Women's Collections

The late nineteenth-century beginnings of the suffrage movement in Europe and the United States involved the first stirrings for a need to collect books and archival material about the lives of women. The Women’s Library in London, for example, grew from the London National Society for Women’s Suffrage, founded in 1867. The Library there opened its doors in the 1920s. Similar women’s libraries grew in the Netherlands, and at the various world fairs held in the United States in 1884 and 1893. In 1935, some of these efforts grew into the establishment of the International Archive for the Women's Movement (known by its Dutch initials, IIAV) in Amsterdam.

In the 1930s, Hungarian peace activist Rosika Schwimmer began work for what she called the World Center for Women’s Archives, especially highlighting the achievements of women in the peace movement. While her dream for an international collection ended in a much smaller project (the establishment of Schwimmer-Lloyd collection at the New York Public Library), her initial interest inspired Mary Beard and other historians and archivists to begin collecting the papers of women.

Beard’s efforts proved successful. They led to broad focuses at institutions such as the Library of Congress and the National Archives, and to special instructions to Works Project Administrators field workers doing surveys of collections. Ultimately Beard amassed enough interest that women and men began donating the papers of their mothers and grandmothers and other women to the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College, and libraries at Barnard College, Purdue University, and Connecticut College. An especially important collection was established at Smith College as the Sophia Smith Collection (1946). Here Mary Beard and archivist Margaret Grierson worked together to create one of the world’s best collections on women in such diverse fields as antislavery, education, medicine, literature, and religion.

An interest in women’s collections was renewed during the late 1960s and early 1970s, resulting in a massive survey of repositories all over the U.S., much like Mary Beard had wanted accomplished by the WPA. This was the Women's History Sources Survey (funded in part by NEH and the University of Minnesota, 1975-1979). Some 11,000 repositories were surveyed and descriptions of collections were published in 1979 in a massive book edited by Andrea Hinding and called Women’s History Sources. From that substantial project, local groups still knew that the record of women’s collections were far from complete, and far from being known to researchers. Archivists and historians then began further listings of collections within particular repositories such as the Utah Historical Society and the North Carolina State Archives, and within particular geographic areas such as all Texas archives and all New Orleans archives. Similar compilations have continued into the twenty-first century, for example, with revisions online of the New Orleans guide and other virtual projects such as those of the Chicago Area Women’s History Council.

The dream of Mary Beard to prove that women were active in every aspect of society has proven true in this search for women in archives. In the twenty-first century, efforts still continue with a more discerning look at the role of gender in shaping similar or varying types of record forms.