Mary Ritter Beard's Critique of Britannica

As I have been working on my “Free As in Sexist?” argument, I have also been looking for earlier critiques of gender bias in reference works. I recently encountered Mary Ritter Beard’s 1942 critique of Britannica, for which I contributed a section in her Wikipedia biography. (As always, editing Wikipedia took far longer than it should have, but was aided with the use of mw and help on the IRC channel regarding {{sfn}}.

After the dissolution of the World Centre for Women’s Archives in 1940, Beard’s next project was an analysis of Encyclopaedia Britannica’s representation of women. Beard convened a team of fellow female scholars (Dora Edinger, Janet A. Selig, and Marjorie White) to produce A Study of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in Relation to its Treatment of Women. Beard and her colleagues worked on the report over an 18 month period and in November 1942 delivered its 42 pages to Walter Yust, chief editor of the Britannica. However, the recommendations of the report were ignored despite Yust’s expressed interest and assurances that the Britannica would include improvements. Hence, Beard was disappointed with the effort and in 1947 correspondence she suggested that women no longer write for the Britannica.

The report included significant recommendations on existing articles as well as suggestions for new articles. For example, the authors noted that the treatment of abortion was not comprehensive as it was more than a moral question; abortion was also relevant to population, political, health, medical, and social issues. The study also noted that the article in education was too masculine, questioned why there was no article on “Queen,” and why women were not included in the Britannica’s treatment of health and medicine. Additionally, from the article on “Song” the report noted: “No women sang in Europe, it appears from this review. The contributions of nuns, in choir composition and singing, is not recognized at all.” Topics that the authors recommended for inclusion included bathing, bread-making, dyeing, hospital, hunger, laundrying, salons and social implements.

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