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American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections

Lawyers & Litigants

Letter, Billy Gobitas to Minersville, Pennsylvania, school directors, explaining why the young Jehovah's Witness refused to salute the American flag. November 5, 1935. William Gobitas Papers. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

A Library of Congress Online Catalog search for the subject term “lawyers” (limited to manuscript records) identifies more than five hundred collections, many of which contain items of interest to women's historians. For example, attorney Winn Newman (126,500 items; 1876-1993; bulk 1979-91) specialized in litigation involving the rights of women and minorities, including lawsuits involving the comparable worth of women employees, sex and pregnancy discrimination, union access to equal opportunity data, and pay equity.

Correspondence with Eleanor Roosevelt, client files relating to Lillian Hellman, and a speech and other items concerning the National Organization for Women are among the papers of lawyer and civic activist Joseph L. Rauh Jr. (107,650 items; 1913-88; bulk 1950-84).

Multigenerational family papers, organizational records, and dozens of other collections also merit investigation by students of women's legal history. For example, some of the early presidential collections, including the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James and Dolley Madison (see Papers of Presidents and First Ladies), contain legal documents relating to women's dower rights.

After the American Revolution, Loyalist women, who had remained in the colonies after their husbands had fled, asserted rights and claims to family property seized by the new government, as evidenced by documents in Elizabeth Graeme Ferguson's papers in the Marian S. Carson Collection (14,250 items; ca. 1656-1995; bulk 1700-1876) and in the records of the Great Britain Commission Appointed to Enquire into the Losses of American Loyalists (6,000 items; 1784-90).

Other collections also reflect how individual women in the course of their everyday lives came into contact with the judicial system.

  • A letter from Frances Alexander in 1820 records her efforts to obtain an affidavit for her case against Edward May for assault and battery.
  • The reminiscences (1 item; 1893) of Harriet Ann Moore Page Potter Ames (b. 1810) describe her efforts in Texas in the mid-1800s to win a conviction against the murderers of her husband and daughter.
  • Letters of school girl Lillian Gobitas Klose (b. 1923) and her brother William Gobitas (100 items; 1935-89; bulk 1935-40) relate to the Supreme Court case Minersville v. Gobitis [sic] concerning the children's refusal on religious grounds to salute the American flag at their Pennsylvania school in 1935.
  • The records of civil rights organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (see African American Civil Rights) contain files relating to legal issues affecting African American women.
  • Legal files in the National Woman's Party Records (see Suffrage Organizations) document that group's efforts to contest the constitutionality of laws discriminating against all women.

Manuscript 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.