Mary Ritter Beard

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Mary Ritter Beard
Mary Ritter Beard (148004v).jpg
Beard, between 1914-1915
Born(1876-08-05)August 5, 1876
DiedAugust 14, 1958(1958-08-14) (aged 82)
Resting placeHartsdale, Westchester County, New York
Alma materDePauw University, 1897
OccupationWomen's rights activist, historian, and archivist
EmployerNew York City Suffrage Party
Congressional Union
World Center for Women's Archives (1935–1940)
Charles A. Beard (m. 1900–1948)

Mary Ritter Beard (August 5, 1876 – August 14, 1958) was an American historian and archivist, who played an important role in the women's suffrage movement and was a lifelong advocate of social justice through educational and activist roles in both the labor and woman's rights movements. She wrote several books on women's role in history including On Understanding Women (1931), (Ed.) America Through Women's Eyes (1933) and Woman As Force In History: A Study in Traditions and Realities (1946). In addition, she collaborated with her husband, eminent historian Charles Austin Beard on several distinguished works, most notably The Rise of American Civilization (1927).

Early life[edit]

Family background[edit]

Mary Ritter Beard was born on August 5, 1876 in Indianapolis, Indiana, the fourth of seven children, and the first daughter, born to Narcissa Lockwood and Eli Foster Ritter.[1] Narcissa was born in Paris, Kentucky, graduated from Brookville Academy in Thornton, Kentucky and later worked there as a teacher for a short time before moving with her family to Greencastle, Indiana (home to Asbury, now DePauw University) in 1861. Born to Quaker parents, Eli grew up on a farm close to Indianapolis, Indiana. He attended Northwestern Christian College for two years before enrolling in Asbury University in 1861, and made the unorthodox decision for a Quaker of joining the Union Army shortly after the outbreak of the American Civil War. He went back to Greencastle to marry Narcissa in 1863 before returning to the army where he served for the remainder of the war. Back at Asbury following his service he completed his bachelor's degree and entered into law practice in Indianapolis. His eyes weak from exposure during the war, Eli relied on Narcissa to read to him to help him complete his studies at Asbury and in preparation for the bar exam.

Education and intellectual development[edit]

Beard attended public schools in Indianapolis and graduated as valedictorian of her Indianapolis (later called Shortridge) High School class before enrolling at DePauw University, as would all the Ritter children, in 1893. She was a member of Kappa Alpha Theta and president of her class.

Beard claimed to be influenced by two of her sorority sisters who refused to limit themselves to conventional courses and activities for women and, most importantly by her German professor, Dr. Henry B. Longden. He taught German as more than a language, incorporating culture, literature and philosophy into his teaching, asking his students to see their studies in a much broader context. It was at DePauw where she met and started a relationship with her future husband, Charles Austin Beard.

Marriage and family life[edit]

After graduating from DePauw in 1897 Mary found employment in the Greencastle public school system as a German teacher while Charles traveled to England for graduate studies at the University of Oxford in 1898. He returned in late 1899 for Mary, they were wed in March 1900 and she accompanied him to England a month later, where he continued his studies. They settled first in Oxford and later in Manchester where their first child, Miriam, was born in 1901. Deciding they wanted to raise Miriam in the United States, they moved to New York City in 1902 where they both enrolled as graduate students at Columbia University. While Mary eventually discontinued her studies in Sociology, Charles finished his PhD, became a lecturer and then a professor at Columbia where he remained until 1917. Their son William was born in 1907.

European influences[edit]

While in England Beard observed the plight of British industrial society, developed friendships with a wide variety of radicals and progressive leaders amongst the cooperative Socialists and the labor movement as well as the militant suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughters, the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin and other influential European intellectuals. It was here that Beard began to read and write history and was deeply influenced by what she learned of the struggles of the working class, the urgency and passion of the women's suffrage movement and the possibilities for social reform.

