Library of Congress Manuscripts: An Illustrated Guide
Previous Table of Contents Next

Women's History

The new emphasis on social history in the late 1960s and early 1970s not only led to an increased awareness of African-American history but also promoted greater scholarly interest in the history of women. Fortunately, the curators of the Library's manuscript holdings at the beginning of the twentieth century had the foresight to assemble one of the nation's best collections for the study of women's experience in America.

In 1903, the same year that President Roosevelt directed the transfer of presidential papers and historical manuscripts from the State Department, Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford acquired the personal library and manuscripts of his friend Susan B. Anthony. Accompanying Anthony's papers were four portfolios of documents from her mentor, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, one of the founders of the women's rights movement. These included a manuscript copy of Stanton's controversial best-seller, The Woman's Bible (1895), which--to the horror of many suffragists--criticized church authority and attacked the use of Scripture to promote women's subjugation. Throughout the next half-century, the Manuscript Division augmented the Stanton and Anthony collections with the papers of other prominent suffragists--notably Carrie Chapman Catt and the Blackwell family--amassing in the process an unparalleled source of documents relating to American women's fight for the vote. The division supplemented the papers of individual suffragists with the records of two significant organizations, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and its more militant offshoot, the National Woman's Party (NWP). Once suffrage was secured, the NAWSA regrouped as the League of Women Voters (LWV), whose records are also held by the division. The league, which initially worked with the NWP on a variety of women's and family issues, split with the more radical group over the NWP's campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), drafted by Alice Paul in 1923. Scholars researching the league's position also benefit from having at the Library the records of the Women's Joint Congressional Committee (WJCC), an umbrella organization of approximately ten women's and social reform groups, which resisted the ERA as a threat to the protective labor legislation that its members had fought for years to secure. Other documentation on the long and ultimately unsuccessful campaign for an equal rights amendment may be found in the division's numerous congressional collections and the records of ERAmerica, a nationwide alliance of more than 130 civic, labor, church, and women's organizations founded in 1976 to promote ratification of the amendment that had passed Congress in 1972.

Thumbnail image of NWP's use 
of militant shock tactics and pickets Women's long and difficult struggle for suffrage is well documented in the Manuscript Division's collections. The records of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the National Woman's Party (NWP) show that suffrage was achieved only after the NAWSA abandoned its emphasis on state legislation and joined the NWP in a push for a federal amendment, combining the NAWSA's low-key lobbying of Congress with the NWP's use of militant shock tactics and pickets directed against President Woodrow Wilson, like the one shown here before the White House in January 1917. (Records of the National Woman's Party, Group II)

Many of the early suffragists came to the movement by way of the abolitionist cause; in their struggle to free the slaves, they became more aware of their own secondary status. The division's collections of Julia Ward Howe and Anna E. Dickinson papers are excellent sources for understanding women's involvement in the antislavery movement and the adoption of techniques and strategies from that struggle for use in the woman suffrage campaign.

After women secured the right to vote, many former suffragists and their daughters became active in a variety of other reform initiatives, including advocacy of child-labor and child-abuse legislation, world peace, birth control, civil rights of minorities and women, conservation of natural resources, workplace safety, hour-and-wage legislation, fair labor standards, and consumer issues such as pure-food-and-drug legislation. The papers of Belle Case La Follette, Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, Sophonisba Breckinridge, Mary Church Terrell, and Margaret Sanger provide superb examples of women's twentieth-century reform impulse. Collections of personal papers are supplemented by large and extensive organizational records of the National Women's Trade Union League (NWTUL), National Consumers League (NCL), National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), and Child Labor Committee.

Thumbnail image of diaries of Anna Maria Thornton The diaries of Anna Maria Thornton, wife of architect William Thornton, are an invaluable source of information about Washington from 1793 to 1860. On 24 August 1814, Thornton wrote of the British occupation of the city and the retreating army's efforts to safeguard "Gen'l. Washington's picture & a cart load of goods from the president's house. . . ." (Anna Maria Thornton Diaries)

In addition to documenting women's political activities, the division's holdings also serve historians attentive to women's everyday existence and the ways in which gender has shaped cultural affairs and domestic politics in the United States. The papers of Elizabeth Shaw, Mercy Otis Warren, Dolley Madison, Anna Maria Thornton, Issa Desha Breckinridge, Edith Bolling Wilson, Evalyn Walsh McLean, and the unknown female relatives corresponding with the hundreds of male politicians, soldiers, and sailors represented in the division's collections reflect the daily activities, concerns, and observations of American women from the colonial period through the twentieth century. Many of these women were less involved in reform crusades than in the daily struggle of existing in a society that devalued their contributions and restricted their activities. Their lives are recorded, if only because their papers often arrived in the division with the papers of a more famous husband, father, or brother.

Thumbnail image of self-portrait of
photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston A self-portrait of photographer Frances Benjamin Johnston shows her in her studio, about 1896. The cigarette, beer stein, and exposed petticoat symbolized rebellion against traditional ideas of feminine behavior. Johnston's papers are in the Manuscript Division, and her photographs, including this one, are in the Prints and Photographs Division.

Women's labor outside the home is also well documented, especially for the literate white middle class. Nineteenth-century work as missionary, teacher, and nurse is represented, for example, by the papers of Fidelia Church Coan, Myrtilla Miner, and Clara Barton. More recent collections reflect the expansion of women's employment opportunities in the twentieth century. Included, among others, are the papers of government officials Clare Boothe Luce, Ruth Hanna McCormick, Katie S. Louchheim, Shirley Hufstedler, and Patricia Roberts Harris. Actresses Lillian Gish, Margaret Webster, and Ruth Gordon, aviator Marjorie Claire Stinson, and authors Shirley Jackson and Edna St. Vincent Millay are also represented. Moreover, diplomat Florence Jaffray Harriman, judges Florence E. Allen and Sandra Day O'Connor, and journalists Ruby Aurora Black, Bess Furman, Elisabeth May Craig, and Ethel L. Payne all have papers in the Manuscript Division.

Spanning all time periods, classes, races, and occupations, the Library's sources for the study of women's history are among the finest and most comprehensive anywhere. Contained in nearly every collection are materials of interest to women's historians reflecting the full range of women's experiences, from Abigail Adams's declaration to her sister in 1799 that she would "never consent to have our sex considered in a inferior point of light" [1] to the remarks of Patricia Roberts Harris, "the daughter of a dining car porter" who told a skeptical senator at her 1977 confirmation hearing, "If my life has any meaning at all, it is that those who start out as outcasts can wind up being part of the system." [2]


1. Abigail Adams to Elizabeth Shaw, 19 July 1799, Elizabeth S. Shaw Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Return to text

2. New York Times, 11 January 1977. Return to Text

Previous Table of Contents Next

Manuscript Reading Room

Library of Congress Home Page

Library of Congress
Ask a Librarian (01/11/2000)