Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

As a result of many years of historical research and writing with her husband, Charles A. Beard, Mary Ritter Beard cultivated a deep desire to examine the role of women in history; Woman as Force in History: A Study in Traditions and Realities is the fulfillment of that desire. Although the author assumed that a difference existed between the traditions and realities of women’s role in history, she made no attempt to reach definite conclusions.

Throughout the book, Beard analyzes the impact of Anglo-American common law and its major exponent, Sir William Blackstone, on the position of women in a male-dominated society. The basic starting point for Beard was to see if women had been in absolute subjection to men in reality or only in tradition. She reviewed the century after the first women’s rights assembly in America, the Seneca Falls Convention organized by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Lucretia Mott in 1848. Beard’s goal was to see if subjection was real, and if it was, to see if total equality based on equity jurisprudence was the answer.

Woman as Force in History traces the attitudes of both men and women concerning woman’s role in history. The author reveals the sins of omission as well as the sins of commission regarding the recognition of women’s impact on the history of the world. Beard looks at various types of writers, such as sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists, as well as historians, in search...

(The entire section is 528 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Woman as Force in History was one of the earliest attempts, particularly by a well-known historian, to study the impact of women throughout history. By its very nature, the book immediately became a controversial topic of conversation and literary criticism. Although advocates of women’s rights applauded Beard’s attempt to correct historical injustice to women, many did not accept her belief that female historical subjection was only a myth. They were also critical of Beard’s rejection of legal equality as a means of correcting that subjection.

Professional historians greeted Woman as Force in History with varying degrees of skepticism and criticism. Most of their criticism was based on Beard’s style of writing rather than on the content of the book. They believed that the work was too repetitious and included too many long quotations. Some thought that Beard should have made a greater effort to reach a conclusion in her study and to offer solutions. A few historians criticized what they perceived as Beard’s errors in historical research. Predictions by the more optimistic that, in the future, major historical works would include more of the impact of women failed to materialize. More than twenty years later, A World History (1967), by William McNeill, listed only one woman in the index.

An earlier book by Beard, On Understanding Women (1931), covered many of the same points as Woman as Force in History, but with fewer historical illustrations. The two books are much more easily understood and have a greater impact when taken together. The books coauthored by Mary Beard and her husband, Charles A. Beard, also contribute to a better understanding of their combined denial of female subjection; these books include The Rise of American Civilization (1927) and The American Spirit (1942).

Like many controversial books, Woman as Force in History, after several years of neglect, experienced a revival of interest. A paperbound reissue in 1962 coincided with an increase of interest in women’s rights. It enjoyed significant popularity well into the 1970’s, and it has had a profound impact on the liberation of women in general.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Beard, Mary Ritter, ed. America Through Women’s Eyes. New York: Macmillan, 1933. This volume is a collection of writings by women covering various aspects of American history. Presents viewpoints on frontier life, the Civil War, industrialization, World War I, and other significant periods not found in most sources.

Beard, Mary Ritter. On Understanding Women. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1931. This earlier book by Beard is more philosophical in nature than Woman as Force in History. Nevertheless, it does include several illustrations of how women’s role in life has been misunderstood over the centuries. Includes a good bibliography of other attempts to study the subject.

Beard, Mary Ritter. A Woman Making History: Mary Ritter Beard Through Her Letters. Edited by Nancy F. Cott. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. An anthology of some of the letters of Mary Beard. Beard did not want her letters published and therefore destroyed most before she died, but Cott secured enough to reveal much of what motivated Beard. Examines how Beard arrived at the title for Woman as Force in History.

Carroll, Berenice A., ed. Liberating Women’s History: Theoretical and Critical Essays. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1976. An interesting source of writings evaluating historiography concerning women. Includes a critique of Woman as Force in History and other writings, some covering different time periods, including the medieval period. Also covers different political settings, such as Germany prior to World War I.

Christie, Jane Johnstone. The Advance of Women: From the Earliest Times to the Present. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1912. This interesting study was one of the first attempts in modern times to study the role of women in history. Christie is clear and strong in her criticism of the injustice committed by men against women over the centuries, but she offers few suggestions for improving conditions in the future.