Authors: Mary Beard

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American historian and feminist

Author Works


American Citizenship, 1914 (with Charles A. Beard)

Woman’s Work in Municipalities, 1915

A Short History of the American Labor Movement, 1920

History of the United States, 1921 (with Charles A. Beard)

The Rise of American Civilization, 1927 (with Charles A. Beard)

On Understanding Women, 1931

A Changing Political Economy as It Affects Women, 1934

Laughing Their Way: Women’s Humor in America, 1934

The Making of American Civilization, 1937 (with Charles A. Beard)

America in Midpassage, 1939 (with Charles A. Beard)

The American Spirit: A Study of the Idea of Civilization in the United States, 1942 (with Charles A. Beard)

A Basic History of the United States, 1944 (with Charles A. Beard)

Woman as Force in History, 1946

The Force of Women in Japanese History, 1953

The Making of Charles A. Beard, 1955

Edited Text:

America Through Women’s Eyes, 1933


Mary Ritter Beard was a pioneer in the history of women and an influential advocate for women’s rights. The daughter of a prosperous lawyer in Indianapolis, Mary Ritter attended DePauw University, where she met her future husband, Charles A. Beard. She graduated in 1897 and married Charles three years later. The young couple then went Oxford University in England, and Mary became involved in progressive social reform, especially the woman suffrage movement. Returning to the United States, they both enrolled at Columbia University, but Mary soon lost interest in graduate training, in part because of the few opportunities for women in academia.{$I[AN]9810001996}{$I[A]Beard, Mary R.}{$I[geo]WOMEN;Beard, Mary R.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Beard, Mary R.}{$I[tim]1876;Beard, Mary R.}

In 1907, following the birth of her son, she became an organizer for the Women’s Trade Union League, which was dedicated to improving the working conditions of women. She also joined the American Woman Suffrage Association and became editor of its journal, The Woman Voter, in 1910. Unhappy with the organization’s lack of success, she joined with Alice Paul and other feminists to establish the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage in 1913. Adopting the militant methods of the British feminists, the organization held huge demonstrations and picketed the White House.

Encouraged by her husband, Beard began to do serious historical research and writing. Her first important work, Women’s Work in Municipalities, surveyed the role of women in urban reform. Her next book, A Short History of the American Labor Movement, published in 1920, intentionally dealt with the concerns of both men and women. Beginning in the 1920’s, Beard and her husband coauthored a number of popular works in history, including America in Midpassage, The American Spirit, and A Basic History of the United States. She later insisted that her husband did the bulk of the research and writing in these works, although some scholars suspect that she was being excessively modest.

Both Mary and Charles Beard were proponents of the so-called New History, which emphasized economic and social factors and also attempted to view the past from the perspective of present-day concerns. Because the New History downplayed the study of wars and political leaders, it was very conducive to the study of women’s history. Some feminists, however, were disturbed by Beard’s point of view. While she always pointed out the historical oppression of women, her writings increasingly focused on their achievements and contributions. Her book of 1931, On Understanding Women, surveyed the efforts of women to obtain equality in European civilization, while she also argued that feminist individualism had produced an unbalanced and distorted view of the historical record.

In 1935, she led a campaign to create a World Center for Women’s Archives, with the goal of preserving documents about women’s contributions to history. The chosen motto for the archive was “no documents, no history.” The effort failed, however, for a lack of sufficient funds. Beard’s next project was a detailed critique of the ways in which Encyclopaedia Britannica had systematically excluded the role of women. The report, which took eighteen months to write, was considered radical and was ignored by the publisher. During World War II, she opposed participation in the conflict but never entered into public debate about the issue.

Following the war, Beard published her most influential and impressive book, Woman as Force in History, in which she emphasized the thesis that women, rather than being just passive victims, had always been active and competent contributors to their societies. She insisted that women of the ruling classes had often exercised great power and that sometimes they had been as evil as the worst of men. Discrimination based on class, moreover, had done as much or more harm to women than had traditional gender roles. Thus, Beard tried to encourage feminist scholars to take a holistic perspective and to consider broad issues such as poverty, child welfare, and social justice for both men and women.

The book also emphasized, nevertheless, how laws and sexist attitudes had oppressed women. Beard consistently defended the cause of equal rights for women in the public sphere. In her letters she made it clear that she disagreed with the diatribe against equal-rights feminism in the best-selling book Modern Woman: The Lost Sex (1947), by Ferdinand Lundberg and Marynia Farnham. While these two authors found that women’s historical mission was limited to mothering and the private sphere, Beard wanted to increase their opportunities to participate in politics and the professions.

Beard continued to conduct research and write books until she began to suffer health problems in the 1950’s. Her work The Force of Women in Japanese History was published in 1953. In her last book, The Making of Charles A. Beard, published when she was seventy-nine years old, she answered many of the criticisms that had been directed against the controversial views of her late husband.

When Mary Beard began her literary career early in the twentieth century, the amount of scholarly literature devoted to the history of women was exceedingly limited. The emergence of feminism as a political force, however, was creating a market for a feminist historiography, and Beard was one of the writers to rise to the occasion. She devoted much of her life to reclaiming women’s history as a component of the self-knowledge that would enable women to obtain greater opportunities in the future. While the majority of feminists of her time rejected her thesis on women as influential participants in the creation of their own history, numerous feminists of later periods found that this perspective was both historically true and liberating.

BibliographyCarroll, Berenice. “Mary Beard’s Woman as Force in History: A Critique.” In Liberating Women’s History, edited by Berenice Carroll. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976. A critical analysis of Beard’s thesis about women as active agents of history.Cott, Nancy F. Women Making History: Mary Ritter Beard Through Her Letters. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. In addition to providing a fascinating collection of letters, Cott includes a superb introduction to Beard’s life and thought. The photographs add to the charm of the book.Lane, Ann J. Making Women’s History: The Essential Mary Ritter Beard. New York: City University of New York Press, 2001. A reprint that includes a collection of Beard’s writings with headnotes, a seventy-page biographical essay, and a new preface that assesses her place in feminist history and thought.Lebsock, Suzanne. “Reading Mary Beard.” Reviews in American History 17 (1989): 324-339. A useful summary of Beard’s writings and ideas.Smith, Bonnie. “Seeing Mary Beard.” Feminist Studies 10 (Fall, 1984): 399-416. Argues that Beard had a great deal of influence on her husband’s thought and that she made major contributions to their collaborative writings.Turoff, Barbara. Mary Beard as Force in History. Dayton, Ohio: Wright State University Press, 1979. An excellent biography that emphasizes Beard’s political activism.
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