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American Women: Resources from the American Folklife Center

Part of the American Women Series, this research guide highlights ethnographic materials at the Library of Congress related to women's history in the United States.


Beverly Robinson, photographer. Mrs. Fannie Lee Teals, of Tifton, Georgia, posing with a quilt top she made, inspired by the U.S. Bicentennial in 1976. South Central Georgia Folklife Collection, 1982. Library of Congress American Folklife Center.

The creative work of innumerable women is represented in the Archive of Folk Culture at the American Folklife Center—a national repository for ethnographic materials documenting the traditional expressive culture of ordinary people doing artful things in the course of their daily lives. The American Folklife Center is charged by Congress to "preserve and present American folklife," and researchers using the Folk Archive to investigate women's history will make two happy discoveries. First, material pertaining to women is extensive and may be found in nearly all of the archive's collections; and, second, women are represented in the collections as central players in the expressive culture of everyday life.

Included in the congressional legislation that created the American Folklife Center in 1976 (Public Law 94-201) is a definition of American folklife: "the traditional, expressive, shared culture of various groups in the United States: familial, ethnic, occupational, religious, and regional." Although there are organizations and groups within the American social fabric that are made up specifically of women, the traditional life and culture of women within family, ethnic group, religion, and region are inseparable from the larger whole. Folklife embraces family life and daily routine, material culture, celebrations and rituals, story and song, foodways, and more. The documentation of these subjects reflects women's ingenuity, creativity, humor, strength, hopes, joys, trials, and sorrows. And, frequently, it is women who are the chief bearers of tradition, those who have the responsibility for carrying on the cultural forms of a group from one generation to the next.

Although American Folklife Center collections were not created in such a way as to highlight themes specific to the study of women's history and culture, all include documentation about women. It may be helpful to think of the material in four different ways. Documented in the collections are:

  1. Cultural activities that have been traditionally—although not exclusively—practiced by women, such as foodways, quilting, or certain religious festivals. Folklife Center field projects are especially rich in material documenting the creative expressions of both everyday life and seasonal holidays and celebrations.
  2. Performances by women—such as singing, dancing, and storytelling—for formal or informal audiences.
  3. Representations of women, as depicted by men or women, in songs, stories, and folk art, for example.
  4. Ethnographic field collections that have been made, organized, and commented upon by women.

The history of women in Western and other societies, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, has included a struggle to break free of traditional roles. Both men and women commonly experience a conflict between individual impulse and desire, on the one hand, and social roles and conventions, on the other. That conflict is frequently reflected in folk song, which has long chronicled the roles of women, in areas ranging from love and courtship to women's suffrage, and has been used to protest hateful social conditions, as in the well-known African American spirituals. Many songs and ballads, comic and tragic, portray women who are determined, boastful, or rebellious.

However the individual impulse might manifest itself, individual practitioners of traditional or conventional forms—sometimes known, sometime anonymous—have produced remarkable examples of the cultural expressions that have endured within a particular cultural group for many generations. Singers, fiddlers, boatbuilders, masons, and weavers, as well as pottery-makers, quiltmakers, basket-makers, and a multitude of other "makers," have created beautiful things for use in everyday life and have found individual satisfaction in passing on the forms inherited from previous generations. These expressions of traditional culture provide vivid glimpses into the hearts and minds of a people. They deserve our attention.

The following guide offers general research strategies for use of the American Folklife Center collections.