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American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections


Campaigns to improve the quality of women's primary education and to ensure their access to schools of higher learning were among some of the first reform efforts undertaken by women. Great debates raged as to the amount and content of schooling women should receive. Women's physical and mental capacities came into question, and their struggle to gain admittance to predominantly male schools and programs has continued to this day.

Baker & Cornwall. A modern manual training school. 1905. Classroom with girls sewing and cooking on right and boys using tools on left. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.15

In 1804, Washington society leader Margaret Bayard Smith (1778-1844) lamented how her “passionate fondness for reading” was “opposed by circumstances and the friends with whom [she] lived” who oversaw her education. She declared that “had I been a boy and conducted regularly through the paths of science-how much more useful-how much more happy might I have been!”13

Obstacles such as those described by Smith and other aspects of women's education and their entry into the teaching ranks may be explored in a host of collections held by the Manuscript Division. The topic, in fact, is an overwhelming one, since more than 330 collections are identified when searching the catalog for the term “educators.” Division collections are replete with notebooks, letters, and diaries written by girls and young women while in school. Many of the women whose papers are described elsewhere retained documents from their school days, and these materials are usually identified in the finding aids for those collections.

Family papers often include information on women's education. See especially the papers of the:

  • Bancroft-Bliss Family (5,800 items; 1788-1928; bulk 1815-75)
  • Alexander Graham Bell Family (147,700 items; 1834-1974). Selected items from the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers, 1862-1939 are available on the Library of Congress website.
  • Montgomery Family (12 items; 1872-1938)
  • Pratt Family (2 volumes;1802-08)
  • Singleton Family (900 items; 1758-1860; bulk 1829-55)
  • Willard Family (119,900 items; 1800-1968; bulk 1890-1954)
  • Various families in the Marian S. Carson Collection (14,250 items; ca. 1650-1995; bulk 1700-1876) 14

Also of note are early nineteenth-century student work books kept by Bathsheba Barton (1 item; 1819); Ann Maria Churchill (3 items; ca. 1830); Sarah Hall (1 item; 1813); and Caroline Dana Jarvis (1 item; 1819).

The following "Education" collections are highlighted in these sections of the guide:

Manuscripts Resources Referenced

The following collection titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content, including finding aids for the collections, are included when available.


  1. Margaret Bayard Smith, commonplace book, ca. 1804, container 1, Margaret Bayard Smith Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Back to text
  2. For additional information on the incredibly diverse and important manuscript collection assembled by Marian S. Carson, which includes a number of interesting documents relating to women's education, occupations, avocations, reform efforts, and clubs, see Gathering History: The Marian S. Carson Collection of Americana, ed. Sara Day (Washington: Library of Congress, 1999; Z1201.G38 1999). See also the discussion of the Carson collection in chapter 4 of this volume. Back to text
  3. Even in the new coeducational public and manual training schools around the turn of the twentieth century, courses of study were often dictated by gender. Girls in this 1905 classroom practice home economics on one side of the room while boys learn about tools for shop on the other. Back to text