Suffrage movement[edit]

Mary Ritter Beard - undated photograph

Beard became involved in the suffrage movement through her activism in labor organizations such as the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) where she hoped to improve the conditions under which women labored. She came to believe that suffrage would hasten governmental regulation of economic conditions which would improve the lives of the working class. In addition to WTUL, Beard worked for the Equality League of Self-Supporting Women (later the Women's Political Union) and became a leader within the New York City Suffrage Party (NYCSP) where she helped edit its publication The Woman Voter. She left the NYCSP in 1913 to join the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage (CU) (later the National Woman's Party) at the request of the young suffragist feminists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, where she became an executive member of its board and editor of its weekly magazine The Suffragist. As an important contributor to the CU, Beard helped plan strategy, organized and participated in demonstrations, lectured, wrote articles, and testified before Congress on multiple occasions.


Mary and Charles Beard published a number of books together, for which their contemporaries often overlooked Mary's contributions. The first book appeared in 1914 and was a high school textbook called American Citizenship. In 1915 Mary published the first of six books that she would publish alone, Woman's Work in Municipalities.[2] She believed strongly in writing about women's history because as she declared: "We cannot know how our own society has been built up without known women's share in establishing free speech, free assembly, freedom of worship, all civil liberties, all humanism, all the branches of learning and everything else we value."[3] To spread the research on women's history Beard was doing, she used multiple venues including pamphlets, radio shows, articles, speeches, and books. Her 1946 work Woman as Force in History was Beard's most influential publication.[4]

Developing ideas and changing tactics[edit]

With the successful passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution behind her, Beard began to concentrate more fully on her writing and to further develop her philosophy concerning women in history which frequently set her at odds with the feminist movement. Along with her husband Charles, she had been an active proponent of the "New History" movement which sought to include social, cultural and economic factors in written history—an important step towards including the contributions of women. Beard expanded on this concept, contending that the proper study of women's "long history", from primitive pre-history to the present would reveal that women have always played a central role in all civilizations. She emphasized that women were different from men but that did not make their contributions of any less value, their significance was simply not being recognized. Beard took issue with feminists of the era who she believed viewed their history as one of oppression and their goal as equality with men, which they worked toward through, among other things, their advocacy for an Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). To Beard, that history was not only inaccurate but unhelpful and that striving to be like men was not an adequate goal, she felt, because women can and should offer something different and more socially beneficial to society, that women should be providers of "culture and civilization".[5] She attempted to educate women about their history through her writing and when she felt she wasn't reaching her audience she changed tactics.


With the help of international peace activist and feminist Rosika Schwimmer, Beard founded the World Center for Women's Archives (WCWA) in 1935. As director of the Center, Beard hoped to not only collect any and all manner of women's published and unpublished records, but to establish an educational institution, a place that would aid in the writing of history and the education of women. While the Center initially gained a great deal of publicity, collected many materials, inspired records preservation, generated interest in women's history, was endorsed by Eleanor Roosevelt, and eventually led to the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at Radcliffe College and the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College, the Center never lived up to Beard's expectations. She directed the Center for five years while dealing with a multitude of competing interests, a result of long-standing differences within the women's movement, before resigning in 1940. The Center folded two months later, largely because of internal strife as well as a lack of funding.[6]

Critique of Britannica[edit]

After the dissolution of the World Centre for Women's Archives in 1940, Beard's next project was an analysis of Encyclopædia Britannica's representation of women, produced following the suggestion of Walter Yust, chief editor of the Britannica.[7] Beard convened a team of fellow female scholars (Dora Edinger, Janet A. Selig, and Marjorie White) to produce A Study of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in Relation to its Treatment of Women. Beard and her colleagues worked on the report over an 18-month period and in November 1942 delivered its 42 pages to Yust. However, the recommendations of the report were ignored despite Yust's expressed interest and assurances that the Britannica would include improvements. Hence, Beard was disappointed with the effort and in 1947 correspondence she suggested that women no longer write for the Britannica.[8]

The report included significant recommendations on existing articles as well as suggestions for new articles. For example, the authors noted that the treatment of abortion was not comprehensive as it was more than a moral question; abortion was also relevant to population, political, health, medical, and social issues. The study also noted that the article on education was too masculine, questioned why there was no article on "Queen," and why women were not included in the Britannica's treatment of health and medicine. Additionally, from the article on "Song" the report noted: "No women sang in Europe, it appears from this review. The contributions of nuns, in choir composition and singing, is not recognized at all." Topics that the authors recommended for inclusion included bathing, breadmaking, dyeing, hospital, hunger, laundrying, salons and social implements.[9]

Death and legacy[edit]

Despite Beard's passion for the archives project and extensive work in acquiring the personal papers of women throughout the world from all times in history, she, along with her husband, whose pacifist stance proved controversial in the last decade of his life, destroyed nearly all of their papers and manuscripts before their deaths. They also requested of their children in their will that they not publish any of their letters.

She was interred next to her husband Charles, who had died a decade earlier, in Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale in Westchester County, New York.[10][11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Barbara Turoff; Mary Ritter Beard as Force in History, p. 7; Ann Lane, in Mary Ritter Beard: A Sourcebook, writes of two older brothers, Halstead and Roscoe and of Ruth, the youngest of the Ritter's and mentions two other brothers, no order of birth given, Dwight and Herman, who died while a senior at DePauw University, with no mention of a fifth brother; p. 14. The Biographical Note from the Mary Ritter Beard Papers in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College states that Mary was the third of six children.
  2. ^ Catherine E. Forrest Weber, "Mary Ritter Beard: Historian of the Other Half" Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 15 no. 1 (Winter 2003): 10-11.
  3. ^ Weber (2003), p. 11.
  4. ^ Donald F. Carmony review of The Making of Charles A. Beard, by Marry Ritter Beard Indiana Magazine of History, June 1957,
  5. ^ Turoff, p. 51
  6. ^ Nancy Cott, A Woman Making History: Mary Ritter Beard Through Her Letters, p. 216-220
  7. ^ Lane, Ann J., ed. (1977). Mary Ritter Beard: A Source Book. New York: Schocken Books. p. 215.
  8. ^ Beard et al. 1977, p. 215.
  9. ^ Beard et al. 1977, pp. 216-223.
  10. ^
  11. ^


  • Beard, Mary Ritter; Edinger, Dora; Selig, Janet A.; White, Marjorie (1977), "A study of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in relation to its treatment of women", in Lane, Ann J. (ed.), Mary Ritter Beard: A Sourcebook, Studies in the Life of Women, New York: Schocken Books, pp. 216–223, ISBN 0-8052-3668-6
  • Cott, Nancy F. "Beard, Mary Ritter"; American National Biography Online (2000)
  • Cott, Nancy F., ed. (1991). A Woman Making History: Mary Ritter Beard Through Her Letters. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-04825-4.
  • Lane, Ann J. ed. (2000). Making Women's History: The Essential Mary Ritter Beard. New York: The Feminist Press at The City University of New York. ISBN 1-55861-219-X.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  • Lane, Ann J.. ed. (1988). Mary Ritter Beard: A Sourcebook. Boston: First Northeastern University Press. ISBN 1-55553-029-X.CS1 maint: Extra text: authors list (link)
  • Turoff, Barbara K. Mary Beard as Force in History (1979)

Further reading[edit]

  • Alvarado, Alice. "Left Out: Women's Role in Historiography and the Contribution of Mary Ritter Beard." (2012). online
  • Crocco, Margaret Smith. "Forceful yet forgotten: Mary Ritter Beard and the writing of history." History Teacher (1997): 9-31. in JSTOR
  • Jardins, Julie Des. Women and the historical enterprise in America : gender, race, and the politics of memory, 1880-1945, (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2003)
  • Smith, Bonnie G. "Seeing Mary Beard." Feminist Studies (1984): 399-416. in JSTOR
  • Trigg, Mary. "" To Work Together for Ends Larger than Self": The Feminist Struggles of Mary Beard and Doris Stevens in the 1930s." Journal of Women's History 7#2 (1995): 52-85. online
  • Trigg, Mary K. Feminism as Life's Work: Four Modern American Women through Two World Wars (Rutgers University Press, 2014) xii + 266 pp. online review
  • Voss-Hubbard, Anke. "" No Documents—No History": Mary Ritter Beard and the Early History of Women's Archives." American Archivist 58#1 (1995): 16-30.

Primary sources[edit]

  • Beard, Mary Ritter, and Ann J. Lane, eds. Making Women's History: The Essential Mary Ritter Beard (Feminist Press at CUNY, 1977)

External links[edit]