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American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections


Retouching an old masterpiece
Paul Stahr. “1776—Retouching an Old Masterpiece—1915.” Cover illustration from Life, July 1915. General Collections, Library of Congress.

From the papers of film actors and presidents to suffragists and poets, the Library's manuscript collections offer a rich and varied avenue for studying the history of women in the United States from the colonial period to the present day. Included are the papers of the famous and the unknown —of women who achieved prominence in their own right and those whose lives we learn about from sources hidden among the papers of celebrated men. From these manuscript materials, we can piece together a picture of American womanhood that covers both the personal and the political, the private and the public side of women's lives. We gain from these sources innumerable stories of women's courage and achievements as well as of their failures and disappointments. Nothing can quite match the thrill and immediacy of reading in a woman's own words and in her own handwriting what she thought and what she did. Sometimes these writings are eloquent and sometimes uninspired, but they all help reveal the women that came before us as real people, who individually and collectively shaped the course of our nation.

This guide provides but a brief overview of women's history sources held among the Manuscript Division's 70 million items and the major tools for accessing them. Some of the collections cited as well as other related papers are easily located in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Other holdings may be discovered by browsing division finding aids and by consulting the specialized resources mentioned throughout this guide. Many more sources await the researcher who is willing to dig deep into the actual collections, opening countless boxes and folders and reading page upon page of manuscripts.

Be sure to equip yourself beforehand with the names of people, places, organizations, and events relating to your research topic. Also consult with the reference librarians and subject specialists in the Manuscript Division, both before your visit, to check on possible access restrictions and the availability of off-site collections, and after your arrival, for tips about collections and research strategies.

The division has answered Mary Ritter Beard's call to preserve and provide access to documents by and about women. It is our hope that our researchers answer her call to write, and rewrite, women's history.