Beard, Mary Ritter (1876–1958)

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Beard, Mary Ritter (1876–1958)

Historian and feminist activist who wrote extensively on the worldwide history of women and on American culture. Born Mary Ritter on August 5, 1876, in Indianapolis, Indiana; died in Phoenix, Arizona, on August 14, 1958; daughter of Narcissa (Lockwood) Ritter (an erstwhile teacher) and Eli Foster Ritter (a banker); graduated A.B. DePauw University, 1897; postgraduate work, Columbia University, 1902–04; married Charles Austin Beard (a historian), on March 8, 1900; children: Miriam Beard (a historian); William (a historian).

Joined staff of the National Women's Trade Union League; became editor, The Woman Voter (1910–12); joined staff of the Wage Earners' Suffrage League; joined staff of the Congressional Union (later the National Woman's Party, 1913–17); independent writer.

Selected publications:

(with Charles A. Beard) American Citizenship (Macmillan, 1914); Woman's Work in Municipalities (Appleton, 1915); A Short History of the American Labor Movement (Harcourt, 1920); (with C.A. Beard) A History of the United States (Macmillan, 1921); (with C.A. Beard) The Rise of American Civilization (Macmillan, 1927); On Understanding Women (Longmans, 1931); (editor) America Through Women's Eyes (Macmillan, 1933); (editor, with Martha B. Bruère) Laughing Their Way: Women's Humor in America (Macmillan, 1934); (with C.A. Beard) The Making of American Civilization (Macmillan, 1937); (with C.A. Beard) America in Midpassage (Macmillan, 1939); (with C.A. Beard) The American Spirit: A Study of the Idea of Civilization in the United States (Macmillan, 1942); (with C.A. Beard) A Basic History of the United States (Doubleday Doran, 1944); Woman as Force in History: A Study in Traditions and Realities (Macmillan, 1946); The Force of Women in Japanese History (Public Affairs Press, 1953); The Making of Charles A. Beard (Exposition, 1955).

The career of Mary Ritter Beard contains many paradoxes. The foremost historian of women of her generation, she possessed only the bachelor of arts, turned down all honorary degrees, and never held an academic post. Though a prolific and respected author, her works—in the words of biographer Nancy F. Cott —"were loose-joined, oddly organized, her prose florid, her references sometimes obscure." While ever pointing to the accomplishments of women from Cleopatra to Madame Curie, Beard often bitterly fought ideological battles with members of the one group most likely to be her natural constituency: those of the feminist movement.

Similarly, she conducted a worldwide crusade for women's studies as an autonomous discipline but refused to separate the cause of women from other major social forces. "Everything is related to everything else," she wrote in 1931. It was essential to see "the interplay of government, politics, economics, modes of living and working, schools of thought, religion, power, class, society and family, the arts and ambition, and the biological and cultural aspects of sex."

Mary Ritter was born on August 5, 1876, in Indianapolis, the third of six children of Narcissa Lockwood Ritter and Eli Foster Ritter. Her mother, who came from one of central Indiana's most prominent families, had been a teacher. Her father was a lawyer who had served as a colonel in the Civil War. The family heritage included Methodism, temperance, and the Republican Party. Mary grew up in middle-class comfort in a suburban part of the city. At age 16, she enrolled at DePauw University in Asbury, Indiana, where she began her study of political science, languages, and literature. Graduating in 1897, she taught high school German in Indiana for a year, then in 1900 married the budding social scientist Charles A. Beard, also a De-Pauw graduate.

Like Charles, Mary was strongly influenced by the reform currents of the 1890s. Immediately after their marriage, the couple traveled to England, where the Beards immersed themselves in various reforms. Living in Manchester, Mary helped to found an extension division of Ruskin Hall, a school for workers based in Oxford. Here she saw firsthand what she called the "ghastly deprivation" of urban working-class life. She plunged into the woman suffrage movement, where she worked closely with such militants as Emmeline Pankhurst . Returning to New York in 1902, the Beards enrolled at Columbia University. Mary began a graduate program in sociology that only lasted two years. For the rest of her life, she was strongly critical of higher education, saying in 1946 that "the value of learning lies not in sheer erudition, if there at all." Rather it lay in social transformation. Increasingly attracted to what was then called the New History, she believed that the study of the past had one fundamental purpose: to reform the present and thereby change the course of the future.

