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American Civil Liberties Union - Southern Women's Rights Project records

Identifier: M 178

Scope and Contents

The American Civil Liberties Union Southern Women’s Rights Project (SWRP) collection is composed of the organizational files used by the SWRP while it conducted grassroots efforts in the Southern United States to campaign for women’s rights. The bulk of the collection consists of administrative and subject files Betsy Brinson used during her tenure as project coordinator. Other aspects of the collection include ACLU administrative files, correspondence with Southern ACLU offices and partner organizations, and compilations of notable legislation from southern states. This collection provides insight into the ACLU-SWRP’s goals during Betsy Brinson’s tenure as project coordinator and documents the project’s efforts in encouraging the growth of grassroots activism to improve women’s rights in the South.

Series 1 is composed primarily of files used to administer the SWRP. These administrative files include quarterly reports, staff council minutes, policy and mission statements, legal permits, conference planning, formal complaints, and litigation paperwork. The bulk of the administrative files are made up of the conference planning documents for various states, regions, and topics. This series supplies insight into the inner workings of the SWRP and its logistical processes and challenges.

Series 2: Correspondence is composed of Betsy Brinson’s professional correspondence with individuals and partner organizations in the Southern United States to facilitate grassroots support for the SWRP and its goals. The correspondence is primarily with ACLU offices in the South that Brinson collaborated with to plan events, workshops, canvassing, mailing campaigns, sub-projects, and conferences.

Brinson corresponded with offices located in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia. Accompanying the office correspondence are contact lists and directories used by the SWRP to coordinate mailing campaigns in each state. Also included is correspondence with SWRP sponsor organizations and individual SWRP organizers such as Liz Wheaton.

Additionally, the series includes correspondence from outside organizations and individuals categorized by topic. These topics include complaints levied at the SWRP or ACLU in general, project-specific correspondence such as the Battered Women Project and Prison Death Penalty Project, and legal requests from individuals in southern states.

The material highlights Brinson’s engagement with new contacts in addition to those of the existing ACLU network of affiliates in the Southern United States, and her attempts to use this network to advance the SWRP’s goals.

Series 3: State Legislation is composed of pieces of legislation from southern states deemed of note and compiled by the SWRP including published copies of house resolutions, bills, acts, laws, and executive orders. The legislation is from the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina. This series indicates the types of legislation the SWRP targeted for litigation and lobbying at the start of its existence.

Series 4: Subject Files is the largest series of the collection, comprising nine subseries covering a broad range of issues related to women and their place in Southern society. Topics include abortion, employment, reproductive rights, women in prison, and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), among others. Subject files with content that does not fall within the topical range of other subseries are included in the Subject Files - General subseries. The files contain material relevant to the topics, including promotional literature, studies, articles, previous court cases, handbooks, and correspondence. A notable file in this subseries regards Ruth Bader Ginsberg’s visit to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, including a letter from Ginsberg advocating for the SWRP’s efforts in the region.

These subject files shed light on the SWRP’s broader goals and activities. The SWRP sought to establish partnerships with various groups and identified issues significant to women’s rights in an effort to form a unified grassroots movement advancing women’s rights.

Series 5: Publications and Periodicals is comprised of published material used by the SWRP for research purposes. These include essays, studies, reports, handbooks, newsletters, and periodicals. They cover a breadth of topics related to the state of women’s rights in the south including access to health care, homeownership, financial status, and reproductive rights. The material is arranged by type of publication. This series represents the types of publications the SWRP referenced to further its goals.


  • 1972-1981


Access Restrictions

The collection is open for research.

Use Restrictions

There are no restrictions.

Biographical/Historical Information

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) was formed in 1920 by Roger Baldwin and his associates in response to the Palmer Raids, which targeted and abused alleged communist sympathizers in the United States. At its founding, the ACLU’s primary objective wass to “defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed” by the Constitution. The group pursued this objective through the use of lobbying and litigation. It currently consists of more than 1.2 million members, is active in all fifty states, and continues to pursue its original goal.

In 1977, members of the ACLU formed a project within the organization known as the Southern Women’s Rights Project (SWRP), headquartered in Richmond, VA. This project reported to and shared the goals of the ACLU’s existing Women’s Rights Project (WRP) founded by Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 1972; however, it primarily focused on states in the American South. Its main objective was to coordinate regional advocacy efforts and programs, and to determine policy expanding women’s rights that the ACLU could affect through lobbying and litigation. The SWRP focused heavily on issues related to female employment in fields such as the military, police force, mining, and various forms of manual labor.

Betsy Brinson, who had previously led the ACLU offices in North Carolina (1970-1974) and Virginia (1974-1977), headed the SWRP from 1977 to 1981. During her tenure, Brinson conducted research and fieldwork to determine areas of focus for the project. She corresponded with various ACLU state offices in southern states to organize collaborative conferences, workshops, and studies. Her work led to partnerships with organizations such as the Women’s Coal Employment Project and Southerners for Economic Justice. The SWRP’s efforts enabled the ACLU to effectively lobby for laws and assist in litigation related to women’s rights issues in the South. Brinson left her position as project lead in 1981 to work for the Young Women’s Leadership Alliance (YWCA).

Concurrent with Brinson’s departure, the SWRP experienced a reduced budget and a shift in the ACLU administration’s priorities. These challenges led to the SWRP’s dissolution. The remaining project funds were dispersed to affiliate offices in the South to further support women’s issues. The ACLU’s Women’s Rights Project absorbed the SWRP’s regional responsibilities and goals after its dissolution.


15.96 Linear Feet (38 document cases)

Language of Materials



The collection is arranged into five series: Series 1: Administrative Files, 1972-1981, Series 2: Correspondence, 1977-1980, Series 3: State Legislation, 1976-1977, Series 4: Subject Files, 1972-1981, and Series 5: Publications and Periodicals, 1975-1981.

Acquisition Information

Donated by Betsy Brinson on behalf of the ACLU in 1996.


A Guide to the American Civil Liberties Union - Southern Women's Rights Project records, 1972-1981
Dillon Thomas
2021 By Copyright Virginia Commonwealth University. All Rights Reserved.
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Original 2001 processing funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Repository Details

Part of the VCU James Branch Cabell Library Repository

Special Collections and Archives 901 Park Avenue
Richmond Virginia 23284 USA US
(804) 828-1108