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American Women: Rare Books and Special Collections

Where the Books Are

Frances Benjamin Johnston, photographer. Susan B. Anthony. 1900. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Most of the books kept in the Rare Book Vault are truly rare and need special housing and protection because of their historical and literary significance and monetary value. Some are valued as artifacts as much, if not more than, for the information they contain. Others are part of a special collection that needs to be kept whole.

Donations & Gifts

Often a book's presence in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division has to do with how the Library acquired it. For instance, Carrie Chapman Catt (1859-1947), the suffragist leader in command during the last charge for women's suffrage, donated the reference library of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) to the Library in 1938. The collection, including numerous suffrage pamphlets and Mary Wollstonecraft's A Vindication of the Rights of Woman is kept together because of its historically important provenance and because of its relevance to American scholarship, hinging as much on its existence as NAWSA's library as it does on the individual books the library contains.

Another copy of Vindication (Boston: Peter Edes, 1792; HQ1596.W6 1792a Anthony Coll) is in the Susan B. Anthony Collection, her gift to the Library in 1903. The significance of this first American edition is enhanced by its provenance and particularly its inscription from Anthony, “a great admirer of this earliest word for woman's Right to Equality of rights ever penned by a woman. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, ‘A wholesome discontent is the first step toward progress.’ And here in 1892[sic], we have the first step—so thinks Susan B. Anthony.”

Anthony had serialized the Vindication in her newspaper the Revolution, hung Wollstonecraft's picture on the wall of her Rochester home, and invoked Wollstonecraft's memory in her last suffrage speech in 1906. These acts and the sentiments of the inscription all point to the place of honor held in Anthony's heart by this early champion of feminist ideology.

First Editions

The division also collects and preserves in their original condition the first editions of many contemporary American women writers, including Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, Louise Erdrich, Louise Gluck, Maxine Kumin, Joyce Carol Oates, Sonia Sanchez, and Alice Walker.

NOTE: A reader interested in the literary content of a work should request it in the Main Reading Room and receive a General Collections copy, which will probably arrive in a sturdy library binding with the call number embossed on the cover and fitted with a bar code. If you need to see the book as it was first presented to the public for sale, you should go to the Rare Book Reading Room, which is equipped to handle fragile material, and request the Rare Book copy.