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American Women: Resources from the General Collections

First-person Accounts

[Smiling woman, three-quarter-length portrait of unidentified person standing outdoors]. 1935. Lomax collection of photographs...Prints & Photographs Division.

In autobiographies, diaries, letters, interviews, and oral histories, women describe the details of their own lives. From revealing abundant details on all aspects of their daily existence to how and where they expressed themselves, women's personal nonfiction writings provide the raw stuff of history. Women do speak to us.

After burying her husband, she and her five children traveled five more miles before stopping for the night:

“July 30—Saturday—And now Oh God comes the saddest record of my life for this day my husband accidentally shot himself and was buried by the wayside and oh, my heart is breaking.”

From "The Journal of Mrs. Mary Ringo: A Diary of Her Trip across the Great Plains in 1864" (Santa Ana, Calif.: Privately printed, 1956; F594.R58), 20. 

Or, another woman years later:

“By now castrating the baby goats was fairly easy for me . . .” 

From "Eva Antonia Wilbur-Cruce's "A Beautiful, Cruel Country" (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987; F811.W67 1987), 177.

In the past thirty years many women's diaries and letters, some that had lain unknown in attics and archives, have been printed or put on microform. More specific cataloging has improved access to recent works, but bibliographies remain the primary means of identifying most older titles.

Women have also written extensively for periodicals, but again, these articles, especially those produced before 1970, are often difficult to find. Consult Periodical Contents Index and other periodical indexes (Periodical Indexes). State historical publications and local histories also contain wonderful accounts by women.

Several digital collections contain the full text of diaries, autobiographies, and journals written by women, as well as oral histories. These first-person accounts can provide fascinating information on women's lives. The links below are to selected resources found in the Library of Congress digital collections and in external digital collections.

First-person Accounts from the American Folklife Center

Listen to a few examples from the collections of the Library of Congress American Folklife Center:

National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection

This collection is a library of nearly 800 books and pamphlets documenting the suffrage campaign that were collected between 1890 and 1938 by members of NAWSA and donated to the Rare Books Division of the Library of Congress on November 1, 1938.Two examples of women's autobiographies are found in this collection:

Additional Library of Congress Digital Collections

Making of America

This digital library of primary sources in American social history primarily from the antebellum period through reconstruction. The collection is particularly strong in the subject areas of education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology. The book collection currently contains approximately 10,000 books with 19th century imprints.

The Church in the Southern Black Community, 1780-1925

This collection traces the way Southern African Americans adopted and transformed Protestant Christianity into the central institution of community life. Through slave narratives and observations by other African American authors, the collection focuses on the way the black community made evangelical Christianity a metaphor for freedom, community, and personal survival. Three examples from this collection are:

To find these stories, search for the term “women” and then one of the terms “autobiography” or “diary” in a “match all of these words” search. You can also browse the author indexes in individual collections looking for women's names.

Women's first-person accounts are not always easily identifiable. In most cases, the sex of the author is not part of the cataloging record. The subject headings for The Journal of Mrs. Mary Ringo: A Diary of Her Trip across the Great Plains in 1864, quoted above, are West (U.S.)—Description and travel and Overland journeys to the Pacific. The heading for most travel accounts by authors of either sex is usually the geographical location plus the subdivision —Description and travel. Researchers must look at the records for all items under this term and try to select those by or about women. Often the name of the author is the main clue. And, of course, men's first-person accounts also contain valuable evidence about women's lives.

SAMPLE LCSH: Although there are many subject headings for first-person accounts, bibliographies often provide the best access.

Additional Search Formula:
[Name of person]—Interviews
[Name of person]—Correspondence
[Geographic location]—Description and travel
[Name of war]—Personal narratives, American [these are mostly by men]

Digital Collections

Subscription Databases

The subscription resources marked with a padlock  are available to researchers on-site at the Library of Congress.  If you are unable to visit the Library, you may be able to access these resources through your local public or academic library.

The following titles represent resources which may prove useful in your search for first person accounts.

Anna Murray Douglass. 1935. Lomax collection of photographs...Prints & Photographs Division.

Letters and diaries can be some of the earliest sources for finding information about women's lives and opinions. There are a number of ways to locate letters and diaries at the Library of Congress. It is likely that you will want to look at a variety of formats to find these resources. In addition to physical letters and diaries, the Library has access to women's letters and diaries via microfilm collections as well as print and online resources.

To find letters and diaries in the Library of Congress Collections, search the online catalog. Some Subject Headings to try:

  • American diaries--History and criticism.
  • Women--United States--History--19th century--Historiography.
  • Women and literature--United States--History--19th century.
  • Women--United States--Biography--History and criticism.
  • Autobiography--Women authors.
  • Travelers--United States--Diaries.

Selected Letters and Diaries