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COLLECTION Identifier: MC 723: T-478

Papers of Janet Wilson James, 1900-1999 (inclusive), 1940-1987 (bulk)


Correspondence, appointment books, lecture notes, manuscript drafts, photographs, and audiotape of historian Janet Wilson James, professor at Boston College and director of the Schlesinger Library.


  • Creation: 1900-1999
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1940-1987

Language of Materials

Materials in English.

Access Restrictions:

Access. #5.6, 13.1-28.10, 30.1-30.12, 32.1-33.5 are closed until January 1, 2027. An appointment is necessary to use any audiovisual material.

Conditions Governing Use

Copyright. Copyright in the papers created by Janet Wilson James is held by Lucy James Ordoobadi and Ned James and their heirs or successors. 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.


28.36 linear feet ((67 file boxes, 2 half file boxes) plus 1 folio folder, 2 folio+ folders, 1 supersize folders, 7 photograph folders, 1 folio photograph folder, 1 audiotape, 1 object.)

This collection documents Janet Wilson James's personal and professional life and contains information on other family members, including her parents Helen Peters Wilson and Willard O. Wilson, her husband Edward T. James, and her children Ned James and Lucy James Ordoobadi. Included are courtship letters, family and professional correspondence; speeches; lecture notes; book reviews; drafts and research materials for various writing projects; photographs; and an audiotape. Most of the folder headings were created by the archivist; those by Janet Wilson James appear in quotation marks. Financial material and information on the Wilson and James family properties in Michigan and Oregon was returned to the donor.

Series I, BIOGRAPHICAL AND PERSONAL, 1934-1988 (#1.1-11.12, F+D.1, Mem.1+, PD.1-PD.2), includes address and appointment books; articles about James, resumes; a camp diary; diplomas, papers, exams, and lecture notes from James's education at Miss Hockaday's School for Girls, Smith College, Bryn Mawr College, and Radcliffe College; James's marriage announcement and certificate (#5.8); James's personal correspondence, including Elizabeth Schlesinger (#10.6), condolences on James's illness (#7.9-8.8), and letters about school reunions (#6.7, 10.1); a diary (#3.1) and scrapbooks about James's experiences at camp (#2.10-2.12) and at school (#10.10-11.6m); and photographs. Of particular note is an interview (#2.8), in which James discusses her education and career. For James's correspondence with family members, see Series II. The series is arranged alphabetically.

Series II, FAMILY, ca.1900-1999 (#11.13-34.2, SD.1, PD.3-PD.8), includes correspondence, clippings, photographs, speeches, and lecture notes about members of the James and Wilson families. The series includes articles, speeches, and press releases about Lucy Wilson Benson's political career and her work with the League of Women Voters (#12.1-12.3); correspondence between Janet Wilson James and Edward T. James during their courtship and marriage (#15.6-16.7); Edward's correspondence with others, including condolences on the death of his wife (#13.7-13.12); his dog tags and other material regarding his service in the U.S. Navy (12.6-12.7m, 18.3-18.5); course notes from his studies at Harvard College (#14.10-14.13); and syllabi and lecture notes for classes he taught at Mills College (#16.12-17.6). The series also includes Janet and Edward's correspondence with their children Ned James and Lucy James Ordoobadi, including letters Ned and Lucy sent home from camp (#18.8-18.10); Christmas cards received and correspondence with friends, including congratulations on the births of Ned and Lucy (#24.3-24.6); and their wills (#24.7). Some correspondence about their work on Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary is also included here; for related notes and publicity, see Series II Subseries B. Additional material about Ned includes childhood drawings (#28.10) and articles regarding Ned's artwork (#29.4). The series also contains Edward and Janet's correspondence with his parents Sydney and Beatrice T. James (#13.4-13.5, 22.15-23.4, 23.6, 30.2), and his brother "Syd" James, and sister Elizabeth James Hagey (#22.6, 22.11-22.12, 29.8), with some letters discussing Beatrice T. James's increased confusion in her later years and the need to provide care for her (#13.4-13.5). Material regarding Willard O. Wilson and Helen Peters Wilson includes letters from their daughters Janet (#30.10-30.12, 32.1-33.4) and Lucy (#30.7-30.9); membership directories for societies to which Helen Peters Wilson belonged, including the Michigan Chapter of the National Society Daughters of Founders and Patriots of America (#29.14); Willard O. Wilson's will (#34.1), and his correspondence with his parents John Milton and Clara Connely Wilson (#31.3-31.7), his brother Robert (#31.8), and other family members and acquaintances as he sought to collect his mother's letters and compile a commemorative volume about her (#31.3-31.7). Some of Clara's letters are included. The series also includes letters from Lucy Wilson Benson to Janet Wilson James (#25.9-27.1), reflecting the sisters' close relationship--many letters are addressed to "Stinkbomb," "Stinko," or "Pewtrid"--and their concern for and frustration with their parents, particularly their mother. Also of note are a letter from Helen Peters Wilson to Janet Wilson James about riots in Washington, D.C., following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (#12.12), and a poignant letter from John Milton Wilson to Willard O. Wilson concerning his loneliness after the death of his wife (#31.5). The series is arranged alphabetically by family member, with family photographs and general material about the James and Wilson families appearing at the end.

