Mary Ritter, the daughter of Eli Ritter, a lawyer, and Narcissa Lockward, a schoolteacher, was born in Indianapolis in 1876. While at DePauw University she met Charles Beard. After their marriage in 1900 the couple moved to England where Beard continued his studies at Oxford University.
The Beards lived in Oxford and Manchester, where they became close friends of Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters, Christabel Pankhurst and Sylvia Pankhurst. At the time the women were members of the socialist reform group, the Independent Labour Party. They were also active in the National Union of Women Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), but later formed the more militant Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU).
The couple returned to the United States in 1904 to continue graduate studies at Columbia University. Inspired by the work of the Pankhursts and the Independent Labour Party, Mary became involved in the struggle for women's suffrage and social reform.
In 1907 Beard began working for the Women's Trade Union League, an organization that was attempting to educate women about the advantages of trade union membership. The organization also supported women's demands for better working conditions and tried to raise awareness about the exploitation of women workers. Other leading figures in the organization included Jane Addams, Margaret Robins, Mary McDowell, Margaret Haley, Helen Marot, Agnes Nestor, Florence Kelley and Sophonisba Breckinridge.
Beard also joined the American Woman Suffrage Association and in 1910 became editor of its New York journal, the Women Voter. Beard was able to persuade a large number of talented writers and artists to contribute to the journal including Ida Proper, John Sloan, Mary Wilson Preston, James Montgomery Flagg, Robert Minor, Clarence Batchelor, Cornelia Barnes and Boardman Robinson.
Disillusioned with the failure of the American Woman Suffrage Association to achieve the vote for women, Beard joined in 1913 with Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, Mabel Vernon, Olympia Brown, Belle LaFollette, Helen Keller, Maria Montessori, Dorothy Day and Crystal Eastman to form the Congressional Union for Women Suffrage (CUWS). It was decided that the CUWS should employ the militant methods used by Emmeline Pankhurst and the Women's Social and Political Union in Britain. This included organizing huge demonstrations and the daily picketing of the White House. Over the next couple of years the police arrested nearly 500 women for loitering and 168 were jailed for "obstructing traffic".
Beard spent much of her time writing and in 1915 published Woman's Work in the Municipalities. This was followed by A Short History of the Labor Movement (1920). Working with Charles Beard, she wrote a two volume history of the United States, The Rise of American Civilization (1927). This was followed by America in Midpassage (1939) and The American Spirit (1942). The couple also collaborated on A Basic History of the United States (1944).
Mary and Charles Beard were proponents of what became known as the New History. They 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 was an active member of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. Although a strong anti-fascist, Mary, like her husband, Charles Beard, was opposed to the United States involvement in the Second World War.
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."
Mary Ritter Beard died in August, 1958.
If this new evaluation of woman's work in civilization seems to err on the side of women, we shall be satisfied if it helps to bring about a re-evaluation which shall include women not in an incidental way but as people of flesh and blood and brain - feeling, seeing, judging and directing, equally with men, all the great social forces which mold character and determine general comfort, well-being and happiness.
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.
Those who sit at the feast will continue to enjoy themselves even though the veil that separates them from the world of toiling reality below has been lifted by mass revolts and critics.
Your project it has my fullest sympathy. I think it imperative to put this material together. No doubt we have many of the same reasons for seeing it that way but it does me great good to learn that one so competent as you stands ready to assume the task. I shall be only too happy to tell you how I visualize the thing, parts of which I have longed to tackle myself but have not done and see no way to do myself. I look forward with the keenest enjoyment to meeting you - a privilege far too long denied me.
Your familiarity with Susan B. Anthony's passion for preserving her own and Mrs. Stanton's archives - meaning more than the personal interest of course - will make you receptive of course to this broad plan for a great international feminist archive which Rosika Schwimmer has drawn up. I don't know where you stand on the issue of war and peace but I entertain, as one of my feminist props, the belief that time and again in history women have had to take over men's bankrupt societies and that the Schwimmer-Addams' and other feminists' attempts to take charge of the western world in 1915 was a great outburst of the same sort of responsibility.
All the correspondence and the interviewing connected with the drive for peace are in Mme. Schwimmer's keeping. But she is getting on in years and is by no means well. Nor can she afford to house this archive any longer. It is good feminist material and should not be lost by burning or by boxing for no one to read.
What is even more on my mind in championing the enclosed plan is some way to recapture the imaginative zest of women for public life. It is perilous for society if they retreat to private interests to the exclusion of interests in the common life represented by the State.
Women have been active, assertive, competent contributors to their societies, but when women believe they are passive, and without influence, their collective strength is undermined. The very idea of women's oppression takes hold of women's minds and oppresses them. But women could be freed from the ideological bondage by discovering their own powerful creative history and using the knowledge to create new social relations.
As for my being free now, I have had as much freedom all along as I really cared for. I loved sitting at home with my darling every night and being at his side all the days. Outsiders and even you and Miriam (William's sister) because of your comparative youth could not fully comprehend our mutual happiness in working, jabbering, and getting such exercise as we took in our simple ways. This is an absolute truth.
Early in my undergraduate studies I had first read Mary Beard's Woman as Force in History. Somehow, I was able to connect with her central idea, that women have always been active and at the centre 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 herself having been an engaged participant in women's work in society.
Mary Beard's basic thesis and what became the focus of her life's work is the assertion that women have always been a very real, although neglected, force in society. Without denying that women had legitimate grievances, Beard maintained that feminist protest from the eighteenth century to the twentieth had devalued women's history by expounding women's subordination. The myth that women were or are only a subject and oppressed sex is not only wrong, she argued, but it is counterproductive because as women accept that designation of themselves and their pasts, their collective strength is undermined. The very notion of oppression imprisons women's minds and oppresses them. She believed women could only be freed from that ideological bondage by discovering their own powerful, creative history and using that knowledge to create new social relations. Beard saw her job, her intellectual work, as political, designed to reach all women and persuade them of the power of their pasts and, moreover, of their futures.
Women are made to seem invisible, she said, not simply because history has been written by evil men or because women have, in fact, been invisible but because these men, as well as most of the professional women and radical feminists of her day, focused their concern on those areas of the community in which men predominate. Beard placed herself in opposition to the militant feminists of her time who called for absolute equality. Such simple-minded slogans, she insisted, deny the power and force of the total community of women, deny the existence and value of a distinct female culture.