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American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections

Legal Collections

Petition for bail from accused witches. Circa 1692. John Davis Batchelder Autograph Collection. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.30

In addition to its strong presidential and congressional collections, the Manuscript Division also holds the nation's largest gathering of papers of chief justices and associate justices of the United States, as well as the papers of many judges of the lower federal and state courts. Complementing these judicial collections are the papers of numerous attorneys general, solicitors general, public interest groups, and private lawyers and litigants, all of which provide excellent sources of historical information on the country's legal affairs, including the laws and court cases that have shaped women's status, rights, and freedoms for more than three centuries.

Although principally relating to areas of federal law, these collections touch on a host of legal matters of interest to women's historians, including such issues as nationality, citizenship, property and dower rights, voting rights, sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, working conditions, pay equity, and reproductive rights, to name just a sampling. They often contain details about legal cases and background on a judge's decision-making process that are not found in the official court reporters and similar published accounts, which are described among the holdings of the Law Library.

Noted here are the papers of prominent women Supreme Court justices, judges and attorneys, followed by a sampling of men's collections relevant to women's legal history. Since many of these legal collections carry access restrictions (which vary from collection to collection and are too complex to explain here), researchers are reminded to contact the Manuscript Division Reading Room before visiting.

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


  1. People were executed for witchcraft throughout the colonies during the seventeenth century, but especially in Massachusetts. Many of the accused were women, prompting some recent historians to suggest that charges of witchcraft were a way of controlling women who threatened the existing economic and social order. In 1692 the famous Salem, Massachusetts, witchcraft trials took place, and that summer hundreds of people in the colony were arrested. Shown here is an appeal from ten women “besides thre or foure men” who were confined without trial in the Ipswich jail for many months. The petitioners—some “fettered with irons,” some pregnant, and all “weake and infirme”—request that they be released on “bayle” to stand trial the following spring so that they do not “perish with cold” during the winter months. Back to text