Series III, PROFESSIONAL, 1935-1990 (#34.3-69.5, FD.1, F+D.2, T-478.1), is arranged in two subseries and includes professional correspondence; syllabi, lecture notes, and other teaching material; speeches and speech notes; an audiotape; and articles, drafts, and notes for various writing projects.

Subseries A, Academic, 1935-1990 (#34.3-59.10, FD.1, F+D.2, T-478.1), includes correspondence, speeches and conference material, course descriptions, syllabi, exams, lecture notes, and course planning materials. The subseries includes letters of recommendation and letters regarding James's efforts to find work and her tenure and promotion at Boston College (#50.5); correspondence with the Massachusetts General Hospital School of Nursing and other nursing organizations; with professional organizations, such as the Organization of American Historians, and with fellow historians, colleagues, and students. Correspondence topics include upcoming conferences, research projects, and invitations to serve on committees; correspondents include Joan Brumberg (#36.9), Gerda Lerner (#37.14), Mary Oates (#38.12), Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. (#39.12), Anne Firor Scott, (#39.13), and Barbara Sicherman (#39.14). The subseries also includes course descriptions, notes, syllabi, exams, course evaluations, and course planning materials for James's Boston College classes American Social and Cultural History, History of Women in the United States, Society and Health Care in the United States, Social and Cultural History of the United States, and Women's Experience in America. Folders labeled "Finished" or "Disuse" include notes that James ceased using as she revised her courses. Exams, notes, assignments, and reading lists for classes James taught at Mills College and Wellesley College and for classes at Smith College and Harvard University for which she was a teaching assistant. are also included, as well as correspondence and notes regarding her involvement with Boston College's Affirmative Action Council's Committee on Women's Role and Image and Boston College's women's studies program and the memorial fund and essay prize established at Boston College in James's name (#48.7-48.8).

The series also includes correspondence, speeches, and conference materials for several Berkshire Conferences on the History of Women (James was a session chair for the 1974, 1978, and 1980 conferences), and for conferences on the history of medicine and of nursing. An audiotape of James's talk at a National League for Nursing Convention and a speech about the Schlesinger Library are also included. The subseries is arranged with chronological correspondence appearing first, followed by an alphabetical arrangement. For lecture notes and outlines for classes Edward T. James taught at Mills College, see Series II.

Subseries B, Writing and research, 1942-1986 (#59.11-69.5), documents James's interests in the history of nursing and women in religion. The series includes correspondence with authors (#60.5-61.1), editors (#60.2-60.4), and publishers (#60.2-60.3) of a special "women in American religion" issue of the American Quarterly edited by James; book reviews and manuscript evaluations by James (#61.11, 64.3-64.4); correspondence about the publication of James's thesis Changing Ideas about Women in the United States, as well as reviews (#62.4) and James's introduction to the book (#62.1); correspondence (#62.5) and drafts (#62.7) regarding "American Women's Contributions to American Culture," which James wrote for a series of 8th grade American history booklets published by Rand McNally; correspondence and notes about A Lavinia Dock Reader (#63.7-64.1); and notes (#64.10, 65.1, 65.3-65.6) and publicity (#65.7) regarding Notable American Women 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary. (For additional correspondence about this work, see Series II.) The series also includes notes for various writing projects (#65.11-67.2), and several articles by James, including "History and Women at Harvard: The Schlesinger Library" (#63.2), "The Early Anti-Slavery Propaganda" (#62.12), "The Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College" (#67.8), and "Nursing Education in Historical Perspective" (#67.3). The series is arranged alphabetically.

