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American Women: Resources from the Performing Arts Collections

Part of the American Women Series, this guide highlights collections and resources in the Music Division that document the lives and work of significant women in music, theater, and dance.


The music holdings of the Library of Congress are regarded as one of the best music research collections in the world. Estimated at more than twenty-five million items, they are unmatched in their coverage of both classical and popular music of the United States. They are also strong in European classical music, opera scores and libretti, early imprints of works dealing with music literature and theory, and music periodical literature from the eighteenth century to the present. These collections consist of information sources on paper: the musical notation of scores and books and periodicals about music. Music that is transmitted orally—as is that of many ethnic traditions—is rarely written down. These traditions are best represented in recordings found in either the Recorded Sound Research Center or the American Folklife Center.

Women Music Makers

The Music Division's collections present myriad resources to study American women music makers and provide a unique lens through which to explore women's movements in the United States. In the Music Division you can find the volume of piano music collected and bound for the private use of Eleanor P. Custis, better known as Nellie Custis, granddaughter of Martha Washington. One of hundreds of similar volumes compiled by women during the nineteenth century, it contains predominantly pieces by European male composers yet nonetheless reflects the role of music in women's lives. Musical accomplishment was a mark of the well-bred woman, and the piano in particular was most often her instrument of choice. Arthur Loesser provides an entertaining history of women's relationship with the piano in his Men, Women, and Pianos: A Social History, another example of what may be found on the Music Division's shelves.

You can examine women's work as composers through the vast holdings of music scores that contain classically conceived compositions such as Rebecca Clarke's Sonata for Viola and Piano, as well as popular songs such as those of singer and songwriter Joni Mitchell. Countless other songs depict women in lyrics, titles, and cover art. You can locate a copy of the sheet music to Helen Reddy's hit “I Am Woman”, find out when it was number one on the Billboard charts (the week of December 9, 1972), and look up her famous acceptance speech at the Grammy Awards when she thanked God “because She makes everything possible.” (Fred Bronson, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits.)

Books about women and their relationship to music include biographies of women musicians, ethnomusicological investigations, and histories. The Music Division is the place to read Marian Anderson's autobiography, My Lord, What a Morning, research women's role in American Indian music (Women in North American Indian Music), or find out about women and rock and roll (Lucy O'Brien's She Bop: The Definitive History of Women in Rock, Pop, and Soul).

The special collections of the Music Division include the performing arts of dance and theater as well as music, and they contain the personal papers of many creative women. Researchers can study the compositional process of Ruth Crawford Seeger through her original musical sketches (Seeger Family Collection), examine operatic soprano Beverly Sills's scrapbooks (Beverly Sills Scrapbooks and Awards), and read the correspondence between Elizabeth Coolidge and Martha Graham discussing the creation of a new American work—a ballet ultimately set to music by Aaron Copland that became the much-loved Appalachian Spring (Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation Collection). For more information, see the Special Collections section of this guide.

Performing Arts Reading Room

The Performing Arts Reading Room is administered by the Music Division and is the access point for all print and manuscript sources whose subject is music, comprising everything in class M and more than five hundred special collections of primary source material in music, theater, and dance. (For an in-depth study of the history of music at the Library of Congress, see Gillian B. Anderson, "Putting the Experience of the World at the Nation's Command: Music at the Library of Congress, 1800-1917," Journal of the American Musicological Society 42, no. 1 (1989): 108-49.) The Music Division actively began collecting primary source material in theater and dance in the 1990s. Today these collections are significant, and include the papers of Martha Graham as well as the archives of the Federal Theatre Project. The performing arts of theater and dance are represented in the reading room reference collection. Other books about dance and theater are located in the Library's general collections and may be requested in the Main Reading Room.

Researchers interested in women and the performing arts should also be aware that there may be material relevant to their study in other divisions. Sound recordings, as noted above, are in the custody of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, which maintains a Recorded Sound Research Center adjacent to the Performing Arts Reading Room. The Manuscript Division, Prints and Photographs Division, and American Folklife Center also contain collections related to women in the performing arts.

The content for this research guide is largely taken from Robin Rausch's original essay published in American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Women's History and Culture in the United States (Library of Congress, 2001). Special thanks are extended to Susan Clermont, Ruth Foss, and Wayne Shirley for their helpful comments and suggestions.