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American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections

Chronological Highlights

Although only three first ladies, Dolley Madison, Lucretia Rudolph Garfield, and Edith Bolling Wilson, are represented by their own collections in the Manuscript Division, the papers of other presidential wives and of women who served as White House hostesses for unmarried presidents may be found among those of their husbands, children, and other relatives and associates beginning in the late eighteenth century and continuing through the late twentieth century.

Elizabeth Foote Washington. Journal, 1779-1796. Spring 1789 entry. Holograph page from the journal of Elizabeth Foote Washington discussing her relationship with her servants.25

Letters from Martha Washington (1731-1802) are rare, but about forty pieces of original correspondence may be found in the papers of her husband George Washington (77,000 items; 1592-1943; bulk 1748-99), and numerous other reproductions are contained in the Washington Family Papers (800 items; 1582-1965; bulk 1700-1900), which also include letters and journals of other women relatives. The nation's first president counted among his correspondents numerous women, including Sarah Franklin Bache, Sarah Fairfax Carlyle, Elizabeth Graeme Ferguson, Judith Sargent Murray, and Mercy Otis Warren.

The Adams Family Papers are held in the Massachusetts Historical Society (a microfilm copy is available in the division), but a significant number of original letters from Abigail Adams (1744-1818) are contained in the Shaw Family Papers (650 items; 1636-1892; bulk 1770-1870)— mostly letters to her sister Elizabeth Shaw Peabody—and in the papers of President Thomas Jefferson (25,000 items; 1606-1902; bulk 1775-1826). To identify other women with whom Jefferson corresponded, browse the printed name index in the Manuscript Reading Room or search the online version of the Thomas Jefferson Papers available on the Library's website.

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.


  1. Supplementing the Manuscript Division's twenty-three presidential collections are numerous other papers of presidential family members, many of which contain diaries and letters written by women. Included in the papers of the Washington family is this slim volume of sporadic journal entries written by Elizabeth (Betsy) Foote Washington from November 1779, just before her marriage to her cousin Lund Washington, to December 1796, a few months after the death of her husband, her “dear partner and companion.” Lund Washington was George Washington's distant cousin, who lived at Mount Vernon and managed the future president's estate from 1765 to 1785, at which time Lund and Betsy moved to their own newly built home south of Alexandria. Betsy intended her journal to be a record for her daughters of how to conduct a household, and on several occasions she discussed her relationship with her servants, who she obviously felt took advantage of her and her unwillingness to scold or whip them, as noted in this spring 1789 entry. Betsy's daughters would never read their mother's instructions, as both girls died in infancy, leaving Betsy to fret in her last entry about what would become of her journal and to worry that her “female servants will take every manuscript Book they can lay their hands on, & many of my other religious Books—tho' it is my intention, if I am in my senses when on my death bed, [that] I should have a friend with me—to warn them of my servants.” Back to text

Journal entries and correspondence of Emily Donelson (1807-1836), who acted as White House hostess for President Andrew Jackson, are found in the papers of her husband Andrew Jackson Donelson (4,000 items; 1779-1943; bulk 1813-69), the president's nephew, military aide, and private secretary.

John Chester Buttre, engraver. Mrs. Franklin Pierce. Circa 1886. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

A collection of Singleton Family Papers (900 items; 1758-1860; bulk 1829-55) contains approximately one hundred letters relating to Angelica Singleton Van Buren (1816-1877), White House hostess for her father-in-law, President Martin Van Buren. Included are letters from her mother giving advice on manners and education during her school years in Philadelphia, correspondence about the family plantation in South Carolina, and a few letters discussing life in the White House after her marriage to Abraham Van Buren.

The small collection of John Tyler Papers (1,400 items; 1691-1918) includes letters of his wife Julia Gardiner Tyler (1820-1889) and other family papers reflecting social life in Virginia.

The papers of President James K. Polk (20,500 items; 1775-1891; bulk 1830-49) include three volumes of papers of his wife, Sarah Childress Polk (1803-1891), whom he married in 1824 and who acted as his secretary and political adviser. Most of her documents pertain to the management of her plantation in Mississippi after her husband's death in 1849, but also included are approximately ninety letters she and her husband exchanged from the time he left Congress in 1839 through his presidency (1845-49).

The Franklin Pierce Papers (2,350 items; 1820-69) contain only two letters from Jane M. Pierce (1806-1863) to her husband and only six from her to other people, leading the president's biographer to conclude that Pierce destroyed his correspondence with his wife, who predeceased him. Fortunately, the Pierce-Aiken Family Papers (575 items; 1797-1903; bulk 1830-70) include not only letters from Jane Pierce but also a rich correspondence of three generations of women in the Pierce-Aiken families, including Jane's mother Elizabeth Appleton (d. 1844), her sisters Mary M. Aiken (d. 1883) and Frances Packard (d. 1839), and various aunts and nieces.

