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Women's History Manuscript Collections at the Rubenstein Library

Public Service & Social Reform Overview

Black and white women at ribbon cutting, Women in ActionThese collections include the personal papers of women and the records of women's organizations dedicated to serving and improving society. Additional materials can be found in large collections of family papers where the women belonged to philanthropic social clubs, or in the papers of public officials, newspaper editors, and clergy. Together, these materials cover a wide range of social causes and political issues of local, regional and national significance and concern women who were employed, elected or volunteered. 

Image from Women-In-Action for the Prevention of Violence and Its Causes, Inc., Durham Chapter Records, c. 1970s


19th Century Collections

During the 1800s and early 1900s, women in the United States engaged in various civic and social activities in service to their communities. Some worked to increase women's access to political power, for universal suffrage, labor reform, and the abolition of slavery. Others organized actively to reinforce racial segregation and inequality and against the movement for universal suffrage. The experiences of Black women and other women of color who participated in civic engagement are not as well-documented as white women in the Rubenstein Library's collections.  

This guide does not include the many collections documenting women's participation and experiences directly related to the Civil War in the U.S. and collections primarily related to suffrage since they are covered in other guides on those topics. (See Related Collections box at left.) 

Image from the Anne Pamela Cunningham papers

20th Century Collections

During the 20th century, many women joined organizations and clubs or worked individually in civic and social justice and reform activities and movements, such as the Civil Rights Movement and movements for LGBTQ+ rights, gender and women’s equality; local, state, and national electoral politics; voting rights (including several collections documenting the Suffrage Movement); and labor rights. Many of these collections document state and local history, and their locations are noted below the hyperlinks. 


Image from the Women-in-Action for the Prevention of Violence and Its Causes, Inc. Durham Chapter records, 1968-1981, (bulk 1968-1972).