Beard, Mary Ritter

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BEARD, Mary Ritter

Born 5 August 1876, Indianapolis, Indiana; died 14 August 1958, Phoenix, Arizona

Daughter of Eli Foster and Marassa Lockwood Ritter; married Charles Austin Beard, 1900

Educated at DePauw University, then a rather conservative Methodist institution, Mary Ritter Beard received her Ph.D. in 1897. She spent her early married years in England in the circle around Ruskin Hall, a center for new economic thought, then moved to New York City and studied at Columbia University, where her husband, the most vital intellectual influence in her life, was to join the faculty.

Beard's earliest books, American Citizenship (1914, in collaboration with her husband), Woman's Work in Municipalities (1915), and A Short History of the American Labor Movement (1920), reflect her lifelong interests: labor, sociology, and women's studies.

The books she wrote with her husband in the 1920s and 1930s, both the school texts and the enormously successful four-volume The Rise of American Civilization (1927-1942), were highly influential. The first two volumes of The Rise of American Civilization were the product of two decades of progressive intellectual attack on the formalism of 19th-century American historical writing, which tended to see American institutions in an ideal, abstract way. The particular economic interpretation of the Revolution which pitted agrarian democrats against capitalist aristocrats, and the view of the Civil War as a second revolution, were widely accepted until after World War II, when Charles A. Beard came under attack for viewing earlier American history from the perspective of the progressive fight for reform against an entrenched capitalism. Indeed, the Beards modified their economic determinism in the 1940s and gave greater play to the force of ideas and ideals than they had before. But their most significant contribution was their salutory reminder that ideals do not exist outside of social contexts.

While the great collaborative effort with her husband has now largely entered the realm of intellectual history, Beard's pioneering work in women's studies, notably in On Understanding Women (1931) and Woman as Force in History (1946), remains generative today. Encouraged by the nascent field of anthropology, which was producing work showing women as the originator of agriculture and the domestic arts, Beard studied social realities as disparate as women's legal status in England and women's contribution to Pythagorean philosophy in ancient Greece, in order to discover their true status and achievement. Such a vision was obscured, she argued, not only by male bias and social mythology, but by feminists who themselves promulgated a false view of women as a subject sex. The fullest and most important treatment of these views appears in Woman as Force in History.

The questions she raises there remain with us, but her answers are sometimes problematic. While her argument against the idea of "equality" as the touchstone for woman's relation to man points out the difficulties it engenders, the argument remains inconclusive. Nor does the book resolve a contradiction in her view of women's contribution. While Beard sometimes seems to be saying women are a peculiarly civilizing force, at other times she seems to be saying only that they have been more of a force both for good and for bad than we have realized. Still, the book leaves us two important lines of thought: one is the definition of woman's just role. Beard believed that the early imitation of men by feminists was in part a function of the individualism of 19th-century America, and that as society moved toward more collectivist forms, alternatives for women would emerge. The other line of thought is that history is not simply the account of the politician, the banker, and the general. Until history describes events on the level of domestic economy and family relationship as well, woman's true force, Beard believes, will not be understood, nor will the true causes and effects of history.

Other Works:

A History of the United States (with C. A. Beard, 1921). The American Labor Movement: A Short History (1931). America Through Women's Eyes (edited by Beard, 1933). A Changing Political Economy as it Affects Women (1934). Laughing Their Way (ed. by Beard with M. B. Bruere, 1934). The Making of American Civilization (with C. A. Beard, 1937). America in Mid Passage (Vol. 3, The Rise of American Civilization, with C. A. Beard, 1939). The American Spirit: A Study of the Idea of Civilization in the United States (Vol. 4, The Rise of American Civilization, with C. A. Beard, 1942). A Basic History of the United States (with C. A. Beard, 1944). The Force ofWomen in Japanese History (1953). The Making of Charles A. Beard (1955).


Carroll, B. A., "Mary Beard's Woman as a Force in History: A Critique" in Liberating Women's History, Theoretical and Critical Essays (1976). Cott, N. F., ed., A Woman Making History: Mary Ritter Beard Through Her Letters (1991). Hofstadter, R., The Progressive Historians (1968). Lane, A. J., Mary Ritter Beard: A Sourcebook (1997, 1999). Steadman, B. J., "Woman's Role in History: An Examination of the Life and Thought of Mary Ritter Beard with Special Consideration of her Theory of Woman's Contribution to the Human Past" (thesis, 1981). Trigg, M. K., Four American Feminists, 1910-1940: Inez Haynes Irwin, Mary Ritter Beard, Doris Stevens, and Lorine Pruette (dissertation, 1989). Turoff, B. K., Mary Beard as a Force in History (1979). Turoff, B. K., "An Introduction to Mary Beard: Feminist and Historian" (thesis, 1978).

Other reference:

NR (1946). NYT (27 Dec. 1931). PSQ (Sept. 1927). World Center for Women's Archives [1913-1934] (microfilm, 1987).