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American Women: Resources from the Recorded Sound Collections

Spoken Word

The division's collections are further enriched by personal and professional collections that have come to the Library of Congress from a variety of notable women. Instead of providing straightforward accounts of their lives through interviews, oral histories, or talks (although the collections may indeed contain such things), these collections might reveal information about the subjects in subtler, less direct ways—through telephone conversations, personal messages, dictations, or items from their professional lives such as lectures or field recordings. Many of these types of materials were acquired as part of personal collections received by the Manuscript and Music Divisions.

Ethel Payne, correspondent for The Chicago Defender, in Shanghai, China
"[Ethel Payne, correspondent for The Chicago Defender, in Shanghai, China]," 1973. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Ethel L. Payne (1911-1991), African American journalist and social activist, reported on the conflict in Vietnam and was involved in many causes related to Africa and developing countries in other parts of the world. Her collection contains speeches by many of the important people she encountered, her interviews with them, and her reports from the field. The multifaceted Jeannette Piccard (1895-1981), whose pursuits ranged from aerospace consultant, to wife, to Episcopal priest, left speeches, memoirs, and even meditations in her collection of spoken word recordings. Although Janet Flanner (1892-1978) does not add biographical information in speaking aloud, her collection displays her incisive and insightful reportage and commentary in a series of 1945 radio broadcasts from France. Many of the songs that Sylvia Fine Kaye (1913-1991) wrote for Broadway and other artistic media are contained on archival recordings from the Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine Collection. The Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon Collection offers interviews, cast albums, rehearsal tapes, and audio from television appearances that document the life and work of dancer Gwen Verdon 1925-2000). Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, a teacher, writer, and television interviewer and producer, gave the Library a collection of interviews with contemporary artists, architects, designers, and curators that significantly enhances the Library's primary source material in the visual arts. Poet Marcella DuPont (1903-1985) and literary agent Lucy Kroll (1909-1997) also contributed their collections of sound materials to the Library.

In the Collections

Rebecca Roth, photographer. [Geraldine Ferraro, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front, as she meets with constituents near a Bronx subway station in New York City]. 1998. CQ Roll Call Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Researchers interested in women who have served in the U.S. Congress will find material scattered throughout many collections. Two collections in particular, however, though rather limited in scope, feature the activities, history, and thoughts of some of these women.

U. S. House of Representatives Floor Debates

Unedited audio and video of the U.S. House of Representatives floor debates from February 1979 through December 1985 offer a glimpse into congressional activity (after January 1986 the proceedings are on video). Congresswomen who served during this time, such as Geraldine Ferraro (1935-2011), Barbara Mikulski (b. 1936), and Mary Rose Oakar (b. 1940) are heard in action in these debates. Issues relating to women during this time include legislation on the use of funds for abortions, the Domestic Violence Prevention Program, and a bill to ensure that infant formulas contain proper nutrients. This collection is searchable in SONIC by date only, so it is necessary to consult the Congressional Record indexes to locate subjects, names, and dates of interest.

Association of Former Members of Congress Oral History Collection

In the 1970s an organization called the Association of Former Members of Congress, Inc., began to record oral histories of individuals who served in Congress. The Association of Former Members of Congress Oral History Collection counts ten women among its subjects and includes not only the taped interviews but transcripts of the interviews, which reside in the Manuscript Division and on microform. Martha Griffiths (1912-2003), who was instrumental in getting the Equal Rights Amendment through Congress in 1972, and Edith Green (1910-1987), who wrote the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and was called by Senator Mark Hatfield “the most powerful woman ever to serve in Congress,” were both interviewed for this project. This collection is accessible by name and date through SONIC.

Daisy Bates
[Mrs. Daisy Bates, three-quarter length portrait, seated]. 1957. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

One excellent resource for information on many of the major women newsmakers of the past fifty years is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Collection, which includes recordings of convention activities, broadcasts, and interviews with many of the men and women who were important in the civil rights movement. It spans the most tumultuous and progressive years of the movement, from 1956 through 1977. Among the prominent women whose voices are heard in this collection are civil rights activist Daisy Bates (1914-1999), who led the effort to test the Supreme Court ruling against segregation in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957; social worker Dorothy Height (1912-2010), president of the National Council of Negro Women; Judge Constance Baker Motley (1921-2005); and lawyer and civil rights leader Margaret Bush Wilson (1919-2009). The NAACP Collection is large—the Manuscript Division and the Prints and Photographs Division also have NAACP materials. A collection-level bibliographic record is available in the Library's online catalog, which provides access to some of the individuals heard on the recordings. A complete list of those heard in this collection is available in paper from in the Research Center.

Warren K. Leffler, photographer. Coretta Scott King at the Democratic National Convention, New York City. 1976. U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

The National Press Club, another rich resource, began privately recording its luncheon speakers series in 1952. The National Press Club Luncheon Speakers Collection contains a wide ranging series of informal talks followed by question-and-answer sessions. The club's guest list has been a veritable Who's Who of newsworthy women from roughly the past fifty years, including Bella Abzug (1920-1998), Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005), Elizabeth Dole (b. 1936), Coretta Scott King (1927-2006), and Gloria Steinem (b. 1934). This collection is cataloged in SONIC, where it is searchable by name of guest, date, and sometimes subject.

