Women's Manuscript Collections can serve as a place to find the writings of women who was a part of your ancestor's community. While many of us won't be lucky enough to have an female ancestor who kept a journal or left her letters and writings behind to be donated to a repository, someone in her community may have done just that.
One important aspect of family history research is to research the neighbors. While it may not seem as fun to research people who aren't your family, those people can lead to information about your own family. Remember, our ancestors didn't have the celebrity culture we do now with gossipy magazines and shows about the comings and goings of the rich and famous. What they did have was their neighbors, friends, and associates whom they knew, observed, judged and even wrote about.
A good example of why manuscript collections are so vital to your research can be found in an example found in the Women's Manuscript Collection at BYU, http://lib.byu.edu/sites/muw/womens/. A search in that collection for the place Snowflake (a small town in Arizona) provides a hit for a collection of the papers of May Louise Hunt Larson. In this collection is a series of papers where May wrote out the names of teachers, students and principals of the Snowflake Academy. In addition, she wrote the names and birth dates of people in the Snowflake Stake (people who were members of the Mormon Church there.) Imagine what a goldmine this would be if you had family members from this small town. Although this woman may not be a family member, she may have written about your family members.
Women's manuscript collections are often held in the special collections sections of university libraries. Most universities have a women's manuscript collection. Each repository will have different policies on using manuscript collections. While some may look up an item within the collection for you, others require that you look at the collection on site. Unlike books in a library that circulate, manuscript collections are a special collection for which there is no interlibrary loan. When I have needed something copied out of a manuscript collection and was unable to visit the library, I have paid a nominal fee for a student to copy the pages for me.
One way to search manuscript collections is through the NUCMC, http://www.loc.gov/coll/nucmc/, a cooperative cataloging program developed by the Library of Congress. The NUCMC web site provides information on how to search the catalog. Another resource for a listing of women's collections is found at H Net which provides a list of repositories of women's manuscript collections athttp://www.h-net.org/~women/manuscripts/. Some of the libraries featured include Duke University, University of Iowa, Virginia Tech, and Georgetown.
A comprehensive listing of women's manuscript collections categorized by state can be found at the web site for the University of Texas at San Antonio's web site, http://lib.utsa.edu/Archives/WomenGender/links1.html. Another way to find a specific women's manuscript collection is to Google the phrase "women's manuscript collection" and the name of the university you are interested in or the state.
University Libraries are not the only places that house women's manuscript collections. The Indiana Historical Society has manuscript collections include a women's history collection. While this collection is searchable online, there is also an http://www.indianahistory.org/library/manuscripts/collection_guides/womens_history.html, that outlines the individuals and families as well as the organizations and projects featured in the collections. There is also a guide to women's oral history interviews included on this web site.