The Virginia Historical Society's first gift of manuscripts in 1833 included a transcript of the proceedings instituted against Grace Sherwood when she stood accused of witchcraft before the Princess Anne County Court in 1706 (pictured right). For several decades the alleged witch may have been one of the few representatives of her sex in the Virginia Historical and Philosophical Society.
As the manuscript collection grew in size, other historic figures joined Grace Sherwood, but living flesh-and-blood women did not become a visible force at the VHS until late in the nineteenth century. Since then, they have played important (if sometimes unacknowledged) roles in shaping the manuscript collection.
Today we recognize that the manuscript collection as a whole at the VHS documents women's lives across a span of nearly four centuries. Documenting Women's Lives is intended to make the stories of Virginia women more accessible to researchers and to demonstrate how over the last four centuries the kinds of written material produced by or about women have changed.
This online guide was originally issued in published form through a project coordinated by Dr. Gail S. Terry and supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities an independent federal agency, and Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation.
Each entry in Documenting Women's Lives contains several levels of description. A bold-face heading gives the title of the collection, item, or volume, dates of its full chronological span, size, and its VHS call number, as well as indicates whether or not the item or collection is available on microfilm. Descriptions include names of individuals (followed by birth and death dates in parentheses) or agencies that generated the manuscripts, the places where they were produced, and the different types of documents contained within each collection.
How to use this guide
To assist researchers in tracing references to individual women in other finding aids, they are identified by their full names at death, with surnames at birth given in parentheses. Entries also contain information on subjects discussed by the collections' creators, as well as topics of interest to contemporary researchers addressed within specific collections.
Limitations of space and time precluded our listing every document pertaining to women in the collection at the VHS in this guide; however, we have included free-standing volumes written by women and a majority of the collections that contain information on women and gender. Locating manuscripts by or about women for the period before 1800 proved especially time-consuming, and for that reason the eighteenth-century holdings of the VHS may be slightly underrepresented here.
Although the compilers of entries in this guide have attempted to use standardized descriptive terminology, the natural absence of an index or library subject headings means users should think in broad terms when searching this electronic resource. Search terms may be narrowed when appropriate, but users should consider using related or alternative terms when searches produce minimal results.
Although the manuscript collection constitutes the single most significant component of the research collections at the VHS, a wealth of complementary materials in collections of maps, rare books, newspapers, sheet music, and other printed materials are available at the VHS and most directly accessed through the online catalog. The Virginia Historical Society also owns portraits of some of the women whose manuscripts are discussed here; access to them is provided through Virginius Cornick Hall's Portraits in the Collection of the Virginia Historical Society (1981) and through the museum department database of the VHS online catalog, the latter of which also includes information on artifacts among the museum holdings related to women.