An online presentation of some National Press Club lunceon speakers is available on the Recorded Sound Research Center Website at the link below. While this site does not feature any American women, it is still an interesting sampling of the collection. Accompanying essays provide historical context.

Thomas J. O'Halloran, photographer. [Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, head-and-shoulders portrait, possibly seated in a Congressional chamber]. 1976. U.S. News & World Report Magazine Photograph Collection, Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Embedded links below will display fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog.

The Vital History Cassettes Series contains interviews, press conferences, and special events recorded by CBS News from 1970 to 1982. Several shows in the series deal with women's issues or contain interviews with notable women. For example, three generations of the Peabody family of Massachusetts—Mary Peabody (1891-1981), civil rights activist; Marietta Tree (1917-1991), first woman ambassador to the United Nations; and Frances FitzGerald (b. 1940), author of Fire in the Lake (1972), the Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Vietnam—are interviewed for the series. Eleanor McGovern (1921-2007) talks about her role in the 1972 presidential campaign, and Sandra Day O'Connor (b. 1930) discusses her nomination to the Supreme Court in 1981. Clare Boothe Luce (1903-1987), Congresswoman Barbara Jordan (1936-1996), and Governor Ella Grasso (1919-1981) are also participants. Feminism is a popular topic of discussion: author Marilyn French (1929-2009) gave a talk in 1980 on “making room for women”; Betty Friedan spoke on women's liberation at the 1971 opening session of the National Women's Political Caucus; and Elaine Heffner (b. 1926) talked about mothering after feminism. Other topics include psychoanalysis and feminism, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the working woman. These cassettes are accessible by name, title, and subject in the Library's online catalog.

Cornelia Skinner

Arnold Genthe, photographer. Skinner, Cornelia Otis, Miss, portrait photograph. 1913. Arnold Genthe Collection. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Embedded links below will display fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog.

One of the most fascinating and eclectic collections in the division is the Brander Matthews Dramatic Museum Collection. A series of private, experimental, and radio broadcast recordings made at Columbia University, principally during the 1930s, the Brander Matthews Collection comprises a wide range of spoken arts, including documentaries, speeches, interviews, and prose and poetry readings. Representative women in it include Anna Roosevelt Dall (1906-1975), daughter of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt; actress Cornelia Otis Skinner (1901-1979); writer Fannie Hurst (1889-1968), and poets Harriet Monroe (1860-1936) and Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950) reading their own poetry. This collection can be searched by name, literary title, keyword, and subject in the Library's online catalog.

Harris & Ewing, photographer. Amelia Earhart in airplane. 1936. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Lyn Smith Collection: Oral Histories of Cuban Women

The Lyn Smith Cuba Collection consists of ninety-two recordings containing nearly 100 hours of oral histories of sixty Cuban women, many of whom participated in the revolutionary struggles of the 1950s. Conducted in 1988 and 1990 by oral historian Lyn Smith, these interviews present detailed accounts of Cuban women's lives both before and after the revolution. The interviewees, who represent a wide cross-section of the female population, discuss the changes that the revolution brought to their daily lives as well as the important historical events that gave shape to a new Cuba. The Batista regime, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, the Bay of Pigs and the very influential Federación de Mujeres Cubanas are discussed. In later interviews the women talk about the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent social and economic challenges facing Cuba as a result. Interviewees include Vilma Espin, Cuban civilian resistance worker and wife of Raul Castro and Cuban guerrilla Melba Hernandez. The collection also features tours of a secondary school, the Granjita Siboney museum, the Museo Histórico 26 de Julio and a discussion of the Instituto Cubano de Amistad con los Pueblos.

Society of Woman Geographers

The Society of Woman Geographers was founded in 1925 by Marguerite Harrison, Blair Niles, Gertrude Shelby, and Gertrude Emerson Sen to connect and promote the work of women engaged in exploration, anthropological research, archaeology, geology, and more. The Society is still in existence today, with 500 members throughout the United States and 27 countries. Group meetings are held in Washington, DC, Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area, and southern Florida, where members report on their research and travel activities. The Society awards fellowships to women seeking advanced degrees in geography and related fields, and holds an international conference every three years.

Well-known members have included aviator Amelia Earhart, anthropologist Margaret Mead, and archaeologist Mary Douglas Leakey.

The Society began an Oral History program in 1993 with a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation, and has received further grants from other foundations to continue the program over the last several decades. In 2013, the Society transferred recordings and transcripts of more than 80 interviews to the Library of Congress. The recordings can be heard in the Recorded Sound Research Center, and transcripts can be viewed in the Manuscript Division’s Reading Room.

For more information on the Oral Histories, visit: