Woman as Force in History

This is the concluding day of Women’s History Month so I want to pay tribute to the historian who many consider the founding mother of women’s history, Mary Ritter Beard.

Mary Ritter Beard, 1876-1958

Mary Ritter was born on August 5, 1876 in Indianapolis, Indiana, the third child and the first daughter of Narcissa Lockwood Ritter and Eli Foster Ritter. Her father served in the Union Army during the Civil War and afterwards became a lawyer. Her mother taught school. Mary Ritter graduated as valedictorian of her high school class and enrolled at DePauw University in 1893. At DePauw, she was influenced by her German professor, Dr Henry Longden who taught German not only as a language but incorporated history, culture, literature and philosophy into his classes. Dr Longden encouraged students to see their studies in a broad and inclusive context. This kind of world-view had a lasting influence on Mary Ritter.

 While student, at DePauw she met Charles Austin Beard. Charles, two years Mary’s senior, majored in history, edited the student newspaper and participated on the debate team. The pair met at a dance class. After his graduation, Charles Beard went to England to pursue graduate study in history at Oxford. Mary Ritter took a job as a German teacher until Charles returned and the two married in March, 1900. A month after the wedding, Mary accompanied Charles back to England where she became involved with both the woman suffrage movement and the women’s trade union movement. The couple became friends with a number of socialists and progressives and the exiled Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin. The militant suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters became friends with Mary. In 1901 Mary gave birth to a daughter and the next year the family returned to the United States, settling in New York City where she and her husband began graduate study at Columbia University

 Eventually Charles completed his doctoral degree in history and was hired as a teacher at Columbia. Mary dropped out of her program in sociology in 1904 and bore a son in 1907. She became active in labor organizing and political protests. Eventually she joined the American radical Alice Paul in Ms Paul’s Congressional Union. In the 1920’s Mary Ritter Beard and Alice Paul went separate ways because Mary became a firm believer in the benefits of protective litigation and legislation for women while Ms Paul believed that such special protections hurt the cause of women and she argued for a total equality of women and men with women in the work force covered by the exact same protections as their male co-workers.

 Mary Ritter Beard found her voice and her life’s work in study of women in human history. Her first published work was a little book published in 1910 entitled The Woman Voter. In 1914 she co-authored American Citizenship with her husband Charles. The next year, her first solo major work, Woman’s Work in Municipalities, a tome of over 325 pages, appeared in print.

 Ms Beard wrote Woman’s Work for the National Municipal League, now the National Civic League, which had been founded in1894 to promote municipal reform and improvements for city government. Beard took this task most likely for some of the same reasons she dropped out of graduate study at Columbia. The traditional scholarly academic approach of teaching-research-writing was male dominated and not particularly welcoming to women. As Jacqueline Goggin noted in a fine article fifteen years ago: “Although leading male historians at the most prestigious colleges and universities in the country trained the first generations of female historians and helped female students in their search for fellowships and employment, often praising their scholarship, these men did little collectively to reduce the discrimination women faced in their quest to be treated as equals. . . . Before 1940 . . . most male historians offered little encouragement or support to female colleagues but instead fostered and contributed in a variety of ways to the continuous sexual discrimination against women historians. In letters of recommendation for fellowships and jobs, male historians often commented on the age, appearance, dress, personality, and character of the female applicant in a manner that would have been considered improper when writing on behalf of men.” Goggin, Challenging Sexual Discrimination in the Historical Profession: Women Historians and the American Historical Association, 1890-1940, 97(3) THE AMERICAN HISTORICAL REVIEW 769, 772 (June, 1997).

 As a result of male indifference or even outright hostility, women such as Mary Ritter Beard sought other ways to practice their craft. “Although women failed to achieve much prominence within the profession when they wrote on the history of women, many applied their historical skills in the larger society. They wrote histories for and served as advisers to women’s organizations and urged them to collect and deposit in libraries their organizational records and personal papers. Several women’s organizations sponsored publications, plays, and pageants that focused on American women and sought advice from women historians. . . . Numerous women historians were members of the American Association of University Women and conducted historical and sociological studies of college women and the contemporary issues that concerned them.” Goggin at 882-3. So we find Beard doing such work for the National Municipal League. Also, Ms Beard remained critical of narrow approaches in academia and encouraged the pursuit of self-education as she herself practiced for the rest of her professional life.

 From 1915 through the adoption of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, an amendment which finally guaranteed women the right to vote 133 years after the drafting of the constitution and 72 years after the Seneca Falls convention, Ms Beard spoke, wrote, raised money and organized on behalf of suffrage and the needs of women workers. In addition, she collaborated with her husband in writing a new edition of American Citizenship (1918) and her own brilliant Short History of the American Labor Movement (1920), a significant and pioneering work to which other scholars remain indebted.

