Preserving an Untold History

March 11, 2013


Mary Ritter Beard ca. 1920–30.

Mary Ritter Beard, ca. 1920–30, courtesy of Schlesinger Institute.

“No documents, no history” was the motto of the World Center for Women’s Archives, an idea developed in 1935 by historian, archivist, and AAUW member Mary Ritter Beard. Beard’s work is especially relevant during Women’s History Month: She was a woman historian during a time when history was being written almost exclusively by men.

Beard proposed a unique idea to collect the records of women’s contributions throughout history and centralize them in a World Center for Women’s Archives. She believed such a center would allow women to gain their rightful place in the historical record.

Article on Beard's archival project from the AAUW Archives.

Article on Beard’s archival project from the AAUW Archives.

She assembled a well-known force of sponsors and supporters, including Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Carrie Chapman Catt, Georgia O’ Keeffe, Frances Perkins, Margaret Sanger, and AAUW’s own General Director Kathryn McHale, to name a few. An early project planning meeting occurred at the AAUW Clubhouse at 1634 I St., Washington, D.C.

The idea was a simple one: Collect the records now in order for women not to be lost from history. “Such documents,” warned Beard, “in enormous quantities have already been destroyed and their destruction is continuous.” From the start, the project received a fair amount of publicity, including a New York Times article dated November 22, 1936. Author Kathleen McLaughlin, in response to questions as to why it should be necessary to separate the papers about women from those of men, said, “The answer is that men, who write most of the histories, write about men and forget the part women play. Woodrow Wilson, for instance, wrote a history of the United States in which no woman was mentioned. Does that seem credible?”

The center never got off the ground due to lack of financial support. But Beard’s idea clearly served as the nucleus for future collecting of women’s records such as the such as the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study and the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College. Indeed, the work for unearthing and preserving history goes on: earlier this month, we profiled Trudy Huskamp Peterson, an AAUW fellow who has become one of the world’s leading human rights archivists. I think we owe a huge debt of gratitude to the vision of Mary Beard and her supporters, never forgetting that much work remains to be done in preserving historical records relating to women, including the women of AAUW.

By:   |   March 11, 2013

1 Comment

  1. […] write women back into history. This was on the same day that Beard saw her dream take shape — the World Center for Women’s Archives, a grand idea to collect and centralize the archival records of women’s contributions to our […]

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