Women's archives and manuscripts, 1600 - present

The image shows a page from a handwritten draft of Andrea Levy's 2004 novel, Small Island. Levy writes in black ink on lined paper. The page includes a list of ideas for the chapter in which qualified teacher Hortense sets out for a job interview. Levy adds a note to herself, 'You might have to do a bit of research on this'.
Manuscript draft of Andrea Levy’s Small Island, 2004. © Small Island 2004 by Andrea Levy.

A collection guide introducing significant collections of archives and manuscripts created by women in the United Kingdom from 1600 to the present day.

About the collection

The British Library holds a range of manuscripts created by women that reflect the lived experiences, interests, innovations and creativity of women over time. This guide aims to provide an overview of some of these archives and manuscripts collected and created by women within the British Library’s modern western manuscripts collections from 1600–present. It is worth noting from the outset that there are some instances within the British Library’s collections where a female perspective is underrepresented. This largely originates from the subordinate position most women held, in relation to men, in the past and has impacted on the scope and content of some of the papers we hold. As the position of women changed within society over time so too did the range and type of records they created and this is reflected within the Library’s collections also; in some instances, too, the British Library holds the papers of some women who openly broke the restrictive social strictures of their time.

There are a number of distinct named collections, formerly belonging to women within the Library’s western archives and manuscripts collections. Examples of some of these named collections include the Nightingale Papers, Stopes Papers, Harriet Weaver Shaw Papers, Anne McLaren Papers, and Angela Carter Papers. Beyond the collected papers of particular named figures, further manuscripts authored by women can be identified by searching for specific individuals in the archives and manuscripts catalogue.

The following collection guides provide an overview of important women’s collections with the British Library arranged by subject areas:

Literary archives and manuscripts 1600 - present
Theatrical archives and manuscripts 1900 - present
Women in science: archives and manuscripts 1600 - present
Women’s suffrage: archives and manuscripts
Women social reformers: archives and manuscripts

As well as this, certain collections are useful for finding women’s writings from particular eras.

17th Century

Correspondence, recipe books, poetry and memoirs authored by women in the early modern period can be found preserved within the collected papers of aristocratic families and estates, such as the Evelyn Papers and the Brockman Papers. The Birch Manuscripts contain correspondence and prose by early modern writers such as Aphra Behn, Katherine Phillips, Bathsua Reginald Makin, and Dorothy Pakington. The Swarthmore Manuscripts contain treatises authored by Quaker, Margaret Fell. The Westmoreland Manuscripts contains items of correspondence from Margaret Cavendish and Mary Fane. There are also a number of standalone manuscripts consisting of memoirs or memoranda authored by Lucy Hutchison, Anne Halkett, Ann Fanshawe, and Katherine Austen.

18th Century

The Blenheim Papers contain correspondence authored by influential female figures including the Duchess of Marlborough, Abigail Masham, Delarivier Manley, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Queen Anne. Manuscripts authored by members of the Bluestocking circle can be found in several collections. Correspondence of the Bluestocking hostess Elizabeth Montagu are present in the Bowood Papers whilst the Birch Manuscripts contain letters authored by bluestocking Elizabeth Carter as well as material composed by the early 18th-century playwright and philosopher Catharine Cockburn. The Barrett Collection contains correspondence from the popular 18th century novelist Frances Burney, as well as correspondence from Hester Piozzi and the bluestocking Hester Chapone. The British Library also holds a number of personal and creative manuscripts by the Regency novelist, Jane Austen.

19th Century

The growing popularity of the novel and women’s contribution to this genre in the 19th century is reflected in the archives of publishers Richard Bentley and Macmillian and Company, both of which contain correspondence from many female writers of the age. The Society of Authors archive contains correspondence from female authors from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Ashley Manuscripts contain many literary manuscripts by authors such as, Christina Rossetti, Mary Shelley, Dorothy Wordsworth, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot. The archives of Prime Ministers Robert Peel and William Gladstone contain letters of many women concerned with political life, including those from many social reformers, and in the latter half of the century, from advocates of women’s suffrage. The papers of trade unionist, John Burns, holds correspondence from women involved in workers’ rights activism. Papers of various women working in education reform are found in a manuscript entitled Women Writers. The Evelyn Papers contain a selection of manuscripts authored by women from the 17th – 19th centuries that were collected by William Upcott and collated in volumes under the title Distinguished Women. Additionally, the Nightingale Papers contain correspondence between Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale.

