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To celebrate International Women’s Day, the Sanger Papers want to remind everyone that the struggle to acknowledge the contributions of women is unfortunately not new. In that spirit, we thought we’d look back at an article  published in our newsletter  in 1994.

“We have worked intensively on this project; forming the organization first, raising money, collecting archives and, perhaps even more important, trying to make the United States archive minded….We have opened the minds of people all over the country to the necessity of collecting and preserving archives – especially about women.” (Sanger Papers, Library of Congress) While this sentiment accurately reflects the goals of the Margaret Sanger Papers Project (and most women’s archives and editing projects), the statement was actually made on September 16, 1940 by Inez Hayes Irwin describing the struggles of the World Center for Women’s Archives (WCWA). Historian Mary Ritter Beard had founded the WCWA out of frustration over the difficulty she encountered in trying to locate women’s papers. Beard realized that before historians could examine or interpret women’s contributions to civilization and incorporate their accomplishments into their books and curricula, they needed to examine primary source material on women’s lives. But such material was not easy to find.


Mary Ritter Beard

Beard’s quest to collect and preserve the documentary evidence of women’s history began in earnest when, in 1935, she was approached by Hungarian-born pacifist-feminist Rosika Schwimmer with the idea of establishing a center to document women’s roles in the peace movement. Beard quickly expanded the idea to establish an archive and education center for the study of women. The World Center for Women’s Archives (WCWA) had its first organizational board meeting in New York on October 15, 1935. In addition to appointing a board of directors (chaired by Inez Hayes Irwin) as its main decision-making body, the inaugural meeting invited well-known women sponsors to serve in an advisory capacity. With endorsements from prominent women like Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, and support from Fannie Hurst, Mary Ware Dennett, Georgia O’Keefe, Katharine Houghton Hepburn, Mary Van Kleeck, Juliet Barrett Rublee, Alice Paul and Margaret Sanger, among others, the WCWA was officially launched on December 15, 1937, at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City.

“NO DOCUMENTS, NO HISTORY,” was the motto (coined by French historian Fustel de Coulanges) of the WCWA, reflecting Beard’s conviction that women’s history requires the preservation of women’s sources. “What documents, then, have women? What history?” she asked, for without these records “women may be blotted from the story and the thought about history as completely as if they had never lived….But what do the women of today know about the women of yesterday to whom they are so closely linked for better or for worse? What are the women of tomorrow to know about the women of today?” (WCWA Pamphlet, ca. 1939, Sanger Papers, Library of Congress) The creation of the WCWA was to be the answer for those concerned with preserving the history and achievements of women. Its purpose was: “To make a systematic search for undeposited source materials dealing with women’s lives and activities….To reproduce important materials, already deposited elsewhere, by means of microfilming and other modern processes…” (WCWA Brochure, International Organization Records, Sophia Smith Collection)

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Inez Haynes Irwin

In the four years of its existence, the WCWA helped highlight the richness and depth preserved in the records of women’s history. Its preliminary work in soliciting women to donate, deposit, or pledge their papers and records to an archives proved to be invaluable. Materials which were promised to the WCWA included the records of the National League of Women Voters, the National Consumer League, the National Council of Jewish Women, and the National Association of Women Lawyers. Among the women who pledged their personal papers to the Center were Ida Tarbell, Eleanor Roosevelt, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Judge Florence Allen. Among the collections in the Center’s possession at the time of its dissolution were those of Lillian Wald, Kate C. Hurd-Mead, Catherine Beecher, and an impressive collection of records, maps, and charts belonging to Amelia Earhart.

Although predominantly reflecting the achievements of notable white American women, the WCWA also collected materials concerning the women’s movement in Germany and the history of Japanese women from the mythological age through 1935. Prefiguring the emergence of the new social history and feminist history, the founders defined the WCWA’s collection mission broadly, asserting that women’s history would be found not only in the written record, but also in oral histories, objects and artifacts. They mounted an exhibit of Native American women’s pottery that included a pictorial history and ancient medicine aprons which told the lore of herb women. From its offices in New York and Washington, the Center also compiled and distributed lists of secondary sources essential to the study of women, served as a clearinghouse for information about women at other institutions, and furnished information for a series of radio talks on women in American society.

Yet despite the wide publicity and initial support from prominent individuals, the WCWA was unable to build a permanent future for itself. By the end of the decade, the war in Europe preoccupied the WCWA’s sponsors, overshadowing their interest in documenting the lives of women. Faced with a lack of funding, weakened by disagreements among its leadership and Beard’s resignation in 1940, the Center was forced to close its doors on September 16, 1940. Though the Center failed, Inez Hayes Irwin sent a hopeful message to the Center’s sponsors: “When the quiet days of peace and reconstruction come, we are sure there will be many such organizations as we have worked so hard to form and perhaps ultimately the big central one that was our dream.” (Irwin to Sanger, 9/16/1940, Sanger Papers, Library of Congress)

After the Center’s closing, the collections gathered by the WCWA were either returned to their owners or entrusted to other repositories. Yet the WCWA left a lasting impact as several colleges and universities began collecting source material for the study of women, and individual women became aware of the importance of taking steps to preserve the records of their lives. Although Margaret Sanger never donated her letters to the WCWA, less than two years after it was disbanded, she began to transfer the first large collection of her papers to the Library of Congress; in 1949, encouraged by her close friend Dorothy Brush, Sanger donated her other papers to the Sophia Smith Collection at Smith College. Ironically, Mary Beard destroyed the majority of her own personal papers.

Committed to “put women in the record,” Mary Beard and the WCWA sought to do what the Sophia Smith Collection (Women’s History Archive) at Smith College and the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe College are in fact doing – collecting and preserving the records of American women’s history. At the same time, editing projects such as the Sanger Papers and other women’s editions are working to assemble and disseminate women’s papers through both print and digital technology.

While Beard’s notion of one central archive for women’s records and papers remains the stuff of dreams the possibility of making it a reality is increasingly viable. Technological advances such as digital image storage may provide a way in which one central database can access images of hundreds of thousands of women’s records and papers. As the Sanger Papers project explores these new methods of disseminating the records of Sanger’s life, we are hopeful that it will take us a step closer to making Beard’s dream a reality.