In the Republic of Letters no American woman holds higher place than Mary Ritter Beard.

—Newsweek, March 18, 1946

By 1910, Mary Beard was active in labor and suffrage organizations. Among them were the Equality League for Self-Supporting Women, a suffrage group, and the National Women's Trade Union League (NWTUL). She became secretary of the NWTUL's legislative committee and was briefly treasurer of the association. With her husband, she defended the McNamara brothers, who were accused of dynamiting the leading newspaper in Los Angeles, and, after the famous Triangle Shirt Waist fire of 1911, she crusaded for strong factory legislation. In 1910–12, she edited The Woman Voter, published by Carrie Chapman Catt 's Woman Suffrage Party of New York. She was also vice-chair of the party's Manhattan branch.

In 1912, Beard concentrated her activities on the Wage-Earners' Suffrage League, the party's adjunct for working women. Working women, she claimed in 1912, needed a public voice in dealing with a host of problems: "the white slave traffic, mothers' pensions, unemployment, education, child labor, war, the tariff and all else that affects the cost of living, pure food and water, city planning, parks and playgrounds, employers' liability, transportation and the policing of cities." Not only did Beard write, organize, and raise funds in the suffrage cause; she canvassed from door to door, particularly in tenement districts.

In 1913, Beard broke with the Woman's Suffrage Party, which she found far too moderate. She rallied behind Alice Paul 's Congressional Union (CU), a group that embodied the more extreme wing of the suffrage movement. CU repudiated the traditional strategy of a state-to-state approach in favor of a national constitutional amendment. Also in 1913, Beard successfully, and against opposition, insisted that black women be included in a major suffrage parade in Washington, D.C. A year later, she testified before a House committee examining women's suffrage. In 1915, she resigned from CU's executive committee, finding that her modest income, family demands, and scholarly research prevented her from taking a more active role. Yet she remained active in its New York State organization. In 1917, Beard led a New York delegation to the capital to protest against the imprisonment of suffragists arrested for picketing.

After 1917, Beard's support for CU (then called the National Woman's Party [NWP]) lapsed. Biographer Cott suspects that Beard's withdrawal was rooted in her abhorrence of certain NWP tactics, such as its public burning of the speeches of President Woodrow Wilson. Beard always opposed Paul's crusade for an Equal Rights Amendment. In 1933, in addressing Paul's organization, Beard queried: "Do we want to be preachers, bankers, Babbitts, merely for the sake of equality with men? Do we want to be labor racketeers?" Far better, she believed, for CU feminists to work at creating a more humane society than settling for an equal share in an exploitative one.

Often writing from the Beard farmhouse in New Milford, Connecticut, Mary Beard's reputation as an author was first made in the field of labor. Her Woman's Work in Municipalities (1915) was a lengthy essay in the muckraking tradition. Her Short History of the American Labor Movement (1920) was a pro-labor account written for a working-class audience.

Mary served as co-author with Charles on a number of projects. Their high school textbook American Citizenship (1914), written at her instigation, consciously sought to bring women into the study of the body politic. So too did such general accounts as A History of the United States (1921) and The Making of American Civilization (1937).

All this time, the couple was undertaking more creative efforts. Their Rise of American Civilization (1927) was a truly magisterial effort, offering an analytical narrative that began in colonial times and was carried down to the "normalcy" of the 1920s. Written with what historian Carl Becker called "verve and swift facility," it possessed an influence unmatched by any such synthesis before or since. Charles claimed that, outside of the political narrative, the book was genuinely Mary's, though (as with all their joint efforts) Charles received the limelight—and the occasional attack. A sequel, America in Midpassage (1939), covered the '30s, while a fourth volume—The American Spirit (1942)—explored various facets of American culture through extensive quotation. The Basic History of the United States (1944) was one of their most popular works, one that Charles called "our last will and testament to the American people."

Mary's first love, however, was the topic with which her name was often synonymous: the history of women. She edited two anthologies: America Through Women's Eyes (1933) and Laughing Their Way: Women's Humor in America, written with Martha B. Bruère (1934). In the former work, Beard wrote:

If there is in all history any primordial force, that force is woman—continuer, protector, preserver of life, instinctive, active, thoughtful, ever bringing thought back from sterile speculation to the center of life and work.

