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American Women: Resources from the Manuscript Collections

Social Sciences

Reo Fortune, photographer. Margaret Mead on a canoe with Manus children. 1928. Library of Congress Manuscript Division.


Anthropology may be the scientific field about which the division has the most information on women's participation. Among its largest collections are the papers of anthropologist and educator Margaret Mead (1901-1978). Beginning with her first book, Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), which compared the experiences of American and Samoan teenagers, Mead used her research on Pacific Island cultures as a framework for analyzing American society. She was particularly interested in gender and race as cultural constructs, and she served as a mentor and promoter of many young women, especially those pursuing careers in anthropology. Her correspondence, speeches, and writings, including her many articles for Redbook and other women's magazines, cover a variety of topics of interest to women's historians. Also included in her collection (528,466 items; 1838-1987; bulk 1911-78) are papers of her colleagues Jane Belo, Ruth Benedict, Edith M. Cobb, Lenora Schwartz Foerstel, Margaret Lowenfeld, Lola Romanucci, and Martha Wolfenstein. Mead's colleagues, anthropologists Rhoda Bubendey Métraux (1914-2003) and Patricia Grinager (1918-1999), are each represented by their own collections. Métraux's papers (90,000 items and 802 digital files; 1837-1997; bulk 1946-1990) includes material on her anthropological career and several of her joint projects with Mead. Grinager's papers (6,500 items; 1870-2001; bulk 1975-1982) pertain chiefly to Grinager's book, Uncommon Lives: My Lifelong Friendship with Margaret Mead (1999) and some materials related to Grinager's education and career as an anthropologist, educator, and Mead's assistant.

Born a half-century before Mead was author and explorer Mary French Sheldon (1847-1936). Although she was not as consciously comparative in her approach as Mead, Sheldon nevertheless revealed attitudes about gender issues in American society in her studies of women and children in the Belgian Congo in the 1890s (1,350 items; 1885-1936). In addition, the papers (3,000 items; 1688-1932) of anthropologist and physician Anita Newcomb McGee (1864-1940) (see Red Cross & World War I) include materials on her role in forming the Women's Anthropological Society of America and her research on communal societies in the United States, including the Shakers and the Oneida community.


The field of economics continues to be a difficult field for women to break down gender barriers. Mabel M. Smythe (1918-2006) was an African American economist and diplomat, and collaborator with her spouse Hugh H. Smythe, a sociologist and diplomat. Their papers (36,500 items; circa 1895-1997; bulk 1960-1990) relate chiefly to their diplomatic and academic careers, including material on their involvement with the U.S. Advisory Commission on International Educational and Cultural Affairs, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and various United Nations commissions; Mabel Smythe's ambassadorship to Cameroon and her duties at the State Dept.'s Bureau of African Affairs; and their experiences in West Africa and Japan. Throughout her life, Smythe held numerous teaching positions in economics and African Studies both in the United States and Japan, and she was a prolific writer and advocate for issues relating to Africa, multiculturalism, African American civil rights, women's issues, and the improvement of health and economic conditions in the United States (See Women Diplomats). In addition, the papers (26,750 items and 2 digital files; 1960-2007)) of Alice M. Rivlin (1931-2019), economist, government official, and director of the Congressional Budget Office, contain materials pertaining to her career.

Geography & Exploration

Various geographers, explorers, anthropologists, and other women in allied disciplines are documented in the records of the Society of Woman Geographers (32,000 items; 1905-2015), which was founded in 1925 by women who were excluded from membership in many other professional organizations. Other women explorers can be found alongside the papers of their spouses such as in the papers of Antarctic explorers and writers Finn Ronne and Edith M. Ronne (15,800 items and 6,900 digital files; 1900-2012; bulk 1934-1980). The papers of Edith M. “Jackie” Ronne (1919-2009) document her work as a member of the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition, Finn Ronne's naming of the Ronne Ice Shelf in her honor, and her place along with that of Jennie Darlington, wife of an expedition member, as the first women to winter over in Antarctica. Ronne served as the expedition’s recorder and, from this position, she wrote numerous newspaper articles publicizing the expedition as well as the official final report. In addition to Edith M. Ronne, many women documented exploration through their writings, photographs, and scrapbooks. For example, the papers of Mary French Sheldon (see Anthropology above) author, lecturer, and explorer, contain materials primarily concerning her interest in Africa, particularly the Belgian Congo (later the Democratic Republic of Congo).

Social Work & Sociology

Many women engaged in social work and sociology, especially those involved in progressive reform movements, can be found in the Reform & Activism and the Health & Medicine sections of this guide.

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.