Most of the photographs in this collection are or will be cataloged in VIA, Harvard University's Visual Information Access database. Others, referred to as "uncataloged" photographs, are not of sufficient research interest to warrant cataloging and are simply treated as part of the documents they accompany; they are marked on the back with an asterisk in square brackets [*].


Janet Wilson James was born in New York City on December 23, 1918, the daughter of Helen Peters Wilson and Willard O. Wilson, an automobile distributor. James had a difficult relationship with her mother, who suffered from bouts of depression, but formed a close bond with her sister, Lucy Wilson Benson (born 1927). Benson was president of the National League of Women Voters (1968-1974), Secretary of Human Services for Massachusetts (1975-1977), and United States Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs (1977-1980). In 1928, the family relocated to Dallas, Texas, where James graduated from the Hockaday School for Girls in 1935. She received her BA from Smith College in 1939 and her MA from Bryn Mawr College in 1940. She returned to Smith College in 1940 as a teaching fellow and teaching assistant for Ray Allen Billington, remaining there until 1942. In 1942, James began doctoral work at Radcliffe College, studying women's history with Arthur Schlesinger Sr. Despite her keen interest in this topic, she had "an uneasy feeling that the subject was out of the mainstream, not one a man would have chosen and therefore second-class." The following year she began working as a tutor and teaching fellow in history and literature at Harvard University; she was one of the first women tutors in this area of concentration.

Through her studies with Arthur Schlesinger, James met Edward T. James, a fellow historian and a Harvard alumnus and a former roommate of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. They married in 1945, while Edward was serving in the U.S. Navy. In 1950, they moved to Oakland, California, where they taught at Mills College from 1950 to 1953. They both received their PhDs in 1954, and Janet's dissertation, Changing Ideas about Women in the United States, 1776-1825, was published in 1981. In 1954 Janet became a history instructor at Wellesley College, while Edward was employed in New York City as an editor of The Dictionary of American Biography. Their first child, Ned, was born later that year. In 1955, Janet reluctantly resigned from Wellesley and moved to New York, devoting herself to full time motherhood. Their daughter, Lucy, was born in 1957.

The family relocated to Massachusetts in 1958, living in Belmont until 1967, when they moved to Cambridge. Janet returned to the workforce in 1961, assisting Edward as an editor of Notable American Women, 1607-1950: A Biographical Dictionary; this project occupied them for the next decade. Janet served as director of the Schlesinger Library from July 1965 to December 1968 and was also a member of the Library's Advisory Committee. In 1971, she joined the faculty of Boston College as an instructor in the history department; the first female member of that department, she taught courses on social, women's, and health care history, becoming a full professor in 1981. In later years her research focused on the history of nursing, particularly on the work of Lavinia Dock, a militant feminist nurse; she was the editor of A Lavinia Dock Reader, published in 1985. She was a member of many professional organizations, including the American Association for the History of Nursing and the Organization of American Historians, and was an active participant in the Berkshire Conferences on the History of Women. She died of cancer in Cambridge on June 10, 1987.


The collection is arranged in three series:

  1. Series I. Biographical and personal, 1934-1987 (#1.1-11.12, F+D.1, Mem.1+, PD.1-PD.2)
  2. Series II. Family, ca.1900-1999 (#11.13-34.2, SD.1, PD.3-PD.8)
  3. Series III. Professional, 1935-1990 (#34.3-69.5, FD.1, F+D.2, T-478.1)

Physical Location

Collection stored off site: researchers must request access 36 hours before use.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Accession numbers: 90-M39, 97-M88, 97-M92, 99-M34

The papers of Janet Wilson James were given to the Schlesinger Library by her husband Edward T. James in March 1990, with additional donations by her daughter Lucy James Ordoobadi between June 1997 and March 1999.

Related Material:

There is related material: Notable American Women, 1607-1950 Records (MC 230).


Donors: Edward T. James and Lucy James Ordoobadi

Accession number: 97-M88

Processed by: Susan Earle

The following items have been removed from the collection and transferred to the Records of The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America:

  1. Schlesinger Library annual reports, Advisory Committee meeting minutes, correspondence, notes.

The following materials have been removed from the collection and donated to the Mills College Archives:

  1. grade books, exams, and president's reports.

Processing Information

Processed: MARCH 2013

By: Susan Earle, with the assistance of Samuel Bauer.

James, Janet Wilson, 1918-1987. Papers of Janet Wilson James, 1900-1999 (inclusive), 1940-1987 (bulk): A Finding Aid
Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America
Language of description
Processing of this collection was made possible by a gift from the Radcliffe College Class of 1957.

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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