In the same preface, however, she stressed women's collaboration with men from colonial to contemporary times.

Of far greater importance was On Understanding Woman (1931). In some ways, the book was an advanced intellectual and social history of the entire Western tradition, with hundreds of references to women included. She began her account in primitive times, then moved successively through the Golden Age of Greece, Imperial Rome, the early and medieval church, the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the reform movements of the 19th century. All through history, she said, women had participated in almost "everything that went on in the world":

They have shared in the burdens and privileges of their respective classes, have joined in wars, have owned and managed vast estates, have insisted on dominance in disputes among ruling families, have displayed the lusts of men, have served the temples, and have been deified as gods…. There was no great historical contest in politics in which they did not appear somewhere. There was no religious cult which they did not affect. There were no exercises in intellectualism which they did not practice.

In the Middle Ages alone, she noted, women served as theologians and saints. They headed convents and schools, worked in crafts, labored in the fields, suffered as witches, died as heretics, and even produced military leaders, such as Joan of Arc.

In all her writings on women, Beard brought a unique point of view. Insisting that women's contributions were central to human society, she drew a direct connection between women's primary responsibility for the care of life and their potential for enacting major social change. At a congress held in 1933 by the National Council of Women in the United States, an umbrella group representing some five million women, Beard drafted a manifesto. She consciously sought to differentiate her "second women's movement" from "the first women's movement," one whose aims were embodied in Declaration of Sentiments drafted by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and formulated at the famous Seneca Falls meeting of 1848. Beard's statement read:

We believe that every person, to whatever sex, race or nationality she or he may belong, is entitled to security of life, work, the reward of labor, health, and education; to protection against war and crime, and to opportunity for self-expression. Yet, even in parts of the world where feminism has made its largest gains, these fundamentals of security and the good life are sadly lacking. Hence it is against social systems, not men, that we launch our second woman's movement. We enter now a social-planning era following the harsh experiment with laissez faire and national aggressions, with a World War, and its horrible aftermath in the economic collapse. All civilization is at stake and the condition of society cannot be ignored.

Beard continually fought what she saw as the "deadening" views of some feminists, who saw the record of women in the past as either a blank or the story of defeat. At best, it was a tale of masculine tyranny and female subjection. Such a view, Beard believed, had unwittingly contributed to the false belief that history had been made by men alone and that masculine labors had created civilization. This perspective she found dangerous, for once women accepted such an interpretation of their heritage, their collective strength was undermined.

Beard also opposed a juxtaposition of "women of achievement," who were active in business and the professions, and mere "homemakers" who—in some eyes—failed to achieve their fullest potential. Over the long span of history, she wrote in 1946, the woman of the home had been a force for "lifting thought to new creative levels."

Nor would Beard accept the view that women were fundamentally noble, men fundamentally corrupt. From at least 1930, when she wrote an article "Women and the War Habit" for Woman's Journal, she denied that "women as such react differently from men on the issue of right by might." "History," she continued, "is in fact a shocking discovery of the share women have had in brawls, revenge, the raising of troops and their ruthless sacrifice, aggression and spoilation."

Biographer Ann J. Lane notes that Beard made three distinct claims about women. First, Beard found women indistinguishable from men, both in such positive traits as wisdom and such negative ones as cruelty. Second, Beard saw women as the creators of life itself, sustaining it through agriculture and launching civilization through the creation of art and beauty. Indeed, all the essentials of life—food, clothing, shelter, medicine, the arts—were launched by the women of primitive times. Moreover, Beard maintained that, in the future, women will "be assuming chief responsibility for the continuance and care of life." Third, Beard said that women were different from men, developing skills of domesticity while men advanced industry and commerce. While Lane claims that Beard was correct in affirming the centrality of women in history, she asserts that Beard was less successful in creating a theoretical model that could reconcile these apparently contradictory perspectives.

