pick the shelves clean.

To research this biography, I need to make use of no fewer than six collections or reading rooms at the Library of Congress, and this web site offers me a useful and complete introduction to each one of them:

  • The bulk of my research is being conducted in the Recorded Sound Section, which has approximately 1,200 hours of transcribed tapes of her radio broadcasts. There I sit in a listening booth and pretend that I am one of Mary Margaret's listeners.
  • When I want to take a break from that, I can watch her unsuccessful attempt to turn herself into a television personality in the 1950s with kinescopes and videotapes available through the Motion Picture and Television Reading Room.
  • Historians like paper sources too, and luckily both the Recorded Sound Reference Center of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division and the Manuscript Reading Room have major collections of her papers, including correspondence, letters from fans, radio logs, photographs, and memorabilia.
  • Before McBride entered radio, she was a journalist, and I can track down articles she published through the extensive periodicals collection housed in the General Collections, which also contain the publications of many of her guests.
  • To find newspaper coverage of her show, I can consult newspapers from major cities across the country in the Newspaper and Current Periodical Room.
  • If I want to find out more about the part of Missouri that she originally came from, I can go to the Geography and Map Reading Room.

I have been doing research at the Library of Congress for almost twenty-five years, and I am still learning about its rich resources. All the scholars who served as advisers to this project—Eileen Boris, Joanne Braxton, Carol Karlsen, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Vicki Ruiz—had a similar reaction as they participated in the preparation of this resource: each of us learned an enormous amount of useful, practical information about doing research at the Library of Congress, and, in fact, about doing research in general. We were collectively stimulated and excited by the possibilities of new research topics and ideas suggested by the material described. And we have all been enormously impressed by the knowledge and dedication of the members of the Library of Congress staff to making this material widely and easily accessible to researchers who wish to use it. This women's history resource guide is just the first step on what should be a fascinating and productive journey for any researcher, new or old, who enters the Library's doors. Unlike Virginia Woolf, you will not leave empty handed.


  1. Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1929; PN471.W6 1929a), 25-26. Back to text
  2. Linda Gordon, U.S. Women's History (Washington: American Historical Association, 1997), 2. Back to text
  3. “Gerda Lerner on the Future of Our Past,” interview by Catharine R. Stimpson, Ms.(HQ1101.M55) 10 (September 1981): 94, 95. Back to text
  4. Gordon, U.S. Women's History, 5. Back to text
  5. In the short space of this introduction, it is not possible to provide a summary of the content of American women's history, although some of the key topics and concerns will be touched on. Readers desiring a general overview of the field or discussion of central topics and themes should consult the bibliography of major works at the end of this introduction, as well as bibliographical material presented in individual chapters. Back to text
  6. Historians use the term “second-wave feminism” to refer to the activism of the 1960s and 1970s, in contrast to the suffrage movement, the so-called first wave of women's activism. Back to text
  7. Linda K. Kerber, “Gender,” in Anthony Molho and Gordon Wood, eds., Imagined Histories: American Historians Interpret the Past (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1998; D13.5 U6 I657 1998), 41. Back to text
  8. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual,” in Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York: Knopf, 1985; HQ1419.S58 1985), 53. The essay originally appeared in the first issue of Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, (HQ1101.S5). The journal's beginning in 1975 was itself a noteworthy marker of the professionalization of the field. Other important journals founded in these years included Feminist Studies: (HQ1101.F46) and Frontiers. Back to text
  9. Quoted in Karen Anderson, Changing Woman: A History of Racial Ethnic Women in Modern America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996; E184.A1 A673 1996), 16. Back to text
  10. Joan Wallach Scott, “Gender: A Useful Tool of Historical Analysis,” American Historical Review (E171.A57) 91 (December 1986): 1,053-75. Back to text
  11. Karen Anderson, Teaching Gender in U.S. History (Washington: American Historical Association, 1997), 3. Back to text

Selected Print Bibliography

Anderson, Karen. Changing Women: A History of Racial Ethnic Women in Modern America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Armitage, Susan, and Elizabeth Jameson, eds. The Women's West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

_____________. Writing the Range: Race, Class, and Culture in the Women's West. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997.

Baron, Ava, ed. Work Engendered: Toward a New History of American Labor. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Bataille, Gretchen M. Native American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. New York: Garland Publishing, 1991.

Baxandall, Rosalyn, and Linda Gordon, eds. America's Working Women: A Documentary History. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1995.

