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American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections

Papers of Presidents & First Ladies

President and Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt seated on lawn, surrounded by their family. Circa 1903. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The Manuscript Division's presidential collections are among its most prized holdings. As the nation's oldest and most comprehensive presidential library, the division holds the papers of twenty-three presidents of the United States ranging in time from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge. (Subsequent presidents have their own libraries administered by the National Archives and Records Administration.) Included in these collections are:

  • Papers of many first ladies
  • Documents relating to public policies and programs affecting women
  • Correspondence with women relatives and friends
  • Letters from women constituents attempting to gain presidential favor for political and cultural initiatives

All twenty-three presidential collections have been microfilmed, and the microfilm editions are available in repositories throughout the country. Published indexes list many of the documents by name of writer or recipient, together with the date, series number, page count, and other information as appropriate. Unfortunately, distinguishing between men's and women's names is difficult because many of the indexes list only the first initial of the first name.

Thirty-one presidents have been the fathers of girls, and correspondence between some of these daughters and their famous fathers may be found in the Manuscript Division. In 2004, one of the division's historians, Gerard W. Gawalt, and his daughter, attorney Ann G. Gawalt, published several of these letters in their book First Daughters: Letters Between U.S. Presidents and Their Daughters.

Two additional reference aids are helpful in identifying first ladies' materials:

  • A card index in the Manuscript Reading Room identifies each first lady and lists names of collections, container numbers, and brief descriptions of the materials in those collections relating to her.
  • Mary M. Wolfskill's “Meeting a New Century: The Papers of Four Twentieth-Century First Ladies,” in Modern First Ladies: Their Documentary Legacy, compiled and edited by Nancy Kegan Smith and Mary C. Ryan describes the papers of Edith Kermit Roosevelt, Helen Herron Taft, Ellen Axson Wilson, and Edith Bolling Wilson.

Although most first ladies have been the subject of at least one biography, scholarship on presidential wives and on the role and function of first ladies only emerged since the 1980s as a separate area of inquiry within the field of women's history. Scholars have examined the “office” of first lady and have focused attention on the influence these women exerted not only on their husbands but also in the larger arenas of politics and public opinion.

As explored in subsequent sections, information on first ladies can be found in the division's presidential collections and in the papers of numerous cabinet officials, legislators, and White House observers with whom they had a social or political connection. In addition, three first ladies—Dolley Madison (1768-1849), Lucretia Rudolph Garfield (1832-1918), and Edith Bolling Galt Wilson (1872-1961)—are represented by their own collections of papers, which are arranged and described separately from their husband's presidential collections.

The following "Papers of Presidents & First Ladies" collections are highlighted in these sections of the guide:

Resources Referenced

The following 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.