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American Women: Resources from the Moving Image Collections

Part of the American Women series, this guide focuses on resources on and about women from the Moving Image Section of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division.


From the crude beginnings of cinema produced at Thomas Edison's Black Maria studio to the computer-generated effects created at George Lucas's Industrial Light + Magic, the Library of Congress holds the most comprehensive collections of American film and television materials in the world. The Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division (MBRS) houses about 1.4 million moving image items, including feature films, shorts, serials, newsreels, cartoons, documentaries, educational films, television programs, and commercials.

In the 1901 film What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, New York City (see below), a couple is walking down a sidewalk when the woman steps on a grate and the escaping air blows her ankle length dress up to her knees.

Fifty years later and thirty blocks to the north, another couple walked over a subway grate in a movie. With The Seven Year Itch (1955), the image of Marilyn Monroe's thighs exposed under her billowing skirt entered American popular culture. The Library's motion picture and broadcasting collections provide the opportunity to document not only how women's roles and their depictions have changed throughout the past hundred years, but also how much has remained the same.

Depictions of Women

This is the new style in camera "men," [1916], Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Women have been represented as every conceivable stereotype in the movies: waif, vamp, girl-next-door, femme fatale, Madonna, whore, shopgirl, career woman, gold digger, wisecracking girlfriend, dumb blonde, self-sacrificing mother, and perfect wife. Although individual film archives may have the collections of particular filmmakers, studios, or performers, the Library's strength lies in the span of its holdings. The development of almost any subject or theme can be traced here. With enough time and effort, a researcher could follow the evolution of a number of character types: from America's Sweetheart, Mary Pickford, to Drew Barrymore's Cinderella character in Ever After (1998); from Clara Bow's “It” girl to Elizabeth Taylor's party girl in Butterfield 8 (1960); from Theda Bara's vamp to Sharon Stone's man-eater in Basic Instinct (1992); or from the perils of Pearl White to the travails of Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games (2012).

Women's Suffrage

The Women's Suffrage movement made active use of the burgeoning film technologies that were increasingly available and popular throughout the early 20th century. Motion pictures reached wide audiences and were instrumental in getting the word out on both sides of the debate. The Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division of the Library of Congress has a number of fascinating resources related to women's suffrage, including actuality footage of parades and speeches, early films satirizing the movement, as well as film and television documentaries on the history of the movement and its leaders. In addition to moving image materials, the division holds a number of recorded sound resources such as radio programs, recordings of interviews with suffragists, and popular songs associated with the movement. A Research Guide detailing these resources is in preparation and will be linked when complete.

Methods of Acquisition

The Library of Congress began collecting motion pictures in 1893 when an Edison kinetoscope was deposited for copyright. Although there was no provision in the copyright law for motion pictures until 1912, early film producers printed their movies on paper rolls and sent them to the Library of Congress as still photographs. In 1912, the copyright law established motion pictures as a distinct form, but the Library chose not to house the flammable nitrate film in use at the time and returned all works to the claimants, retaining only descriptive printed material relating to the films. This practice changed in 1942, when, recognizing the importance of motion pictures and the need to preserve them as a historical record, the Library requested the return of selected works and, to fill the gap between 1912 and 1942, pursued gift collections and donations from studios, institutions, and private collectors.

In 1949 the Library began collecting television programs. The Library's television archive comprises an eclectic group offering a broad but uneven view of television broadcasting history. The industry's failure to make kinescope recordings of much early live television, and the division's practice of selectively retaining copyright deposits because of the initial underestimation of the medium's significance, have resulted in scant holdings of certain popular series and full runs of others. Beginning in 1966, the Library's policy was changed to keep all network documentaries and telefeatures and large samplings of entertainment series and other types of programming. The process has continued to expand in recent years as even more copyright deposits have been selected for the collections, as gifts of television programs not registered for copyright protection have been encouraged, and as funds have been made available for purchases.

Paper Documentation

The division also has custody of printed descriptive materials received as a part of the copyright registration process. These copyright descriptions can include continuities of the dialogue and action of a film taken directly from the screen, pressbooks, plot synopses, or credit lists. Such written material is especially valuable when the original film or television program is no longer extant. The division also holds motion picture advertising and other paper ephemera.

[Marilyn Monroe, full-length portrait, facing front, standing over grate with dress billowing up]. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Using This Guide

Selected Collections

Emphasizing the portrayal of women in film and television and their roles in front of and behind the camera, this Research Guide surveys motion pictures, television, and non-broadcast performance videos. It highlights selected collections, illustrating the extraordinary scope and variety of the moving image materials available for the study of American women's history and culture at the Library of Congress.

A Note on the Mention of Films

Where possible, films mentioned in this guide include their call numbers in parentheses--for example, (Republic, 1951, FBC 6142-6143)--or are linked to their records in the Library's online catalog. In some cases, a film mentioned here has been made available online through the Library's digital collections. These films will link directly to the digital collection in which they can be viewed. Television programs are linked to catalog records if a record for the complete series or first season is available, if the first episode of a series is available, or if the program was a standalone work. In most cases, searching the title of a television series in the Library's online catalog will turn up records for individual episodes rather than a record for the series as a whole.