Boris, Eileen. Home to Work: Motherhood and the Politics of Industrial Homework in the United States. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

Cahn, Susan. Coming on Strong: Gender and Sexuality in Twentieth-Century Women's Sport. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Chafe, William H. The American Woman: Her Changing Social, Economic, and Political Roles, 1920-1970. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Clinton, Catherine, and Michele Gillespie, eds. The Devil's Lane: Sex and Race in the Early South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Cott, Nancy F., ed. Root of Bitterness: Documents of the Social History of American Women. 2nd ed. Boston: Northeastern Press, 1996.

Cott, Nancy F., and Elizabeth H. Pleck, eds. A Heritage of Her Own: Towards a New Social History of American Women. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1979.

Del Castillo, Adelaida R., ed. Between Borders: Essays on Mexicana/Chicana History. Encino, Calif.: Floricanto Press, 1990.

D'Emilio, John, and Estelle Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. 2nd ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.

Evans, Sara M. Born for Liberty: A History of Women in America. New York: Free Press, 1989.

Faderman, Lillian S. Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

Flexner, Eleanor. Century of Struggle: The Woman's Rights Movement in the United States. 1959. Revised and enlarged by Ellen Fitzpatrick. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.

Giddings, Paula. When and Where I Enter: The Impact of Black Women on Race and Sex in America. 1st Quill ed. New York: W. Morrow, 1996.

Hewitt, Nancy, and Suzanne Lebsock, eds. Visible Women: New Essays on American Activism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993.

Hine, Darlene Clark, Elsa Barkley Brown, and Rosyln Terborg-Penn, eds. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. 2 vols. Brooklyn: Carlson Publishing, 1993. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.

Hine, Darlene Clark, Wilma King, and Linda Reed, eds. “We Specialize in the Wholly Impossible”: A Reader in Black Women's History. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Carlson Publishing, 1995.

Hine, Darlene Clark, and Kathleen Thompson. A Shining Thread of Hope: The History of Black Women in America. New York: Broadway Books, 1998.

Hodes, Martha, ed. Sex, Love, Race: Crossing Boundaries in North American History. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

James, Edward T., Janet Wilson James, and Paul S. Boyer. Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

Jones, Jacqueline. American Work: Black and White Labor since 1600. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998.

Kerber, Linda, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Kathryn Kish Sklar, eds. U.S. History as Women's History: New Feminist Essays. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

Kerber, Linda, and Jane Sherron De Hart, eds. Women's America: Refocusing the Past. 5th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Kessler-Harris, Alice. Out to Work: A History of Wage-Earning Women in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Lerner, Gerda. The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979. Ling, Huping. Surviving on the Gold Mountain: A History of Chinese American Women and Their Lives. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Matthews, Glenna. The Rise of Public Woman: Woman's Power and Woman's Place in the United States, 1630-1970. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Mora, Magdelena, and Adelaida R. Del Castillo, eds. Mexican Women in the United States: Struggles Past and Present. Los Angeles: Chicano Studies Research Center Publications, University of California, 1980.

Norton, Mary Beth, and Ruth M. Alexander, eds. Major Problems in American Women's History: Documents and Essays. 2nd ed. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Heath, 1996.

Rotundo, E. Anthony. American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era. New York: Basic Books, 1993.

Ruiz, Vicki. From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth-Century America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Ruiz, Vicki, and Ellen Carol DuBois, eds. Unequal Sisters: A Multicultural Reader in U.S. Women's History. 3rd ed. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Schlissel, Lillian, Vicki L. Ruiz, and Janice Monk, eds. Western Women: Their Land, Their Lives. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988.

Scott, Anne Firor. Natural Allies: Women's Associations in American History. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1991.

Shoemaker, Nancy, ed. Negotiators of Change: Historical Perspectives on Native American Women. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Sicherman, Barbara, and Carol Hurd Green. Notable American Women: The Modern Period. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1980.

Smith, Merril D., ed. Sex and Sexuality in Early America. New York: New York University Press, 1998.

Solomon, Barbara Miller. In the Company of Educated Women: A History of Women and Higher Education in America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.

Strasser, Susan. Never Done: A History of American Housework. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982; New York: Henry Holt, 2000.

Ware, Susan, ed. Modern American Women: A Documentary History. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1997.

Woloch, Nancy. Women and the American Experience. 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Yung, Judy. Unbound Feet: A Social History of Chinese Women in San Francisco. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

*Authored the original essay in American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women's History and Culture in the United States (Library of Congress, 2001), from which this online version is derived. Others who contributed to this effort are identified in the Acknowledgments.