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American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections

Family Papers & Legislative Files

Although most of the division's congressional collections revolve around the careers of male representatives and senators, they are nevertheless rich sources of information for women's history. They include letters from female constituents as well as subject files on legislation affecting women's work, health, and legal status. Moreover, few men enjoyed successful congressional careers without the support and involvement of their wives and other female family members.

In the eighteenth and much of the nineteenth centuries, women generally did not accompany their husbands to Washington. They remained behind to raise children and take care of the family home, farm, or business. Even in the twentieth century, second homes were beyond the means of most members. Fortunately for the historian, families separated physically from one another turned to correspondence and poured out in letters all the affection, concern, and news they were unable to share in person.

Wives and other relatives informed the member of happenings at home, advised him on local reaction to pending legislation, and peppered him with questions about his health, the nation's business, and the latest fashions and social activities in the capital. Members responded by describing in candid detail their living arrangements and social life, their opinions of their colleagues, their views on historically important issues, their assessments of women's dress and appearance, and any other thoughts and observations they thought would be of interest to the recipient.27

A brief chronological survey of some of the division's congressional collections highlights their value as women's history resources.

Josiah Bartlett, a physician and delegate to the Continental Congress,28 received weekly letters from his wife Mary Barton Bartlett (m. 1750), who was in charge of running the family's farm during his long and frequent absences. The Bartlett collection (10,000 items; 1710-1931; bulk 1800-1890) also contains four notebooks (1816-21) of Hannah E. W. Thompson Bartlett documenting her years at Bradford Academy and Hannah Bell's “Ladies Album” of poems and verses written by herself and female friends during the 1840s.

Several generations of women are represented in the papers of the Field-Osgood Family (1,600 items; 1702-1938; bulk 1780-1930), including Maria Bowne Franklin Osgood, wife of New York legislator Samuel Osgood, and her daughter, Susan K. Osgood Field. Of particular interest is Susan's correspondence, 1814-21, with her married sisters and cousins. Their correspondence reflects the everyday life of young women of the early nineteenth-century merchant class. Also of note are manumission papers and a letter from Maria concerning her obligations to Chloe Field, an African American woman.

Mr. and Mrs. Ralph Izzard [sic], Charleston, S.C. Between 1900 and 1912. Photograph of a painting by John Singleton Copley, dated 1774, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Ralph Izard Family Papers (660 items; 1778-1826; bulk 1801-14) contain weekly correspondence of the South Carolina senator's wife Alice Delancey Izard (1745-1832) with her daughter, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter concerning family matters and social affairs in Charleston, South Carolina, and Philadelphia.

For the first half of the nineteenth century, researchers have a number of fine collections to consult. The papers of Levi Woodbury (17,000 items; 1638-1914; bulk 1804-97) include correspondence with his wife Elizabeth Williams Clapp Woodbury (1796-1873) during their courtship and early years of marriage, letters they exchanged when he was in Washington and she was at home in New Hampshire, letters she wrote to her parents and children, and diaries (1860-76) and correspondence of their daughter Virginia Woodbury Fox.

The William C. Rives collection (50,400 items; 1674-1939; bulk 1830-90) includes the papers of Judith Page Walker Rives (1802-1882), a writer whom William married in 1819. Her letters discuss her life in Albemarle County, Virginia, and a diary, in the form of letters to her sister, describes the couple's life in France during William's term as minister to that country.

Job Pierson (600 items; 1755-1908; bulk 1809-96) was an Albany, New York, lawyer who served four years in the House of Representatives during Andrew Jackson's administration. During that time, he wrote more than 350 letters to his wife, Clarissa Bulkeley Pierson (1794-1865), who remained at home with their young children. He provided her with candid assessments of his colleagues and his opinions on political issues; described visits to the White House; informed her of his presumably innocent infatuation with Emily Donelson, Jackson's hostess; expressed his concern for their children's education and the burdens his absence was placing on her; relayed the latest gossip about boardinghouse life, including stories of a senator seducing a chambermaid and of other boarders entertaining prostitutes in their rooms; and on one occasion chastised her for writing him a letter that had “too much of the querulous spirit in it. This should not be so—Women should always be sunshine & flowers.”29

Manuscript Resources Referenced

The Civil War is richly represented in the papers of Philip Lee Phillips (7,000 items; 1832-1914), representative from South Carolina who married Eugenia Levy Phillips (1820-1902) in 1836. Of interest are letters from Eugenia's sister Phebe Levy and copies of Eugenia's reminiscences detailing her arrest and imprisonment in Washington, D.C., as a Confederate spy, her parole and return to the South, her experiences in New Orleans, and her work with sick Confederate soldiers at La Grange, Georgia.

