Virginia C. Purdy: Fighting for Women’s History

The National Archives History Office is wrapping up its month-long celebration of Women’s History. Today’s post comes from Sarah Basilion.

Commemoration of Women’s History Month at the National Archives would be incomplete without remembering Virginia C. Purdy, the agency’s one-time specialist in women’s history.

In 1971 the National Archives loaned the Treaty of Paris to the State of Maryland. Pictured in the Office of the Archivist of the United States are: Joan L. Baldwin, Maryland Division of Tourism; Morris L. Radoff, Archivist and Records Administrator, State of Maryland; Virginia Purdy, Archivist in Educational Programs at the National Archives; James B. Rhoads, Archivist of the United States; and Mr. Wyhle, Maryland State Police, 1/13/1971. (National Archives Identifier 23856371)

Virginia Cardwell was born in Columbia, SC, in 1922. She received her B.A. from the University of South Carolina in 1942 and her M.A. and Ph.D. in history from the George Washington University in 1960 and 1970, respectively.

After college, she taught in South Carolina public schools before beginning a long career in the federal government.

She and her husband, Donald Purdy, moved to Washington, DC, in 1957 for his job as a federal meteorologist. Purdy earned her M.A., then joined the Library of Congress as a reference librarian in American State and Local History, a position she held from 1964 to 1966.

She then worked as an Assistant Historian (1966–69) and Keeper of the Catalog of American Portraits (1969–70) at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

Purdy then came to the National Archives, where she remained until her retirement in 1989. She held several positions and worked in many departments at the National Archives, as an exhibits curator, Director of the Education Division, the Microfilms Publications Coordinator, and the Specialist in Women’s History.

Throughout her time at the Archives, Purdy made efforts to promote the history of American women. She wrote several articles, often lectured on women’s history, and discussed the National Archives’ holdings that related to or documented women’s history.

In 1980, she and another agency employee, Mabel Deutrich, published a book about women’s history titled Clio Was a Woman: Studies in the History of American Women (Harvard University Press, 1980). The book was well received and was praised for its intersectional approach to women’s history.

James B. Rhoads, Archivist of the United States (right), holding an award for the Formation of the Union catalog with Steven Tutellian, regional sales manager for the Edward Stern Majestic Press of Philadelphia, and Virginia C. Purdy, Educational Programs, January 26, 1971. (National Archives Identifier 23856347)

Perhaps her most important contribution to the study of women’s history while at the National Archives was the Conference on Women’s History, which she headed in April 1976. Historians first requested such a conference in 1974, but the idea was rejected. The idea was passed to Purdy and Deutrich, who organized the conference two years later.

Prior to the conference, the National Archives had identified only two blocks of records as pertaining to women’s history: the records of the Women’s Bureau and the Children’s Bureau of the Department of Labor. Purdy, Deutrich, and other agency employees knew that a wealth of other records about women existed and were simply being forgotten or ignored.

One of the goals of the conference was to highlight these records and make the agency and the archival community understand their importance. The conference also aimed to “engage scholars . . . in discussion of the 200-year social and political experience of women in America.”

The conference, which lasted several days, accomplished these goals and was an overall success. Despite this, it received only passing mention in the agency’s annual report—a sign that women’s history still had a ways to go before it would be a seriously considered field of study.

Rod Ross (left) and Robert Coren talk with Virginia Purdy at her retirement party, July 1989. (Records of the National Archives)

In addition to her work promoting women’s history while at the National Archives, Purdy dedicated her time to improving conditions for agency employees. She was the first president of the National Archives Assembly, a professional organization of agency employees created to provide a space for employees to voice their concerns and discuss the changes they wanted to see happen at the agency.

Outside of the National Archives, Purdy was a member of the Society of American Archivists and edited the organization’s journal, The American Archivist, from 1978 to 1980. In 1981, she was named a Fellow of the society.

After retiring in 1989, Purdy spent her time traveling. She died in on May 22, 2015, at her Alexandria, VA, home at the age of 92.

Virginia Purdy, 2/15/2006. (National Archives Identifier 184340952)

Virginia Purdy’s 2006 oral history interview is available online.

Transcripts of speeches from the women’s history conference are available at the National Archives at College Park.

Explore National Archives’ holdings about women and women’s history through this compiled list of bibliographic resources or by searching through our online catalog.

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