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Mary Ritter Beard and Women's History

John Simkin

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Mary Ritter Beard was a proponent of what became known as the New History. She challenged the primacy of military and political explanations of the past by examining economic and social factors in more detail. In Beard's books she demonstrated the central role that women had played in history. This was reflected in her book On Understanding Women (1931) and America Through Women's Eyes (1933), a collection of accounts by women who had played an integral part in the development of America's history.

In On Understanding Women she highlighted a problem that faced feminist historians. "Women have been engaged in a continuous contest to defend their arts and crafts, to win the right to use their minds and to train them, to obtain openings for their talents and to earn a livelihood, to break through legal restraints on their unfolding powers. In their quest for rights women have naturally placed emphasis on their wrongs, rather than their achievements and possessions, and have retold history as a story of their long Martyrdom. Feminists have been prone to prize and assume the traditions of those with whom they had waged such a long, and in places bitter conflict. In doing so, they have participated in a distortion of history and a disturbance of the balanced conceptual thought which gives harmony and power to life."

Beard was a strong supporter of women's education and in 1934 published A Changing Political Economy as it Affects Women, which was a detailed syllabus for a women's studies course. However, despite a great deal of campaigning, she was unable to persuade any college or university to adopt what would have been America's first women's studies course.

In 1935 Beard joined with the veteran peace campaigner, Rosika Schwimmer, to create the World Centre for Women's Archives. The main objective for the centre was to preserve the records of women's contributions to history. They chose the motto for the archive: "No documents, no history." The venture was brought to an end in 1940 as a result of her failure to raise enough funds to pay for the centre.

Beard's next project was to analyze how the Encyclopaedia Britannica had systematically excluded the role of women. For example, she claimed that the entry for the 'American Frontier' was "extremely narrow and bigoted" and ignored "women's civilizing role" and the "co-operative enterprises which elevated the individualistic will to social prowess". Beard also criticised the omissions of subjects such as Hull House from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. She worked for 18 months on a multi-disciplinary critique of the information in the encyclopaedia, but her report, A Study of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in Relation to its Treatment of Women, was ignored by the company.

Beard's most important book Woman as Force in History: A Study of Traditions and Realties was published in 1946. In the book she attacked historians and social scientists for the misuse of the generic man and for their omissions and distortions of the record of women. She pointed out that women of the ruling class often wielded great power, and women suffered as much or more from from their class position as from their gender. It was with the development of capitalism, she argued, that "discrimination on account of sex, regardless of class, became pervasive."


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