Mary Ritter Beard (1876-1958) was active in the struggles for women's suffrage and for trade union reform. With her husband Charles Austin Beard she wrote several books, including the multivolume The Rise of American Civilization. On her own she wrote several books about women, the most important of which was Woman as Force in History: A Study of Traditions and Realities.
Mary Ritter Beard was born into a secure, Republican, middleclass world in Indianapolis, Indiana, on August 5, 1876. Her father, Eli Foster Ritter, was an attorney by occupation and a zealous temperance advocate and stalwart of the local Methodist church. Her mother, Narcissa Lockwood, a former school-teacher active in local community and church activities, was primarily caught up in rearing her family of six, of which Beard was the elder daughter. At the age of 16 she attended DePauw University, not far from home, as had her father and as did all her siblings. In college she met and in 1900 married Charles Austin Beard (1874-1948).
The young couple spent two years in England, partly in Manchester, then the center of labor and feminist ferment, and both movements absorbed their energies. At Oxford, where her husband studied history and helped to found Ruskin Hall, a college designed for workingclass men, she discovered the militant women's movement and met and worked with leading English radical suffragists.
The Beards returned to the United States in 1902 and both began graduate study at Columbia University, but she soon left her academic studies in sociology. By then the mother of two children, she chose to devote her time to the struggles for women's suffrage and for trade union reform. For example, she helped the National Women's Trade Union League organize the New York shirt-waistmaker's strike in 1909 and protest the Triangle factory fire in which more than 100 young girls and women were killed.
She became an activist in the women's suffrage movement as organizer, publicist, and fundraiser. Her particular interest in workingclass women, a legacy from her years in England, led her to active participation in the Wage Earner's League, the Woman Suffrage Party's organization for working women. When a militant faction of the National Woman Suffrage Association began to form under the leadership of Alice Paul, Beard went with this group, originally known as the Congressional Union, later splitting away to form the Woman's Party.
Although Beard stayed with the women's suffrage movement for years, she slowly detached herself from the role of activist and moved toward the role of analyst and social critic. A break did finally come when, after the suffrage amendment was won in 1920, the Woman's Party centered its activities on the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. Beard left the organization, choosing instead to support the idea of protective legislation for working women. She was one of many feminists, especially those concerned with working women, who initially opposed the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA).
Writing with a Partner
The Beards were partners for almost 50 years, raised two children, established an exciting and loving home together, and shared a political commitment that carried them often into the public arena on controversial issues. They are most well-known today for their collaboration on major works. The Beards' first joint venture, American Citizenship, appeared in 1914. In 1920 they issued The History of the United States. The first two volumes of their monumental history of the nation appeared in 1927. The total work is titled The Rise of American Civilization. In 1939 another two volumes of The Rise appeared, and in 1942 the concluding volume was issued. The Rise of American Civilization shaped the thinking of generations of Americans. A Basic History of the United States, their "last will and testament of the American people, " said her husband, was published in 1944.
Beard published two books alone while she was involved in activist politics. The first, Woman's Work in Municipalities, appearing in 1915, was a lengthy essay in the tradition of muckraking literature, demonstrating the varied and essential work of women in cities. In 1920 she published A Short History of the American Labor Movement, designed for readers with little knowledge of the struggle of working people in the United States. Her only other book written alone that did not deal with women was a long essay, The Making of Charles A. Beard, which was published in 1955, seven years after her husband's death.
The rest of her long and active intellectual life was devoted to writing books and articles and speaking endlessly on what became the major theme of her public life— that women are and have always been a central force in history and culture, that women have been active, assertive, competent contributors to their societies, but that history books do not reflect their role. Women are left out of history, are made to seem invisible, she said, and she saw as her mission a reconstruction in order to end that invisibility.
