Mary Ritter Beard Papers
Mary Ritter Beard was born in Indianapolis on 5 August 1876, the third of six children and the elder of two daughters of Narcissa (Lockwood) and Eli Foster Ritter. At sixteen she left home to attend De Pauw University in Asbury, Indiana, where she studied political science, languages, and literature. She graduated in 1897 and taught high school German until 1900 when she married Charles Austin Beard, whom she had met at De Pauw. Mary Beard accompanied her husband to Oxford, and both were active politically as well as academically. Charles helped organize Ruskin Hall, the "free university" aimed at workingmen, and Mary became involved with the British women's suffrage movement. They returned to New York in 1902. Their daughter Miriam was born in 1903. The following year the Beards enrolled at Columbia University, but Mary quit soon after to take care of their child and volunteer for progressive causes.
Following the birth of her son William in 1907, Mary Beard became an organizer for the National Women's Trade Union League. From 1910 to 1912 she edited the suffragist periodical The Woman Voter, and after that worked with the Wage Earner's League. She was a member of the militant faction of the suffrage movement led by Alice Paul from 1913 to 1919, and she worked on several progressive causes. During this period, Charles taught at Columbia University, but he resigned in 1917 in protest of the firing of anti-war faculty. Charles helped establish the New School for Social Research and both Beards helped found the Workers Education Bureau, but by the early 1920, the Beards generally worked outside of academic institutions.
Following her resignation from the National Woman's Party in 1917, Mary Beard devoted her skills and efforts to writing and lecturing, rather than public political activity. Her first book, Woman's Work in Municipalities (1915) and her second, A Short History of the American Labor Movement (1920), focused on social reform and the working class. With Charles, she co-authored The Rise of American Civilization (1927), a groundbreaking text that integrated political, economic, social, and cultural histories with a progressive vision of America's past and distinctive national character. The two collaborated on several books that would become some of the most enduringly significant American history texts, but by herself, Mary pioneered the field of women's history. She was appalled by the omission of women from the historical record, and she wrote about and promoted the recognition of women's achievements in the present day and the past, in the U.S. and internationally. She authored and edited Understanding Women (1931), America Through Women's Eyes (1933), A Changing Political Economy as It Affects Women (1934), and Women as Force in History (1946), among others.
Rather than concentrating on grievances and questions of the subjugation of women, Beard's work promoted women's contributions to the formation of society and brought to light a long-neglected past. To this end in the early 1930s, she collaborated with Hungarian pacifist feminist Rosika Schwimmer to organize the World Center for Women's Archives (WCWA). Beard quoted French historian Fustel de Coulanges for the motto of the WCWA: "No documents, no history," and she envisioned an archive of women's papers and organizational records that would provide a foundation for women's history as an academic field as well as serve as a public good. Beard and Schwimmer raised funds, founded a board of directors, and collected documents from their network of women activists. The WCWA was headquartered in New York but collected on an international level. It was a well-publicized effort, and though the collection specialized in material from the pacifist movement, Beard worked to realize a broader conception for a collection representing the range of women's activities. Factionalism among WCWA supporters, shaky financial support, and an increasingly militaristic atmosphere in the U.S. and abroad forced the dissolution of the WCWA in the early 1940s.
This development was very discouraging to Beard, but fortunately, the WCWA generated momentum for developing institutions of women's history. Beard worked closely with Smith College archivist Margaret Grierson to create the Sophia Smith Collection, one of the world's largest women's history manuscript collections, founded in 1942, and she worked with Harvard historians to create the eventual Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe. These two institutions received many of the WCWA documents, as did several smaller collections. Together, they carried on the WCWA mission, at least partly due to Beard's influence.
Neither of the Beards avoided controversy in their writings or public stands. Though both were well-respected historians, they increasingly drew criticism for their pacifist and progressive politics in the years surrounding World War II. Charles Beard died in 1948, and Mary Ritter Beard died on 14 August 1958. Both Beards have had enduring reputations as incisive historians, and they are recognized for their pioneering work in social history. Mary Beard especially has been celebrated for her work to promote women's history.
Nancy Cott has written about Mary Beard as an activist, historian, and pioneer in the field of women's history in several articles and books, and she edited a volume of Beard's correspondence, A Woman Making History: Mary Beard through Her Letters (1991). Ann Lane's Mary Ritter Beard: A Sourcebook (1977) was edited and re-released in 2000 as Making Women's History: the Essential Mary Beard. Barbara Turoff's biography, Mary Beard as Force in History, was published in 1979.