Facial Hair Friday: Mary Ritter Beard

In celebration of Women’s History Month today’s Facial Hair Friday is in honor of a Beard: Mary Ritter Beard to be exact. 

Mary Ritter Beard was a historian, author, woman suffrage activist, social reformer, and archivist! Born Mary Ritter in 1876, in Indianapolis, Indiana, she met future husband Charles Austin Beard while attending college. After graduation, the two married and from 1900 to 1902 lived in England. While abroad, she became involved with the more radical woman suffrage activists as well as the labor movement.

Mary Ritter Beard, ca. 1946. (Records of the Office of War Information, National Archives)

When she returned to the United States, Beard became active in the trade unions to improve women’s wages and working conditions. She helped organize the shirtwaist makers’ strike of 1909, and in 1911 she pressured lawmakers for stricter fire regulations after the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, which resulted in the death of 146 trapped garment workers.

She was also a member of the Suffrage Party of New York City led by Carrie Chapman Catt. After finding the Woman Suffrage Party too moderate, Beard joined the Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage in 1913—the organization that later became the National Woman’s Party. 

Pamphlet from The Congressional Union for Woman Suffrage, 4/22/1916. (National Archives Identifier 119652184)

As a member of the Union’s executive committee, Beard served as editor of its magazine, delivered lectures, and wrote articles on woman suffrage. She also organized woman suffrage demonstrations, including the March 3, 1913, woman suffrage parade in Washington, DC. Beard was one of the women who insisted black women be included, and during the parade she served as a marshal for a section that included many African American women.

Woman Suffrage Parade, March 3, 1913. (Records of the Office of War Information, National Archives)

In 1914, Beard testified in front of the House Committee on Woman Suffrage. In her statement she boldly told the Democrats on the committee that they will not keep their “flimsy” majority if they don’t support a Federal amendment giving women the right to vote. Beard argued, the “cause of suffrage is the obvious one for you to seize upon, even in desperation, and as a matter purely of political expediency, if you can not accept it from higher motives.”

Later, in 1917, Beard led a New York delegation to Washington, DC, to show support for the Silent Sentinels who had been arrested for picketing in front of the White House.

Silent Sentinels picking at the White House, 1917. (National Archives Identifier 45568358)

After the passage of the 19th Amendment, Beard focused on her career on recovering women’s history. Over the course of her life she wrote several books on women in history, some in collaboration with her husband but most on her own. Her most influential book, the 1946 Woman as a Force in History: A Study in Traditions And Realities, explored the origin of discrimination against women, the subjection of women, and the impact of women on history.

She also established a World Center for Women’s Archives to collect documents related to women’s history. While the project ultimately failed, it became the catalyst for both the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the Sophia Smith Collection at the Neilson Library at Smith College—two premier women’s history collections.  

Mary Ritter Beard remained active until she was 80, when she became ill and went to live with her son in Scottsdale, Arizona. She died in Scottsdale on August 15, 1958, at the age of 82.

Special thanks to Nick Natanson for finding and scanning Beard’s photo. Learn more about wage-earning women, the National Woman’s Party, and woman suffrage activists in the exhibit Rightfully Hers: American Women and the Vote, which runs in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, until January 3, 2021.

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