Women’s History in the Archives

March is Women’s History Month! Today’s post comes from Elle Benak in the National Archives History Office.

In spring 1976 the National Archives held a ground-breaking conference on women’s history. It highlighted National Archives records that focused on the subject and discussed how women’s history could be studied as part of general history; not just as a facet of historical narratives.

Women’s history was not a serious field of study before the 1960s. As its popularity grew, many scholars looked to the National Archives for guidance on finding records related to the subject.

Women working as chippers in a shipyard, 1942. An example of the many records at the National Archives related to women. (National Archives Identifier 522892)

In summer 1974 about a dozen historians wrote to the agency asking for a conference on women’s history.

“Her Infinite Variety: a 200-Year Record of America’s Women” exhibit, October 1975. (National Archives Identifier 35810732)

The National Archives had been holding conferences since 1967 to facilitate interactions between archivists and scholars, but the topic of women’s history had never been considered.

The Archives had already started work on an exhibit that was created to coincide with International Women’s Year and the Bicentennial of the Declaration of Independence.

The exhibit, “Her Infinite Variety: A 200-Year Record of American Women,” ran from July 1975 to February 1976.

The exhibit examined women’s roles at home, work, in wartime, as reformers, and in public life. It garnered favorable reviews, and First Lady Betty Ford even attended the exhibit’s opening.

Archivist of the United States James B. Rhoads, and First Lady Betty Ford viewing documents in the exhibit “Her Infinite Variety: a 200 Year Record of America’s Women,” October 1975. (National Archives Identifier 35810704)

The conference topic, however, was not immediately pursued.

The idea eventually made its way to assistant archivist of the United States, Mabel Deutrich. Deutrich was a member of General Services Administration’s women’s committee and was the first chair of the Society of American Archivists Committee on the Status of Women.

Mabel Deutrich. (National Archives Identifier 12170444)

Deutrich was able to get the conference on the calendar for April 22-23, 1976, and served as conference director.

Virginia C. Purdy, director of the Education Division at the National Archives, was appointed women’s history specialist and tasked with helping Deutrich with the conference.

Purdy had a Ph.D. in history, written several articles on women’s history, and often lectured on the subject. The “Her Infinite Variety” exhibit was also created under her direction.

Before this conference, the National Archives identified only two groups of holdings on women’s history: Records of the Women’s Bureau and Records of the Children’s Bureau, both under the Department of Labor.

A conference devoted to women’s history would uncover previously unused records relating to women and help advance research methods for historians.

Because the National Archives holds records of the federal government, and the government is involved with its citizens—including women—in countless ways, the potential number of topics was vast and varied.

The conference spanned two days and included talks and discussion panels examining holdings pertaining to women’s history, and papers that used these rich resources to demonstrate women’s contributions throughout American history.

In her introductory speech Deutrich demonstrated how records seemingly unrelated to women can shed light on women’s history. For example, she explained how documents from the Civil War show women moving into new roles in society as manufactory workers, nurses, and Army assistants during wartime. And, in addition to telling the story of the Civil War, the records reveal information about specific women’s lives and trends in women’s behaviors, experiences, and beliefs.

Trackwomen at the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Company, 1943. ( National Archives Identifier 522888)

The conference demonstrated that the National Archives held a multitude of holdings containing vast information about women throughout the nation’s 200-year history.

Papers discussed women from the Revolutionary War, Great Depression, and World War II. They told the stories of women of color, abolitionists, and First Ladies. The conference also included a pictorial essay by longtime staff member Nancy Malan in which she took a closer look at images of American women and showed what they revealed about that time in history.

The conference ended with a retrospect and call to action by historian Mary P. Ryan suggesting more conferences like this one and a more coordinated effort with respect to studying women in history.

Edited conference papers and proceedings were published in the 1980 volume, Clio Was a Women: Studies in the History of American Women.

Visit the National Archives website to see events related to Women’s History Month. And go here to explore our rich resources related to women’s history.

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