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American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections

Supreme Court Justices

As suggested by the Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg collections described elsewhere, the papers of Supreme Court justices and appeals court judges contain a wealth of information on federal case law relating to women of all classes, races, and regions. Many of these judges and justices also had earlier careers as lawyers or state judges, and thus their papers may reflect aspects of state law as well. For a sense of the division's collections relating to the Supreme Court, consider that it holds the papers of nearly every chief justice from 1796 to 1969.

Marilyn Church, artist. Members of the U.S. Supreme Court in their chamber. October 6, 1986. Drawing shows Sandra Day O'Connor, Lewis Powell, Thurgood Marshall, William Brennan, William Rehnquist, Byron White, Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, and Antonin Scalia at the bench of the Supreme Court. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Locating material relating to women and the law in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century collections is more difficult than in those of the twentieth century, as fewer challenges to women's legal position reached the nation's highest court in earlier years. Nevertheless, many of the early collections do contain correspondence with women family members and friends, some of which touch on legal matters.

For example, the papers of Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase (12,500 items; 1755-1898; bulk 1824-72) contain correspondence with his third wife, Sarah Bella Ludlow Chase (d. 1852), and his daughters Janette Chase Hoyt and Catherine “Kate” Chase Sprague (1840-1899), in which he discusses his career and advises Kate against seeking a divorce.

Malvina Shanklin Harlan (1838-1916), wife of Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan (20,400 items; 1810-1971; bulk 1861-1911), wrote a memoir of her fifty-four-year marriage to Harlan, which was recently edited and published by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg under the title, Some Memories of a Long Life, 1854-1911. In it, Harlan discusses their family life, religion, politics in Washington and Kentucky, her interest in music, and her husband's legal cases. A passage of the memoir that especially interested Justice Ginsburg was Malvina's discussion of the role her husband, a former slaveholder, had as the lone dissenting voice in the Court's 1883 decision to overturn the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Malvina spurred him into writing the dissent by putting on his desk the very inkwell that Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney had used to write the Dred Scott decision in 1857.

Among twentieth-century chief justices, the papers of Earl Warren (250,000 items; 1864-1974; bulk 1953-74) are notable for the many landmark decisions identified with his tenure in the areas of civil rights, race relations, criminal procedure, freedom of speech and press, and church-state relations. Included are case file materials for Griswold v. Connecticut, the 1965 privacy rights case that overturned one of the last state laws prohibiting the prescription or use of contraceptives by married couples. The Griswold decision is also represented in the papers of William O. Douglas (634,000 items; 1801-1980; bulk 1923-75), who wrote the Court's majority opinion in the case.

A few hours away from Supreme Court bench, Boston, Mass. - Felix Frankfurter and Mrs. Frankfurter. January 19, 1938. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Besides Douglas's papers, the division holds those of other associate justices who served under Warren or his successors, several of which are particularly relevant to women's legal history, especially the papers of Felix Frankfurter (70,625 items; 1846-1966; bulk 1907-66), an associate justice from 1939 to 1962. Letters from the justice's wife, Marion Denman Frankfurter (d. 1975), describe her activities at Smith College (1910-12) and graduate studies in social work, her support of suffrage, her work with the American National Red Cross during World War I (see related collections described under Health and Medicine), and her research and editing of her husband's articles. Marion's sister, Helen Denman, wrote about her experiences as a traveling secretary in the 1920s for the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA). While a professor at Harvard Law School, Felix Frankfurter assisted the National Consumers' League and other groups in their efforts to obtain protective legislation for women in the workplace. He was the lead attorney for the appellants in the 1923 Supreme Court case Adkins v. Children's Hospital, and his papers contain files relating to that case and more generally to child labor and minimum wage legislation. He counted among his correspondents notable women such as Grace Abbott, Molly Dewson, Alice Hamilton, Belle Moskowitz, and Frances Perkins.

Frankfurter's fellow New Deal appointee Hugo L. Black (130,000 items; 1883-1976; bulk 1926-71) also maintained files from his Senate and judicial careers on wages and hours legislation, pure food and drug bills, and birth control.

Since the 1960s, the number of Supreme Court cases relating to women's legal rights has grown substantially as the judicial system has ruled on issues of job discrimination, privacy, reproductive rights, affirmative action, and sexual harassment. These topics and others are particularly well represented in the papers of:

  • William J. Brennan (388,000 items; 1945-98; bulk 1956-90)
  • Byron R. White (183,500 items; 1961-92)
  • Thurgood Marshall (173,700 items; 1949-91; bulk 1961-91)
  • Harry A. Blackmun (530,000 items; 1913-99; bulk 1959-94).

Harry A. Blackmun wrote the majority opinions in the landmark 1973 abortion rights cases Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. As a result, he received much correspondence (more than eight thousand items of which were retained in his papers) from supporters and detractors on both sides of this contentious issue. Most of the critical letters stemmed from the 1973 cases or were received before oral arguments in the controversial 1989 ruling Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, in which the Court upheld Missouri's restrictions on abortion and accepted limits on the use of federal funding for abortion-related services.

Legal case files form an important component of recent judicial collections, and such files are generally arranged by date of term and docket number, which may be a year or two earlier than the date of decision. Legal casebooks, digests, and other sources held by the Law Library are helpful in identifying decisions relevant to women. Also useful is Elizabeth Frost-Knappman and Kathryn-- Cullen-DuPont's Women's Rights on Trial: 101 Historic Trials from Anne Hutchinson to the Virginia Military Institute Cadets (Detroit: Gale Research, 1997; KF220.F76 1997).

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.