Women had succeeded, after 80 years of active struggle, in acquiring the vote, but with that victory came the belief that women's history began with the suffrage struggle. To Beard, such a belief was a denial of all the histories of women, and, therefore, a denial of self in the women who were living in the present. The core of everything she wrote and everything she did was shaped by her conviction that women were undeniably a force in civilization, and that history and politics were incomplete without that recognition. She devoted her energies to trying to persuade all people, but women particularly, of their own historic past and of the power that was within their reach to change the present. She began a crusade for women's minds that took many forms.
Most important, she wrote On Understanding Women, published in 1931, which ushered in the decade of her most creative work. In 1933 she edited a collection of writing by women called America Through Women's Eyes. In 1934 she edited, with Martha Bensley Bruère, Laughing Their Way: Women's Humor in America. In 1946 her most famous work appeared: Woman as Force in History: A Study of Traditions and Realities. Reprinted in 1962 and again in 1971, it had its third printing in 1973. In 1953 she published The Force of Women in Japanese History.
Woman as Force in History represents the culmination of her years of study and writing on the subject and stands as the mature statement of her thesis on the historic role of women. Many of the ideas and themes she developed in earlier years were pulled together and deepened in this major work. Her analysis of the ideas of the legal theories of William Blackstone and their impact on American feminists occupies a significant portion of what is new and of immense significance in this volume.
In pre-industrial times, she asserted, women were often discriminated against and were seen by theologians and moralists as evil and inferior, but in reality women so often defied law and custom that it is not possible to use any single formula to describe woman's role. Women of the ruling class often wielded great power, and women of the lower classes suffered as much or more from their class position as from their gender. It was not until the rise of democratic government and the expansion of political power to ordinary men that women as a group were excluded from positions of power. It was with the development of capitalism, she argued, that discrimination on account of sex, regardless of class, became pervasive, and it was during this time that women were driven out of the professions, out of politics, and out of power. The feminist movement, born during this period of diminished rights, assumed that such restrictions always existed and thus passed on a view of history that was invalid and incomplete.
Even in her role as intellectual and social critic, Mary Ritter Beard retained her activist impulse. In 1934 she wrote an extraordinary 50-page pamphlet entitled "A Changing Political Economy as it Affects Women, " which was a detailed syllabus for a women's studies course—the first of its kind—and she tried desparately to persuade many colleges and universities to establish such a course. Later in the 1930s, in an effort to create some tangible demonstration of women's lives and women's pasts, she developed the idea of establishing a women's archive. For five years she tried to establish, finance, organize, structure, house, and publicize what became the World Center for Women's Archives. The object of the center was to assemble and preserve all source material dealing with women's lives, a clearinghouse of information on the history of women.
In the spring of 1941 she was involved in a new project, a feminist critique of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, financed by the Encyclopaedia itself and carried out by a staff of three women that Beard selected. The final report, submitted after 18 months, is an intriguing 40-page document which is filled with provocative ideas for further research.
Mary Ritter Beard died in August 1958 at the age of 84, but the echo of her voice and the impact of her ideas remain.
Further Reading on Mary Ritter Beard
The best way to become familiar with the ideas of Mary Ritter Beard is to read her books, especially Woman as Force in History, although this is not an easy work to understand. The only extensive appraisal of her life and work is Ann J. Lane's Mary Ritter Beard: A Sourcebook-(1978), which also contains significant selections from her writings and a thorough bibliography. Other valuable assessments are Berenice A. Carroll, "Mary Beard's Woman as Force in History: A Critique, " Massachusetts Review (Winter-Spring 1972) and reprinted in Liberating Women's History: Theoretical and Critical Essays, edited by Berenice A. Carroll (1976); Carl N. Degler, "Woman as Force in History by Mary Beard, " Daedalus (Winter 1974); and Ann J. Lane, "Mary Ritter Beard: Women as Force, " in Feminist Theorists: Three Centuries of Women's Intellectual Traditions, edited by Dale Spender (1983).
Additional Biography Sources
Turoff, Barbara K., Mary Beard as force in history, Dayton, Ohio: Wright State University, 1979.