Harriet Ward Foote Hawley (1831-1886), the wife of Connecticut representative and senator Joseph R. Hawley (13,200 items; 1638-1906; bulk 1841-1906), wrote to her husband and others during the Civil War about her hospital work at Hilton Head, South Carolina, and after the war about her work as organizer and president of the Washington Auxiliary of the Women's National Indian Association.

Henry Dawes (22,000 items; 1833-1933; bulk 1848-87) of Massachusetts served in Congress during and after the Civil War, and his papers include those of his wife, Electa Sanderson Dawes (1822-1901), who kept her husband informed of happenings in his district, and of his daughter Anna L. Dawes (1851-1938), a journalist, antisuffragist, and Indian reformer who worked with Mrs. Hawley. Henry Dawes himself corresponded with muckraking journalist and author Ida M. Tarbell. Anna Dawes maintained a lengthy correspondence with ethnologist Alice C. Fletcher and with New England writer Sarah Orne Jewett, with whom Dawes lived for many years.

Matthew B. Brady, photographer. John Alexander Logan and family ... Logan was U.S. Senator from 1871-1885. Between ca. 1860 and ca. 1870, printed later. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The papers of Mary S. Logan (1838-1923), editor of the women's periodical the Home Magazine, arrived with the papers (46,000 items; 1836-1925; bulk 1860-1917) of her husband, John Alexander Logan, army officer and Illinois senator. Mary Logan served as a nurse during the Civil War, founded the Women's Relief Corps of the Grand Army of the Republic, and worked on the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. She was also interested in women's history and wrote several books, including The Part Taken by Women in American History (1912) and the unpublished “Ladies of the White House.”

Unlike Logan, Issa Desha Breckinridge (1843-1892) spent the Civil War living in exile in Canada, while her husband, William C. P. Breckinridge, served in the Confederate army. Her papers, now part of the Breckinridge Family collection (205,000 items; 1752-1965), relate mainly to family affairs during and after the war.

Nathaniel Prentiss Banks's family papers (50,000 items; 1829-1911; bulk 1860-80) contain letters exchanged with his wife Mary Theodosia Palmer Banks (m. 1848), including letters she wrote after the Civil War while traveling abroad in France, Italy, and Switzerland.

A scrapbook of clippings about Josephine Wilson Bruce (1853-1913) in the papers of her husband, Blanche Kelso Bruce (2 items; 1878-90), an African American senator from Mississippi, describes their marriage in 1878 and how she was received in Washington society during her husband's years in Congress.

Diaries of Margaret Blaine Damrosch (1867-1949), daughter of Maine senator James Gillespie Blaine (7,000 items; 1777-1945; bulk 1870-92), concern the daily activities of a Washington, D.C., teenager, including her school lessons, domestic tasks, parties involving “kissing games,” and painting lessons.

Life in the late-nineteenth-century West is described in the papers (9,000 items; 1883-1917) of Thomas Henry Carter, senator from Montana, which include correspondence of his wife, Ellen Galen Carter (m. 1886), and the recollections of his sister Julia Ann Carter Lang (b. 1856?).

Manuscript Resources Referenced

The activities of a wealthy woman in the early twentieth century are documented in the diaries and correspondence of Abby Chapman Aldrich (1845-1917), wife of philanthropist and Rhode Island senator Nelson W. Aldrich (42,700 items; 1762-1930).

One of the most important twentieth-century congressional collections is also one of the best for studying women's history. The massive La Follette Family collection (423,800 items; 1844-1988; bulk 1910-53) includes the papers of Progressive senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin, his wife Belle Case La Follette (1859-1931), their son, Senator Robert M. La Follette Jr., and their daughter, Fola La Follette (1882-1970). Belle wrote and spoke on behalf of women's suffrage, civil rights, child labor legislation, education reform, and the post-World War I peace movement, addressing these and other issues in correspondence with such women as Jane Addams, Mary Ritter Beard, and Emma Wold. Fola La Follette, a teacher and actress, exchanged letters with Emily Newell Blair, Eva Le Gallienne, Mary McGrory, and Lillian Wald.

