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USING THE COLLECTIONS
SELECTED AREAS FOR RESEARCH
LAW LIBRARY EXTERNAL SITES
The Law Library of Congress contains the largest body of United States federal and state law, foreign law, international law, and comparative law and legislation in the world. The breadth and depth of the Law Library's collections are extraordinary. Federal and state laws and court decisions from the colonial period to the present shed light on U.S. history. Laws of Massachusetts that date from the late seventeenth century and Virginia Court Reports dating from the early eighteenth century are available both in printed editions, housed with the Law Library's Rare Book Collection, and in microform.
Besides these primary source materials, legal treatises—for instance, Blackstone's Commentaries (see bibliography after section on Married Women's Property Laws)—form a strong component of the Law Library collections. Many early editions of common law treatises—from which numerous modern laws are derived—are among the holdings, as are legislative histories. For example, a collection of bound federal bills dating back to the 16th Congress is available for consultation. Through all these varieties of resources, the Law Library of Congress presents a wealth of legal information to support the study of women's issues.
Historically, the legal rights of women have been determined by men. Some legal historians even argue that women in the United States had no “legal rights” until 1920 when the Nineteenth Amendment was ratified. Although the lives of women had been affected by laws, women themselves had played no direct role in legislating or enforcing these laws. They could not vote to elect legislators and thus had no direct leverage in the electoral process. It seems ironic that Justice, the symbol of the United States court system, is female, yet for years women were not able to participate in the judicial system except as defendants or third parties. For the most part, women did not enter the courtroom as lawyers until the late nineteenth century, and they could not serve as jurors until the twentieth century.
Nevertheless, there were a number of laws from as early as the seventeenth century that specifically addressed women. Protective legislation limiting the number of hours women and children could work and court decisions addressing a woman's guilt or innocence in criminal proceedings or whether or not she could keep or devise her inherited property are examples.
Despite this wealth of legal information to support the study of women in diverse academic areas, court decisions and statutory language have been underused by scholars in disciplines other than legal history. The reasons for this vary, but most law librarians will agree that the challenges of legal research and a lack of knowledge about law may discourage historians and others from doing research in this area. The vast array of materials in the Law Library can be overwhelming to the researcher, especially if the methodology of legal research is unfamiliar. Because there are few guides, indexing sources, or treatises specifically addressing women's issues, using legal resources can be challenging—but can also result in rewarding discoveries.
*Authored the original chapter in American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women's History and Culture in the United States (Library of Congress, 2001), from which this online version is derived. Others who contributed to this effort are identified in the Acknowledgments.[Top]
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