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The Mannishness of Our Encyclopedias

January 4, 2013

The conversation about the male bias of our encyclopedias continues.  Unfortunately, it’s been an extended conversation.  Yesterday, I did write the following:

You may be aware that César A. Hidalgo’s M.I.T. research of “the world’s most influential people, born before 1950, using data from all language editions of Wikipedia” yields merely only just simply “all men. No women.”

And co-blogger Victoria responded by showing how and where the broader conversation is necessarily going on:

… indeed, the Geek Feminism Wiki has a good discussion of feminist concerns about Wikipedia.

The conversation began, nonetheless, some time ago in several different places.  Ann J. Lane notes this conversation in her book, Making Women’s History: The Essential Mary Ritter Beard, which includes many of the writings of “Mary Ritter Beard … the single most important advocate and practioner of women’s history.”  Included is a short excerpt of Beard’s 1942 “Study of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in Relation to Its Treatment of Women,” co-authored with Dora Edinger, Janet A. Selig, and Marjorie White. 

Lane’s book (starting with Chapter V) also offers a brief history of this study:

Chapter V

In an attempt to bring about immediate political and social change, Mary Beard had followed the direction of such acknowledged leaders of the feminist movement as Dr. Anna Shaw, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Alice Paul….  Mary Beard, now in her mid-sixties, again sought a new project, a different way, to achieve her overriding goal.  She and Marjorie White began to construct an outline for an encyclopedia of women.  The impetus came initially from Marjorie White, but their ideas, they came to realize, were so similar that the project soon became a joint one.

The idea itself was not an original one, for a group of European women had assembled a great deal of material for a projected encyclopedia before World War II.  All the files and papers had been destroyed, however, when the Nazis raided the home of Anna Askanzy, in Vienna, where the material was being collected ans stored.  In Japan, Baroness Ishimoto [aka Kato Shidzue], working in conjunction with her European counterparts, realized that there was little chance of her material on Japanese women surviving the right-wing censorship of her government, much less being published, so that her work was sent to Beard to be stored in the WCWA [World Center for Women’s Archives].  (This Japanese material, incidentally, formed the basis of the data compiled for Beard’s book, The Force of Women in Japanese History, published in 1953.)….

Very soon after, in the spring of 1941, Mary Beard was intrigued by a new and challenging prospect.  Walter Yust, editor in chief of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, …  invited [Beard] to help rectify “any errors.” She was delighted and wrote to Marjorie White of … “cultivating our mutual interest in widening the knowledge of women in history.”  If Yust would agree to hire her [White also], she could then feed “much of [White’s] accumulated material into this exceedingly popular compilation … [which would] … certainly be one very fine way of getting women into public consciousness….  I am immensely excited by this receptivity at this long last to the justness of my criticism of its mannishness.” ….  A meeting between Beard, Walter Yust, and the Britannica president brought positive results, and Beard set about to put together a research staff of three women.

Dr. Dora Edinger was named to research “Women in Central Europe”; Janet A. Selig, “Women in Science”; and Marjorie White would be responsible for the remaining areas.  Beard would function as an unpaid supervisor and editor.  She did not wish to be paid “to assure that the resent fund assigned for this enterprise will all go into your work….”

Working for Britannica did not mean foregoing work on a separate women’s encyclopedia.  In the middle of the Britannica women’s project, Beard returned to her “newest pipe dream,” as she called the encyclopedia.  A Chicago publishing firm, for whose World Book she was preparing an article, showed interest in a women’s encyclopedia.  She wrote to Marjorie White of her contact there, saying that the editor had “more understanding than our present boss [Walter Yust] of what the job of interpreting women is.”….

At the end of 1942, she and the three women on the research staff submitted a lengthy report summarizing their work….  The report … highlights new ways of looking at old material; for instance, the powerful role of women in medieval convents, and the creation, by those nuns, of the first hospitals.  Among its most fruitful insights, the report suggests that earlier, traditional powers of women were reduced in modern civilizations, partly as a result of the development of institutions, such as universities and medical schools, that could, for the first time, exclude women.

The report also pointed out that the general selection of topics [for the Encyclopaedia Britannica] and their interpretation were based not only on obvious male but also Protestant biases….  Divided in three parts, the first portion of the report lists existing articles described as satisfactory….  The second part, the critical section, was twenty-eight [of the forty-two] pages long, and the language bristled….  The third section of the report suggested new articles or major revisions to the old ones.

Lane, in describing the second section of Beard’s report, gives a number of rather appalling examples of sexist bias. And, as noted already, she does republish excerpts from the study (approximately twenty pages). The original report is housed among many of Mary Beard’s papers in the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College in Northampton, MA.

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