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COLLECTION Identifier: MC 318

Papers of Burnita Shelton Matthews, 1926-1981


Scrapbooks, correspondence, photographs, etc., of Burnita (Shelton) Matthews, suffragist and first woman to serve as a federal district judge.


  • Creation: 1926-1981


Language of Materials

Materials in English.

Conditions Governing Access

Access. Unrestricted, with the exception of folders 1vo-10vo, which are closed; use microfilm M-73.

Access Restrictions:

Access. Collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright. Copyright in the papers created by Burnita Shelton Matthews is held by the President and Fellows of Harvard College for the Schlesinger Library. Copyright in other papers in the collection may be held by their authors, or the authors' heirs or assigns.

Copying. Papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures.


11.92 linear feet (5+1/2 file boxes, 7 folio+ boxes) plus 1 folio+ photograph folder, 1 oversize photograph folder, 1 supersize photograph folder, 1 reel microfilm (M-73)

The collection is divided into two series. Series I, Biographical material and organizational papers, contains scrapbooks; biographical sketches; photographs; awards; correspondence; speeches and addresses; papers pertaining to the numerous organizations, especially legal and women's groups, in which Matthews has been active; and material on women's legal issues. Except for the biographical material, each of these groups of papers is arranged chronologically. The scrapbooks contain clippings, photographs, articles and memorabilia pertaining to Matthews' career; the first ten are available on microfilm (M-73). Series II, Opinions, consists of the slip opinions of Matthews' cases as decided in the United States Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia, and her decisions printed in the Federal Reporter.


Burnita Shelton was born on December 28, 1894, in Copiah County, Mississippi. She married lawyer Percy Matthews on April 28, 1917; the couple had no children, and Percy Matthews died on January 8, 1969. In her teens, Matthews studied piano and voice at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, from which she graduated, and later taught music. In 1918 she began working at the Veterans' Administration in Washington, D.C., and enrolled in evening classes at the National University Law School (subsequently merged with George Washington University); she earned the LL.B. degree in 1919 and LL.M. and M.P.L. degrees in 1920. She was admitted to the Bar of the District of Columbia in 1920 and to the Bars of Mississippi and the United States Supreme Court in 1924.

Matthews became the first woman to serve as a federal district judge when she received a recess appointment from President Truman as United States District Judge for the District of Columbia on October 21, 1949. She received a permanent appointment on April 7, 1950, and took senior judge status on March 1, 1968. In 1969 and 1970 she served in the United States Court of Customs and Patent Appeals and since 1970 has served on the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. Among the cases she has heard and considers the most noteworthy are Monroe v. United States (1956); Kyne v. Leedom (1958); United States v. Wise (1962); and United States v. McSurely (1972).

Judge Matthews was an active participant in the suffrage movement and has been a supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment since its inception in 1923. She has also served as counsel to the National Woman's Party and was active in drafting legislation to secure equal rights for women, including a law allowing women to serve on juries, laws eliminating preferences for males in inheritance, laws requiring equal pay for teachers regardless of sex, and, in 1931 and 1934, amendments to the nationality laws of the United States extending to women citizenship rights previously accorded only to men.

Active with many civic and professional organizations, including the American Bar Association, the Women's Bar Association, the Legal Research Committee of the Inter-American Commission of Women, the Bar Association of the District of Columbia, the National Association of Women Lawyers, the Women's City Club of Washington, and the National Woman's Party, Judge Matthews has received numerous awards and honors, among them honorary LL.D. degrees from National University Law School and American University. She has also served as an officer of the National Board of the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania (now the Medical College of Pennsylvania) and as a member of the National Committee for Development of the American University.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession numbers: 77-M199, 78-M12, 78-M75, 78-M83, 78-M100, 78-M140, 78-M148, 78-M189, 78-M207, 79-M11, 79-M65, 79-M79, 79-M81, 79-M204, 79-M269, 81-M39

The papers of Burnita Shelton Matthews were given to the Schlesinger Library by Burnita Shelton Matthews beginning in 1977.


  1. Box 1: Folders 12-27
  2. Box 2: Folders 28-54
  3. Box 3: Folders 55-72
  4. Box 4: Folders 73-82
  5. Box 5: Folders 83-92
  6. Box 6: Folders 93-111
  7. Folio+ Box 7: Volumes 1vo-2vo
  8. Folio+ Box 8: Volumes 3vo-4vo
  9. Folio+ Box 9: Volumes 5vo-6vo
  10. Folio+ Box 10: Volume 7vo
  11. Folio+ Box 11: Volume 8vo
  12. Folio+ Box 12: Volumes 9vo-10vo
  13. Folio+ Box 13: Volume 11vo

Processing Information

Processed: November 1981

By: Sheryl Kujawa, Eric Nils Lindquist

Matthews, Burnita Shelton, 1894-1988. Papers of Burnita Shelton Matthews, 1926-1981: A Finding Aid
Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute Repository

The preeminent research library on the history of women in the United States, the Schlesinger Library documents women's lives from the past and present for the future. In addition to its traditional strengths in the history of feminisms, women’s health, and women’s activism, the Schlesinger collections document the intersectional workings of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and class in American history.

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