 While her husband Charles supported participation by the United States in the First World War, he resigned from Columbia on Oct. 8, 1917, after the University discharged three faculty members who spoke out against the war. [Remember, these were still the days when presidents actually followed the Constitution and asked Congress for a declaration of war. Voting against American participation cost Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, her bid for re-election. But that’s a story for another time.] In his resignation, with Mary’s support, Charles charged that “the University is really under the control of a small and active group of trustees who have no standing in the world of education, who are reactionary and visionless in politics, narrow and medieval in religion. I am convinced that while I remain in the pay of the Trustees of Columbia University I cannot do effectively my part in sustaining public opinion in support of the just war on the German Empire.” Shortly thereafter, Charles helped to found The New School in Greenwich Village, New York City, where the faculty would control its own membership but left to enjoy his home in Milford, Connecticut, free of academic responsibilities. The many books and textbooks which Mary and Charles co-authored provided a steady income.

 Mary and Charles provided important intellectual leadership in what came to be called “The New History”– that is, that history is not merely political and military but rather, to be real, earnest historical study, must include intellectual, social, cultural, and economic elements, an inclusivity which Mary Ritter Beard insisted must include women. She alienated some feminists by refusing to concentrate solely on the exploitation of women by men. Rather, she insisted on recognition and inclusion of all that women had done, from earliest recorded history to the present. When she said and wrote things like “The dogma of woman’s complete historical subjection to men must be rated as one of the most fantastic myths ever created by the human mind,” she angered some other women. For Mary Ritter Beard, history needed to tell that “Woman’s success in lifting men out of their way of life nearly resembling that of the beasts – who merely hunted and fished for food, who found shelter where they could in jungles, in trees, and caves – was a civilizing triumph.” She insisted on history that included failures and successes, evil and good. “Unless one’s philosophy is all-inclusive, nothing can be understood,” she declared repeatedly.

 Working with the peace activist and feminist Rosika Schwimmer in 1935, Mary Ritter Beard founded the World Center for Women’s Archives which she intended to include all types of women’s records and to facilitate the writing of inclusive history and the education of women. While the project, supported by women such as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, eventually led to the creation of the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at RadcliffeCollege and the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, it never reached the full operation of which Mary Ritter Beard dreamt. She left in 1940 and the Center fell apart in a matter of months.

 In 1942, Mary Ritter Beard, heading a team of scholarly women, completed a brilliant and scathing critique of the errors, omissions, distortions and failures of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s representation of women. Their report included significant recommendations on existing articles as well as suggestions for including new and necessary articles. For example, Beard’s team noted that the treatment of abortion was not comprehensive as it was more than a moral question and relevant to population, political, health, medical, and social issues. They rightly complained that the article on education was male-dominated, asked why there was no article on “Queen,” and why women were not included in the articles on medicine. Yet this informative work was so significantly ignored by the very editors who had requested it that five years later Mary Ritter Beard suggested that women decline to write for Britannica.

At age 70, Mary Ritter Beard published what is generally recognized as her best work, Woman as Force in History; a Study in Traditions and Realities. As historian Nancy Cott noted, this masterpiece was “harshly reviewed by male historians . . . [and] served as a beacon for feminist scholars two decades later.” See Cott’s entry on Beard in Notable American Women: the Modern Period, 1980, at 73.

 Charles Beard died in 1948, even as his work and reputation were being disparaged, in part because of his opposition to the United States’ entry into the Second World War and his last major work, a book extremely critical of President Franklin Roosevelt. In 1955, three years before her own death, Mary Ritter Beard rose to Charles’ defense and called for a fresh look at his work in her book, Making of Charles A. Beard : an Interpretation. Twenty years ago, I asked the activist lawyer and historian Staughton Lynd for his opinion about the work of Mary and Charles Beard and he replied to the effect that “they got it right” and we can still read their works with great profit.

 Before her death, Mary Ritter Beard destroyed many of her notes and correspondence. Yet her books and articles and a small collection of her papers survive and inspire. For excellent appreciation of her work, I recommend Making Women’s History : the Essential Mary Ritter Beard, edited and with a new preface by Ann J. Lane (2000) and Woman Making History : Mary Ritter Beard Through Her Letters, edited and with an introduction by Nancy F. Cott (1991).

In the conclusion of her article, Jacqueline Goggin wrote, “Although female historians had by 1940 acquired an organization in the Berkshire Conference and a small measure of recognition from their male colleagues, these gains were fragile, part of what sociologist Jesse Bernard termed the ‘flowing and ebbing tides’ of professional women’s status. Female historians, like women in other professions, were increasingly marginalized in the 1940s and 1950s. Only in the 1960s did large numbers of women reenter the profession. Many turned to and developed women’s history as a means of advancing the position of women. Women historians and women’s history are now well integrated into the profession. Less certain is whether the increasing presence of women and women’s history will produce full equality for female historians.” Goggin, at 802.

 I think Mary Ritter Beard continues to tell us that women were, are and will be a “force in history” and regardless of ebb and flow in academia, it is Clio, the female spirit, parchment in her hands, who relates the full story, not in dry statistics or mere accounts of bloody battles, but in the tales of human struggle and creativity which inspire and strengthen us.





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