Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Mary Ritter Beard Takes on the Encyclopedia Britannica

Mary Ritter Beard (born 5 August 1876)


Political activist and historian Mary Ritter Beard
There are many reasons to post about the American historian, suffragist, and activist Mary Ritter Beard: 

While in England with her husband at the turn of the twentieth century, she became involved in the labor movement and with the suffrage movement and suffragist Emmeline Pankhurst

When she returned to the United States, she continued her labor activism as an organizer for the National Women's Trade Union League and the Wage Earner's League;

She worked with Alice Paul in the last years of the campaign for women's suffrage, 1913-1919; 

She began to write and publish, first editing journals like The Woman Voter and The Suffragist, then producing articles and reviews, and then contributing a number of volumes on women history, including Women's Work in Municipalities (1915), Understanding Women (1931), America Through Women's Eyes (1933), A Changing Political Economy as It Affects Women (1934), and Woman As Force In History: A Study in Traditions and Realities (1946); 

She published on the topic of labor as well, including A Short History of the American Labor Movement (1920) and, co-authored with her husband, a social, cultural, economic, and political history, The Rise of American Civilization (1927)

After the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, she advocated for the Equal Rights Amendment

But what's particularly interesting to me, especially today, as I negotiate its judgments, peculiarities, and omissions, is Mary Ritter Beard's project analyzing the Encyclopedia Britannica and its treatment of women. Beard was asked to undertake this project by the Britannica's editor in chief, Walter Yust. She assembled a group of three scholars--Dora Edinger, Janet Selig, and Marjorie White.

The group had a small budget, but Beard herself worked for free. After eighteen months of study, they published A Study of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in Relation to its Treatment of Women in 1942. And, perhaps not a surprise, the Britannica's "treatment of women" was not good. Beard and her co-authors included a list of suggestions for improvement along with their analysis, but they were ignored. By 1947, Ritter was advising women not to write for Britannica

For a sample of the Encyclopedia Britannica report, click here. For a more complete selection, see Ann Lane's Making Women's History: The Essential Mary Ritter Beard.

For an updated view of gender bias in our reference works, you might be interested in Joseph Reagle and Lauren Rhue's "Gender Bias in Wikipedia and Britannica" (International Journal of Communication), which you can read by clicking here.

Mary Ritter Beard died in 1958, aged eighty-two. There's an excellent biographical essay posted at the Sophia Smith Collection website, which houses many of Mary Ritter Beard's papers.