20th Century – 21st Century

The years 1900 to the present day provide a wealth of manuscript and archive material authored by women. There are collected archives of women such as Sylvia Pankhurst, Marie Stopes and Charlotte Shaw. These contain expansive correspondence with many other women in areas of politics, health, social reform, the arts and sciences. Further correspondence from suffrage campaigners and political activists are present in the Cecil of Chelwood Papers. Correspondence from early 20th century artists, writers and composers are available in the archives of translator, S.S. Koteliansky and literary patron Christabel McLaren. Papers relating to women working in literature during the late 20th century and early 21st century are available in the papers of the Virago Press and its founder, Carmen Callil, as well as in the Wasafiri Magazine Archive. The British Library also holds the personal archives of authors and writers, Margaret Forster, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Joan Bakewell, Stella Alexander and Andrea Levy; as well as the archive of literary agent, Margaret Ramsay. The archives of Margaret Gardiner and Beryl Foster contain correspondence with women across political and community activism in the late 20th century. Papers relating to women working in sport can be found within the archive of the Women’s Football Association, whilst the archive of photographer Fay Godwin features photographs of many well-known female figures.

What is available online?

You can find a selection of digitised material from the collections described above on Discovering Literature.

A number of manuscripts authored by women are available to view on Digitised Manuscripts.

Images of manuscripts authored by women are available to view via British Library Treasures.

An introduction to a selection of historical sources exploring the campaign for women’s suffrage is available on the British Library’s online exhibition page, Votes for Women.

Windrush Stories provides links to articles and collection items relating to women of the Windrush generation.

Asians in Britain provides links to articles and collection items relating to women of Asian descent in the UK.

The oral history project, Sisterhood and After, offers insights into the Women’s Liberation Movement. A wide range of oral history interviews from women across disciplines are available on British Library Sounds.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

Archives and manuscripts authored by women can be consulted in the Manuscripts Reading Room. You may need to provide us with a letter of introduction or further information in order to access manuscripts and archives. Use Explore Archives and Manuscripts to find out whether access conditions apply. It is advisable to contact the Manuscripts Reference Team before travelling to the Library, particularly if you are consulting autograph literary manuscripts. Up to 5 working days’ notice is required to process applications to consult restricted collection items.

We also provide onsite access to a wide range of relevant subscription resources, including British Literary Manuscripts Online, Women’s Studies Archive, Perdita Manuscripts: Women Writers, 1500-1700 and Nineteenth-Century Collections Online.

What is available in other organisations?

Archives and manuscripts authored by women are found in libraries and archives throughout the UK, such as:

• The National Libraries of Scotland and Wales have strong holdings of archives and manuscripts of Scottish and Welsh women writers.
The Women’s Library LSE holds women’s archives and manuscripts dating from the beginnings of the women’s suffrage movement to the present day.
Glasgow Women’s Library contains historical and contemporary artefacts as well as archive materials that celebrate the lives, histories and achievements of women.
• The Parliamentary Archives contains records of the contribution women have made to UK politics.
• The People’s History Museum’s Labour History Archive and Study Centre contains archives relating to working class history and political activism.
• The Black Cultural Archives holds archives of many UK women of African and Caribbean descent.

The following resources will help you find material held in other institutions:

Archives Hub
• The National Archives’ Discovery website

Further information

The Routledge history of women in early modern Europe, edited by Amanda L. Capern. (New York: Routledge, 2020)

The Norton anthology of literature by women: the traditions in English, compiled by Sandra M. Gilbert, Susan Gubar (New York; London: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007)

Hidden from history: 300 years of women’s oppression and the fight against it, by Sheila Rowbotham (London: Pluto Press, 1973)

British women writers and the writing of history, 1670–1820, by Devoney Looser (Baltimore; London: John Hopkins University Press, 2000)

Women's History: The Journal of the Women's History Network (2015–present)