In 1934, Beard drafted a 50-page syllabus for a women's studies program, published by the American Association of University Women. Its title: "A Changing Political Economy As It Affects Women." A truly equal education, she wrote, did not simply extend male education to females. "Man's education of himself and of his women understudies has become so rigid, so scholastic," she wrote in the preface, "that to parallel it with the same woman's education of herself would count for very little…. But if equal education could now be undertaken, not merely with a view to discovering how far this is both a man's and a woman's world, both sexes might better comprehend how their destinies are bound together and why."

When the Hungarian-born feminist and pacifist Rosika Schwimmer sought to create an archive focusing on woman suffrage and peace activity, Beard widened its scope to include women in all walks of life. Between the years 1935 to 1940, Beard was able to establish an office in New York's Rockefeller Center for a World Center for Women's Archives. The project failed, due to factional disputes, lack of funds, and the absence of an institutional base. Furthermore, the advent of World War II diverted much attention from the new project. Beard's materials, however, served as the matrix for such major archives as the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College and the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College.

As World War II approached, both Beards were vigorously anti-fascist but staunchly opposed to U.S. intervention. In late June 1939, three months before war broke out in Europe, Mary said that the U.S. should base its foreign policy on "quite decent barter with other countries, exchanging directly what we have to excess for what we need." "Thundering at dictators," she maintained, was counter-productive. "Going into the present war or trying to help Europe solve its own continuous messes," she asserted in February 1940, "will be to jeopardize our economy and civilization." The isolationism of the Beards was unpopular, particularly in the very intellectual circles that had once lionized them. Early in 1944, when the U.S. had been at war for over two years, the feminist historian wrote a friend: "The name 'Beard' is anathema in many many quarters, I assure you, whether Charles or Mary is prefixed to it."

After the war ended, Charles was bitterly attacked by much of the historical establishment, for he had accused President Franklin D. Roosevelt of deliberately attempting to maneuver the U.S. into the global conflict. Mary strongly defended Charles after he died in 1948, writing impassioned letters against what she considered the "vultures" who defamed his name. Like her husband, Mary destroyed all her correspondence before she died, something that biographers Cott and Lane suspect was rooted in the bitterness of the recent war.

During this time, Beard continually sought to rectify stereotypes concerning women. In 1942, at the request of the Encyclopedia Britannica, she offered a 42-page critique of its contents. In response, the editors added some biographies of notable women, but otherwise acted little on her many suggestions.

Beard's magnum opus was published in 1946, when she was 70. Woman as Force in History was the culmination of her many years of study. Adding several fresh examples to her 1931 work, she reiterated her claim that women "played a great role in directing human events as thought and action." Again as in 1931, her discussion was wide-ranging, encompassing women philosophers of Greece, mystics of Medieval Europe, and hostesses of 18th-century French salons. Once more, she challenged the claim that historically females had been subservient. She particularly sought to counter the attention given to William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England (1756). The prominent British jurist, she maintained, bore the principle responsibility for the "dogma of women's complete subjection to men," doing so by focusing on the legal status of women in the common law. Beard, to the contrary, stressed other legal sources that gave the woman more protection, among them equity, legislation, and custom.

In 1954, she published a work on the role of women in the history of Japan, taking the story from the days of the Sun Goddess to those of the American occupation. Featured were various empresses, influential ladies at court, and women in the arts. Until 1955, Beard lived as a widow in New Milford. While visiting Arizona, she fell ill and remained there. Mary Ritter Beard spent her last years in Phoenix, where on August 14, 1958, she died of kidney failure.


Cott, Nancy F., ed. A Woman Making History: Mary Ritter Beard through Her Letters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.

Lane, Ann J. Mary Ritter Beard: A Sourcebook. NY: Schocken, 1977.

suggested reading:

Carroll, Bernice A. "Mary Beard's Woman as Force in History: A Critique," in Massachusetts Review. Winter-Spring 1972, pp. 125–143.

Degler, Carl. "Woman as Force in History by Mary Beard," in Daedalus. Vol. 103. Winter 1974, pp. 67–73.

Turoff, Barbara Kivel. "Mary Beard: Feminist Educator," in Antioch Review. Vol. 37, fall 1979, pp. 277–292.


Material on Mary Beard can be found in the DePauw University Library, the Radcliffe College Library, and the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College.

Justus D. Doenecke , Professor of History, New College of the University of South Florida, Sarasota, Florida