Mary Todd Lincoln. Letter to Abraham Lincoln advising her husband to remove the hesitant Gen. George B. McClellan from command. November 2, 1862. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

Harriet Lane Johnston (1830-1903) served as White House hostess for her uncle James Buchanan (1,500 items; 1825-87), and her papers form part of his collection.

Found in the papers of their respective husbands are small collections of the following:

  • Incoming letters to Mary Todd Lincoln (1818-1882) in the Abraham Lincoln Papers (40,550 items; 1774-1948). The Lincoln Papers also include correspondence with Jessie B. Fremont, Eliza P. Gurney, and Sarah Josepha Hale. There is also a small collection of Mary Todd Lincoln correspondence (20 items; 1860-1909) and Mary Todd Lincoln is mentioned in the correspondence of her sister Elizabeth Todd Edwards (15 items; 1860-1861).
  • Family correspondence and incoming letters of Julia Dent Grant (1826-1902) in the Ulysses S. Grant Papers (50,000 items; 1843-1969; bulk 1843-1908).
  • Family and personal correspondence of Ellen Lewis Herndon Arthur (1837-1880) in the Chester Alan Arthur Papers (4,400 items; 1843-1960; bulk 1870-88). The Arthur Papers also include correspondence of Mary S. Logan, Katherine Chase Sprague, and Frances Willard.
  • Incoming correspondence and genealogical materials of Frances Folsom Cleveland (1864-1947) in the Grover Cleveland Papers (100,300 items; 1859-1945; bulk 1885-1908). The Cleveland Papers also contain printed matter on divorce and women's suffrage.

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.

William Howard Taft seated at table playing cards with his wife, Helen Herron Taft, and two men on boat enroute to Philippines. Circa 1900. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Edith Kermit Roosevelt (1861-1948), an intensely private woman, destroyed many of her personal files, but letters and other documents written by, to, and about her have survived in the papers of her husband President Theodore Roosevelt (276,000 items; 1759-1993; bulk 1889-1919), step-daughter Alice Roosevelt Longworth (1884-1980) (3,000 items; 1890-1946; bulk 1899-1936), and sons Theodore Roosevelt Jr. (25,000 items; 1780-1962; bulk 1920-44) and Kermit Roosevelt (56,900 items; 1885-1975). Correspondence found in her husband's papers documents her social responsibilities as first lady and her interest in Anglo-American relations, especially as evidenced by her letters to diplomats Whitelaw Reid and Cecil Spring-Rice. Also of interest in President Roosevelt's papers is his correspondence with other women family members and with prominent woman suffragists and Progressive reformers. A ten-second film clip held by the Library's Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division shows Edith and Theodore Roosevelt at the Panama-California Exposition in 1915.

Scattered among the papers of her husband William Howard Taft (676,000 items; 1784-1973) are numerous papers of Helen Herron Taft (1861-1943), including diaries kept before her marriage in 1886, during her honeymoon and subsequent travels abroad, and while serving as first lady. Helen's correspondence with her husband documents her tremendous influence in molding his career and shaping his opinions on political matters and foreign affairs. Additional Helen Taft materials may be found in the papers of her children Robert A. Taft (522,000 items; 1885-1980; bulk 1938-53), Charles P. Taft (185,000 items; 1816-1983; bulk 1937-79), and Helen Taft Manning (see “Education”). Also of note in the William Howard Taft Papers is the president's extensive correspondence with American Red Cross administrator Mabel Thorp Boardman (see “Health and Medicine”).

Some examples of the family correspondence of Grace Goodhue Coolidge can be found within the Coolidge-Pollard Families papers (8,000 items; 1818-2015 (bulk 1890-1936).

Eleanor Roosevelt. Letter, Eleanor Roosevelt to Walter White detailing the First Lady's lobbying efforts for federal action against lynchings. March 19, 1936. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.

The lives and accomplishments of modern first ladies may also be researched in the division, even though their personal collections and those of their husbands are held elsewhere in the country. For example:

  • The division's first ladies card index reveals more than ninety-one collections containing Eleanor Roosevelt material.
  • Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis items may be found in collections ranging from architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (22,000 items; 1921-69; bulk 1938-69) to Senator Daniel P. Moynihan (164,000 items; 1786-1978; bulk 1955-75) to National Gallery of Art director David E. Finley (31,000 items; 1921-77).
  • Correspondence with Lady Bird Johnson is contained in the papers of historian and presidential adviser Eric Frederick Goldman (27,600 items; 1886-1988; bulk 1940-70), among others, and information on her landscape beautification projects may be found in the Katie Louchheim Papers (see “Education”).
  • Nancy Reagan scholars will undoubtedly need to consult the papers of her husband's treasury secretary and chief of staff Donald T. Regan (78,000 items; 1919-93; bulk 1981-87), with whom she had a sometimes contentious relationship.

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.