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American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections

Women's Rights

Board of Directors National League of Women Voters--Chicago Convention. February 1920. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Once women's suffrage was secured, the National American Woman Suffrage Association regrouped as the League of Women Voters (514,400 items; 1884-1986; bulk 1920-79) and directed its focus toward many of the same social and political issues that occupied other women's groups. Its emphasis was on educating voters, particularly newly enfranchised women, about candidates and campaign issues, especially relating to child labor and welfare, citizen participation, civil rights, consumer affairs, environmental concerns, ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, immigration, labor, national security, and women's legal status and rights. Selected portions of the League of Women Voters records are also available via the subscription database ProQuest History Vault.

In addition to promoting its own programs, the league was also a prime mover behind the Women's Joint Congressional Committee (WJCC) (6,200 items; 1920-70; bulk 1920-53), an umbrella organization of various women's and social reform groups that was formed in 1920 to serve as an information clearinghouse and lobbying force for pending federal legislation. Among the charter members were the League of Women Voters, National Consumers' League, National Women's Trade Union League of America, National Council of Jewish Women, and six other groups. More organizations joined a few years later to promote legislation against lynching and for maternity and infant health protection (including support for the 1921 Sheppard-Towner Act), independent citizenship for married women (as partially realized in the 1922 Cable Act), funding for the federal women's and children's bureaus, and creation of a Department of Education.

One group that did not join the WJCC was the National Woman's Party (NWP), the leading proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), which NWP chair Alice Paul had drafted in 1923. The WJCC resisted the ERA as a threat to the sex-based protective labor legislation that its members had fought for years to secure. Several decades passed before the influential League of Women Voters and other former WJCC members supported the ERA, which Congress did not pass until 1972 (see the topical essay “The Long Road to Equality”).

Bettye Lane, photographer. ERA march, Wash. D.C. July 9, 1979. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Aspects of the failed struggle to ratify the amendment may be traced in the records of ERAmerica (62,300 items; 1976-82), a nationwide alliance of about 200 civic, labor, church, and women's groups founded in 1976. The organization mounted major campaigns in Illinois, Oklahoma, and key southern states, as reflected in the files of honorary cochairs Liz Carpenter and Elly Peterson, and of various other staff members. Materials from anti-ERA organizations, such as the Eagle Forum and Moral Majority, are also found here, as are files on issues that became linked to the ERA, such as abortion, comparable worth, and pension rights of former military spouses. For additional information on the ERAmerica Records, see the topical essay “The Long Road to Equality.”

Organizations also formed to ensure women's rights within the political arena and encourage women's political and civic engagement. The records of the National Federation of Democratic Women (NFDW) (8,500 items; 1960-2016; bulk 1988-2016) demonstrate the organization's focus on supporting women and women's issues from within the Democratic Party since the NFDW's founding in 1971.

Joining the records of suffrage and women's rights organizations are the personal papers of many men and women who fought for women's rights in the social, political, and economic arenas. Descriptions of these collections may be found in every section of the Manuscript Division portion of this research guide. Notable examples include the following:

  • Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Harriot Stanton Blatch, Alice Stone Blackwell, Mary Church Terrell, Carrie Chapman Catt, Maud Wood Park, and Anna Kelton Wiley (see Women's Suffrage)
  • Anna E. Dickinson and Anne Turpeau (see Reform)
  • Elizabeth Blackwell, Margaret Sanger, and Jeannette Ridlon Piccard (see Health and Medicine)
  • Lucretia Garfield, Edith Bolling Wilson and Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt (see Papers of Presidents and First Ladies)
  • Ruth Hanna McCormick Simms, Clare Boothe Luce, Patsy T. Mink, Mary S. Logan, and the La Follette Family (see Congressional Collections)
  • Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Florence Ellinwood Allen, Felix Frankfurter, Harry A. Blackmun, and Winn Newman (see Legal Collections)
  • Muriel Rukeyser, Ruby Black, May Craig, and the Reid Family (see Literature and Journalism)

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.

The subscription resources marked with a padlock are available to researchers on-site at the Library of Congress. If you are unable to visit the Library, you may be able to access these resources through your local public or academic library.