Have a question? Need assistance? Use our online form to ask a librarian for help.
Elizabeth A. Novara, American Women's History Specialist, Manuscript Division
Janice E. Ruth, Chief, Manuscript Division
Edith A. Sandler, Reference Librarian, Manuscript Division
Note: This guide is adapted from the original Manuscript Division section of the American Memory project and published volume, American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women's History and Culture in the United States (Library of Congress, 2001), written by Janice E. Ruth.
Created: March 1, 2020
Last Updated: June 30, 2022
Spanning all time periods and embracing many occupations, the Library's manuscript sources for the study of women's history in the United States are among the finest and most comprehensive in the country. Contained in hundreds of collections are documents reflecting the full range of women's experiences, from Abigail Adams's declaration to her sister in 1799 that she would “never consent to have our sex considered in a inferior point of light,”1 to the remarks of cabinet secretary Patricia Harris, the daughter of a dining car porter, who told a skeptical senator at her 1977 confirmation hearing, “If my life has any meaning at all, it is that those who start out as outcasts can wind up being part of the system.”2
The Manuscript Division's collections document the efforts of Harris and of countless other women not only to join “the system” but also to reform and transcend it. These women, in the words of pioneer physician Elizabeth Blackwell, “did not wish to give them[selves] a first place, still less a second one—but the most complete freedom to take their true place whatever it may be.”3 This guide—and the larger work of which it is a part—offers researchers the tools to uncover and interpret what that “true place” has been for American women throughout our nation's history.
American historian Mary Ritter Beard, author of the pathbreaking Woman as Force in History (1946), was fond of quoting French historian Fustel de Coulanges's declaration, “No documents, no history.” Fearful that women would be “blotted from the story and the thought about history as completely as if they had never lived,” Beard tried unsuccessfully in the 1930s to create a World Center for Women's Archives to preserve women's documentary heritage and to ensure that the “women of today know about the women of yesterday to whom they are so closely linked for better or worse” and that the “women of tomorrow” will “know about the women of today.”4 The goals espoused by Beard—collecting primary documents by and about women, and providing adequate access to them—have been concerns of the Library's Manuscript Division since its establishment in 1897.
The division's earliest chiefs vigorously solicited the collections of notable women who were involved in the suffrage and abolition campaigns. They also sought the papers of first ladies, of women who achieved various “firsts” in history, and of women who were pioneers in fields formerly restricted to men. To this day, these collections sustain heavy research use. Also obtained were the records of women's voluntary associations and national reform and trade organizations founded and supported by women.
Other materials, which were not always consciously sought, were letters and diaries documenting women's everyday existence and revealing women's hopes, disappointments, and accomplishments. Although unsolicited, these items were also preserved—but as part of multigenerational family papers or as unnoticed groupings buried in the papers of a more famous husband, father, or brother. The papers of these unknown female relatives reflect the daily activities, concerns, and observations of American women from the colonial period through the twentieth century. Used together with the papers of male family members, they provide important information on American family life, including:
Most of the women represented in the division's holdings are white and from middle- and upper-middle-class families. Some important examples of African American women may be found, but fewer sources exist in the division written by Native Americans or by women of Asian, Hispanic, or other origin.
Information about the latter groups, however, and about women in general, appears in the papers of male legislators, judges, missionaries, doctors, educators, soldiers, and scientists, whose writings often reveal white society's attitudes about ethnicity, race, and gender. These collections are examples of how sources originally acquired to support one field of research can be mined by historians pursuing other areas of inquiry.
Thus, through a combination of men's and women's collections, documenting the lives of both notable and unknown women, the Manuscript Division offers unique opportunities for students of American women's history. Its holdings can help researchers of the next millennium remedy the neglect Clara Barton noted at the beginning of the twentieth century when writing to Mary S. Logan about Logan's efforts to compile a history of American women:
“From the storm lashed decks of the Mayflower . . . to the present hour; woman has stood like a rock for the welfare and the glory of the history of the country, and one might well add . . . unwritten, unrewarded, and almost unrecognized.”5