Mary Ritter Beard
This past August, Lisa Edelmann McLaughlin, Fraternity Archivist, and I attended a symposium on women’s archives as part of the annual meeting of the Society of American Archivists in New Orleans. Among the many interesting things that we heard that day, the name of Mary Ritter Beard, Alpha/DePauw, drew our special attention. In particular, the emphasis of the speaker on Beard’s use of French historian Fustel de Coulanges’ statement “No documents, no history” as the motto Beard choose for the World Center for Women’s Archives that she attempted to establish in the early 1930s. Beard’s use of this quote was a succinct statement about the lack of source material as she sought to write the history of women. Beard recognized that women’s contributions to history had been ignored, and she knew that it was necessary to capture primary source materials to document the role of women in society. She co-founded the short-lived World Center for Women’s Archives in 1935. When it closed in 1940, the materials Beard had collected formed the nucleus of the Sophie Smith Collection, a women’s history archives at Smith College and a leader in documenting women’s history. Lisa and I greatly enjoyed pointing out to the other attendees at the SAA Conference that Mary Ritter Beard is one of our own “notable” Thetas.
Kappa Alpha Theta realized very early the need to document the history of the Fraternity. Establishing the position of Fraternity archivist in 1899, Theta archives documents not only the formal activities of the Fraternity and Theta Foundation but also the life-long experiences of Fraternity members. Our “documents” range from minutes and correspondence to photographs and artifacts, and reflect in their own way the story of Kappa Alpha Theta Fraternity, Kappa Alpha Theta Foundation, and individual members.
More importantly, our archives has documented for almost 150 years the history of college-educated women while attending college and during their post-college years. The broader history of American and Canadian women is reflected in the pages, photographs, and artifacts in our collection—the suffrage movement, occupations for women, participation in world events such as World War I and World War II, campus movements during the 1960s, and the changing roles of women in the 1970s and 1980s. When readers open any issue of the Theta Magazine from its first issue in 1885 onward, one can see the stories of American and Canadian women as collegians and as alumnae contributing positively to their communities and using their knowledge and skills.
October is American Archives Month, when many archives around the U.S. take the opportunity to focus on how archives strengthen our collective memories, whether as individuals, our communities, our government at all levels, our businesses, or of our organizations. The “stuff” of archives helps us remember not only our own personal experiences but also those who came before us. I would like to think that Mary Ritter Beard would be proud of the way we have continued to preserve the history of Kappa Alpha Theta, documenting the history of college-educated women, and contributing to the larger repository of women’s history archives.