Mary Ritter Beard

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Mary Ritter Beard (August 5, 1876 – August 14, 1958) was an American historian, author, women's suffrage activist, and women's history archivist who was also a lifelong advocate of social justice. As a Progressive Era reformer, Beard was active in both the labor and women's rights movements. She also authored several books on women's role in history including On Understanding Women (1931), America Through Women's Eyes (editor, 1933), and Woman as Force in History: A Study in Traditions and Realities (1946), her major work. In addition, she collaborated with her husband, historian Charles Austin Beard, as coauthor of seven textbooks, most notably The Rise of American Civilization (1927), two volumes, and America in Midpassage: A Study of the Idea of Civilization (1939) and The American Spirit (1942), the third and fourth volume of The Rise of American Civilization series. A standalone book, Basic History of the United States, was their best-selling work.


  • There are some simple-minded persons who accept this dictum as the final word on the subject, but those women who have studied even a little American history and politics know very well that the border line between national and State matters can not be settled by a mathematical process or by an ipse dixit of some interested politician. They know that neither the Republican Party, the champion of nationalism, nor the Democratic Party, the champion of State rights, has been consistent in its attitude toward national and State rights. They know that each of them has leaned toward National or State Governments exactly whenever it has suited the party and economic interests.
  • At the close of that ever-to-be-regretted war the Nation wrote into the fourteenth and fifteenth amendments the fundamental principle that the suffrage is a national matter Those amendments were intended to establish forever adult male suffrage throughout the American empire. It is true that those amendments are in many respects nullified by ingenious provisions. But there they stand. You are confronted by this dilemma: Either you must openly flaunt and scorn them, and thus virtually say to the Nation, We will obey just as much of the Constitution as we please, which is the doctrine of the anarchist; or you must say suffrage is by the Constitution a national matter and we abide by the Constitution.
  • the labor movement is more than an economic enterprise or a field for energetic leadership. It has a deep social and spiritual significance. It draws men and women together in a great cooperative undertaking which grows in strength day and night and develops ideals of peace and well-being in society as well as practical contests of force.
    • A Short History of the American Labor Movement (1920)
  • Having made the broad change against man, the convention then presented a list of grievances to support it, patterning them on the American men's Declaration of Independence submitted to a "candid" world as well as to the British government in 1776. Though the women found it somewhat difficult to match the exact number of grievances which had been assembled in the men's Declaration of 1776, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton later confessed, they finally accomplished the feat and specified the "abuses and usurpations" of which man was guilty in gaining his object - "the establishment of an absolute tyranny over her [woman]."
    • Woman as force in history (1946)

America Through Women's Eyes (1933)

  • So marked has been this recent trend of social thought that it is scarcely too much to say that we are now in the very midst of an intellectual revolution, perhaps the most fundamental in the long course of civilization that we are today passing over the threshold of a period even more re-constructive than the Renaissance which flowered in the sixteenth century.
  • I am inclined to think that all fact finders should be recruited from the ranks of experienced journalists with noses for the relevant and a knowledge of how to state it, or from the ranks of such poets as Miss Clinch Calkins, whose Some Folks Won't Work told more truths about unemployment than all the Department of Labor reports rolled into one.
  • But when the panic that opened in 1929 spread with devastating sweep over the nation supposedly secure, the question was whether a civilization based on profit-making industry and spoils-dividing politics, so enriching for women of the leisure class and so generous in opportunities for higher employments offered to women of the lower middle class, was not after all a transitory phase of history, notwithstanding its duration of a century or more. That "man's world," in which women had secured a foothold, had been more of a nightmare than a dreamland for millions of working women. This they knew from bitter experience.
  • Cultural sociology, the larger view, reveals in elaborate studies how, from primitive times to the modern era, societies have been organized with reference to the supreme functions of life-its continuance, care, and protection. Societies that are not so organized, it shows, are robber bands exploiting other societies until inevitable degeneration sets in.
  • As thinker and student, woman, like every thinker and student, borrows with more or less understanding from the heritage of thought in which she finds herself; thus she may accept ready-made views of her personality and the world as she now accepts ready-made clothing in the stores.
  • Here as everywhere a divorce of thought from action leads to a decline in creative intelligence.
  • History does not exactly repeat itself. Modern mechanical economy, nation-wide, even worldwide in its sweep, is a novel experiment. If civilization-the great society of today-is to continue, then the problem becomes one of making the huge superstructure of economics and politics function for the essential purposes of life and at the same time of maintaining a sound and creative community life at the basis.

