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American Women: Resources from the Law Library

Part of the American Women Series, this research guide provides access to digital collections and related resources regarding the legal rights of women in the United States.


Historically, the legal rights of women have been determined by men. Some legal historians even argue that women in the United States had no “legal rights” until 1920 when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. Although the lives of women had been affected by laws, women themselves had played no direct role in legislating or enforcing these laws. They could not vote to elect legislators and thus had no direct leverage in the electoral process. It seems ironic that Justice, the symbol of the United States court system, is female, yet for years women were not able to participate in the judicial system except as defendants or third parties. For the most part, women did not enter the courtroom as lawyers until the late nineteenth century, and they could not serve as jurors until the twentieth century.

Nevertheless, there were a number of laws from as early as the seventeenth century that specifically addressed women. Protective legislation limiting the number of hours women and children could work and court decisions addressing a woman's guilt or innocence in criminal proceedings or whether or not she could keep or devise her inherited property are examples.

Charles Dana Gibson. Studies in expression. When women are jurors. [1902]. Cabinet of American Illustration. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Law Library of Congress has a wealth of material that provides sources for research in women's history, in both the basic and the more tangential issues that have had an impact on women's individual lives and on the society in which they have found themselves. Legal materials add a dimension to scholarly studies that has not often been exploited. Although the law may not be as immediately interesting as journals or scrapbooks of individual women, the fact that the legal community and the people who formed it took the time to legislate and later to litigate an issue indicates that such an issue was integral to the times in which they lived. To omit a consideration of how the law developed is to disregard a crucial aspect of the lives of women.

Despite this wealth of legal information to support the study of women in diverse academic areas, court decisions and statutory language have been underused by scholars in disciplines other than legal history. The reasons for this vary, but most law librarians will agree that the challenges of legal research and a lack of knowledge about law may discourage historians and others from doing research in this area. The vast array of materials in the Law Library can be overwhelming to the researcher, especially if the methodology of legal research is unfamiliar. Because there are few guides, indexing sources, or treatises specifically addressing women's issues, using legal resources can be challenging—but can also result in rewarding discoveries.

Acknowledgements by Pamela Barnes Craig
I would like to thank the editorial team and academic advisers for their challenging questions and comments, my law librarian colleagues for their time and research skills, and those colleagues who encouraged me to make "how to find the law" an integral part of this guide.