William Edgar Borah with wife, Mamie McConell Borah. Circa 1895. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Both Robert Sr. and Robert Jr. corresponded with the leading women reformers of the day, and their papers contain numerous files relating to women's suffrage and women's rights. The younger La Follette's congressional papers also include Senate files on military nurses' training, Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, Women's Conservation Corps, and equal rights. Received with the La Follette collection were the papers of New York attorney Gilbert E. Row, concerning divorce, gender discrimination, and the legal problems of Margaret Sanger, Agnes Smedley, and Rosika Schwimmer. Additional correspondence of Fola and Belle La Follette may be found in the papers of Fola's husband, playwright and copyright specialist George Middleton (15,000 items; 1894-1967; bulk 1911-58), whose efforts to protect authors' literary rights brought him into contact with members of the theatrical and literary communities, including Edna Ferber, Lillian Gish, and Katharine Hepburn.

One of the division's largest congressional collections (260,000 items; 1905-40; bulk 1912-40) consists of the papers of William Edgar Borah, longtime senator from Idaho. His congressional files date from the early 1910s though the 1930s and include information on suffrage, the Equal Rights Amendment, the Children's Bureau, prohibition, child labor laws, birth control, and divorce legislation, as well as correspondence with Jane Addams, Carrie Chapman Catt, and other women leaders.

Legislative files relating to suffrage, subject files concerning the General Federation of Women's Clubs, and correspondence with his wife, Mimosa Gates Pittman (1872-1952), including letters she wrote while staking claims in Alaska, may be found in the papers (55,000 items; 1898-1951) of Nevada senator Key Pittman.

Bain News Service, publisher. Mrs. Key Pittman. Between ca. 1910 and ca. 1915. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Although principally known for his interests in agriculture, atomic power, and Native Americans, Clinton Presba Anderson (250,000 items; 1938-72; bulk 1948-72), senator and representative from New Mexico, also maintained congressional files relating to equal rights bills in the 1950s, legislation in the early 1960s to improve widows' benefits, and speeches delivered to various women's organizations.

Among Anderson's predecessors in the Senate was fellow New Mexican Bronson Cutting, a newspaper publisher turned politician, whose papers (33,000 items; 1899-1950; bulk 1910-35) contain numerous files relating to military pension claims made by his constituents, many of whom were widows of Hispanic descent.

New York representative Emanuel Celler (195,000 items; 1924-73; bulk 1945-73) served for more than twenty years as chairman of the powerful House Judiciary Committee. Although he was a strong supporter of civil rights, Celler repeatedly used his position to keep the Equal Rights Amendment from reaching the House floor for a vote. (See topical essay, “The Long Road to Equality”.)

Edward William Brooke (240,000 items; 1956-88; bulk 1963-78) was the first popularly elected African American to serve in the Senate (1967-78), and he introduced legislation designed to make housing affordable for families and tenants of public housing (many of whom are women). He also proposed legislation to increase social security pensions and expand health care for the elderly. His papers include files on abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, women's issues, and nurses' training. Before entering the Senate, Brooke was attorney general of Massachusetts in the 1960s, and his files from that period include materials relating to Albert DeSalvo, the self-confessed Boston Strangler.

Correspondence with women relatives and files relating to suffrage, the Equal Rights Amendment, birth control, and related issues may also be found in the collections of:

  • Irvine Luther Lenroot (10,000 items; 1890-1971; bulk 1900-1944)
  • Henry Justin Allen (80,000 items; 1896-1942; bulk 1919-42)
  • Richmond Pearson Hobson (27,300 items; 1889-1966; bulk 1890-1937)
  • John Sharp Williams (36,000 items; 1902-24; bulk 1914-24)
  • James Martin Barnes (12,000 items; 1924-58)
  • Victor Murdock (38,300 items; 1824-1971; bulk 1909-40)
  • Robert A. Taft (522,000 items; 1885-1980; bulk 1938-53)
  • Thomas J. Walsh (262,000 items; 1910-34).

Manuscript Resources Referenced


  1. Manuscript Division specialist John J. McDonough documented the significance of these familial exchanges in the Library of Congress exhibition My Dear Wife: Letters from Members of Congress to Their Spouses, 1791-1944, which ran from September 1990 through January 1991. A copy of the printed item list for this exhibition is available in the Manuscript Reading Room reference file. Back to text
  2. For letters written by Continental Congress delegates, see the exhaustive, twenty-six-volume documentary edition Letters of Delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, edited by Paul H. Smith (Washington: Library of Congress, 1976-2000; JK1033.L47). Volume 26 is a cumulative index. Back to text
  3. Job Pierson to Clarissa Pierson, February 12, 1833, container 2, Job Pierson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Back to text