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Women's History Research in Archives : Women's History Research

How to research women's history in archival sources

Searching Archival Catalogs

Your primary interface for archival collections is archival catalogs whether in a union catalog like WorldCat or an institutional catalog like the Wisconsin Historical Society's ArCat. You can search archival catalogs like library catalogs for keywords and subject terms.


A search of just the keyword women will probably retrieve a very large number of results and will also miss many materials created by or relating to women; while, a search for gender will probably retrieve very few results. Also, many terms commonly used in gender and women's studies are not used in many archival catalogs.


To construct a better search, identify what groups of women, during what time period, in what region and/or related to what role or issue you are interested in.

Once you have these key concepts, identify synonyms, broader and narrower terms and the Library of Congress terms for them. Use WorldCat to identify Library of Congress subject headings by starting with keywords then referencing the subject headings in the "Similar Items" section at the bottom of an individual item's record.

Use these keywords and subject headings along with Boolean search techniques to search the catalog. For more information on effective searching of catalogs and advanced search techniques see the UW-Madison's guide How to Use the Catalog.

Think Like an Archivist

Along with general techniques for improving catalog searching, thinking of archival organization techniques will improve your searching. 

Archives keep records and papers together by who created them.  Think about who would have created records on the topic you are interested in and who would have created the kind of content you are interested in.  Be aware that women's history related materials are often hidden in larger collections.

Kinds of creators to consider:

  • individual
  • family
  • professional
  • artist
  • business
  • activist organization
  • union
  • social-welfare organization
  • professional organization
  • school
  • office or branch of the government.

Consult with the archivist, consult the archive's published guide or use keywords that will differentiate materials by type and type of creator in the catalog.

Browse Subject Terms

Browsing can really help you brainstorm and find the words for the topic you are interested in.

Browse a list of women's studies and women's history related subject terms.  Check out this excellent book:

Dickstein, Ruth, Victoria A. Mills, and Ellen J. Waite. Women in LC's Terms: A Thesaurus of Library of Congress Subject Headings Relating to Women. Phoenix: Oryx Press, 1988.

Guides to Archival Collections

When women's studies and women's history became academic disciplines in the 1970s, many archives published guides to women's history related materials in their collections and this tradition continues.

Before visiting an archive:

  • Check around on their website for a women's history guide
  • Do a keyword search in WorldCat for the archive's name and women's history guide to see if there is a published volume
  • Email the archive and ask