Quotes about Mary Ritter Beard

  • I began to read an enormous amount of history around this time. I was very taken with Charles Beard-at that point his writings seemed to me to represent great Marxist truths because he talked about the things that high school history never talked about, the underlying economic motives of history makers. I read everything he and his wife Mary Beard wrote.
  • Writing as a well-trained historian who deliberately chose not to be part of the academy, Beard asserted boldly that women always were and always had been a force in history. Women were central to the historical process and History, to be true to life, would have to be written so that their world-view, their vantage point, would be as fully represented in it as that of men. "Woman is and makes history," she asserted and devoted her life to winning recognition for that fact. Mary Beard was herself an activist in the labor and feminist movement of the 1920s. She, together with a remarkable group of older suffragists, spent years in the struggle to create a World Center for Women's Archives, which was to serve as a repository of the sources of Women's History and was "to encourage recognition of women as co-makers of history." Their effort failed for lack of support in the 1940s, but it did not fail entirely, for out of this struggle came the creation of one of the major Women's History archives in the United States-the Schlesinger Library Archives at Radcliffe College, as well as, eventually, the Miriam Holden collection, now housed at Princeton University. Mary Beard not only conceptualized Women's History as an academic topic, she wrote four pioneering works on the subject and showed in her collaborative works with her husband, the historian Charles Beard, how the shifting focus provided by attention to women would transform the historical narrative.
  • Early in my undergraduate studies I had first read Mary Beard's Woman as Force in History. Somehow, I was able to disregard her poor presentation, her fervent, and sometimes ill-tempered rhetoric and to connect with her central idea: that women have always been active and at the center of history. I was struck, as by a sudden illumination, by the simplicity and truth of her insight. Mary Beard had arrived at that conviction the same way I had, by her having been an engaged participant in women's work in society...implicit in Beard's work, whether she fully understood it or not, was the recognition of the duality of women's position in society-women are subordinate, yet central; victimized, yet active...Her greatest contribution is the insight that focusing on the concept of women as victim obscures the true history of women.
    • Gerda Lerner, The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History’’ (1979)
  • Her methodological suggestions, her practice of comparative history, and her drawing on sources from other disciplines, such as anthropology and sociology, were a revelation to me. Long before the new feminism surfaced, reading Mary Beard raised my feminist consciousness. Essentially, Mary Beard invented the concept of Women's Studies and Women's History. It was Mary Beard, first and foremost, whose critique of an androcentric academic establishment led her to envision new models of education for women. "Equal education for which women have clamoured," she wrote, "has merely meant the extension to women of men's education in their own history and judgements of themselves." But such "history consists of threads... selected from men's activities in war, business and politics, woven together according to a pattern of male prowess and power as conceived in the mind of man. If the woman's culture came into this pattern in any way, it is only as a blurring of a major concept." Here was a statement which expressed what during my graduate education I had experienced only vaguely as dissatisfaction with and resistance to what I was being taught. Traditional history fixed women into marginality; I knew and now found confirmation in Mary Beard's writing that this was not the truth.
    • Gerda Lerner, The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History’’ (1979)
  • Mary Beard undertook in several of her books to trace the positive achievements of women, their social role, and their contributions to community life. Her concepts are most successfully reflected in The Rise of American Civilization, which she co-authored with her husband Charles Beard. In it the position of women is treated throughout in an integrated way with great attention to the economic contributions made by women. But the Beards' approach to the subject of women had little influence on the historical profession. Perhaps this was due to the fact that in the 1930s and 1940s both the general public and historians became somewhat disenchanted with the woman's rights movement.
    • Gerda Lerner, The Majority Finds Its Past: Placing Women in History’’ (1979)
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