Clara Beyer’s Gen(d)erations

Active during the New Deal era, one labor economist advocated for “women in development” into the 1970s
Clara Beyer launched the Percy Amendment in 1973, at age 81. Photo courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryClara Beyer launched the Percy Amendment in 1973, at age 81. Photo courtesy of Schlesinger Library
By Joanne Meyerowitz RI '16

During my fellowship year at the Radcliffe Institute, I spent hours in the light-filled reading room of the Schlesinger Library, and there, amid the archival boxes, I pieced together the extraordinary career of a woman named Clara Beyer.

I first encountered Beyer years ago, while writing my dissertation on working women in the early 20th century. Beyer, I discovered then, was a labor economist who had advocated for a minimum wage for women. She began her career as an instructor at Bryn Mawr College in the 1910s, and then—after stints on the federal government’s War Labor Policies Board and the DC Minimum Wage Board—she went to work for the US Department of Labor and eventually rose to associate director of its Division of Labor Standards. During the New Deal, she worked closely with the first woman cabinet member, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, and socialized in the liberal circles of Eleanor Roosevelt and her friends.

Given her prominence in the 1910s, 1920s, and 1930s, I was wholly surprised to find the name Clara Beyer while doing research on the 1970s. I’m currently writing a history of US involvement in campaigns to fight global poverty in the 1970s and 1980s. A central theme of my project is how foreign-aid programs came to focus on the labor of women. In the course of my research, Beyer appeared as the person who suggested adding “something about women” to the Foreign Assis- tance Act of 1973. Within just a few months, her suggestion had made its way into law as the Percy Amendment, which mandated that US foreign aid support the “integration” of women into the national economies of countries receiving aid. Passage of the Percy Amendment eventually led to numerous foreign-aid projects that addressed women as workers (or, in 1970s lingo, “income generators”) and not just mothers.

Could the Clara Beyer who launched the Percy Amendment in 1973 be the same Clara Beyer who started her career early in the century? The answer was in the archives. The Schlesinger Library has not only an oral history of Beyer but also her manuscript collection. The main accession, consisting of 22 boxes, covers the years from 1911 to 1965, but a second accession of 8 large cartons goes up to 1979. And in the online finding aid for the additional papers, I found multiple files under the heading “Percy Amendment.” At the age of 81, Beyer had played a significant role in the shifting politics of US foreign aid.

Joanne Meyerowitz, the 2015-2016 Matina S. Horner Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Radcliffe Institute, is the Arthur Unobskey Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. Her research focuses on 20th-century US history, with emphases on gender and sexuality. Photo courtesy of Bob O'ConnorJoanne Meyerowitz, the 2015-2016 Matina S. Horner Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Radcliffe Institute, is the Arthur Unobskey Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. Her research focuses on 20th-century US history, with emphases on gender and sexuality. Photo courtesy of Bob O'ConnorBeyer, I learned, had “retired” from the Department of Labor in 1958 but continued to work for the federal government in its key foreign-aid agencies. She joined the US Agency for International Development (USAID) at its founding, in 1961, and worked in its Office of Labor Affairs until she finally retired for real in 1975. While at USAID, she not only suggested adding “something about women” to the Foreign Assistance Act but also promoted programs for women. In the early 1970s, she steered grant proposals in support of women’s labor through USAID’s lumbering bureaucracy. She found, for example, funds for an emerging women’s program in the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa.

And when the Percy Amendment passed, she pushed the agency to take it seriously. When USAID officials began deliberations on how to implement the amendment, Beyer complained in a letter to the agency’s lawyer that “women’s groups within AID and in the private sector” had been shut out of the discussion. Women, she said, had “brought about the passage of the Amendment,” and she wanted them involved. The following month, the head of USAID appointed a committee—including Beyer and several other women—to draft an action plan that led to a “women in development” office within the agency.

Historians today reject the “wave” model of the women’s movement. In that model, the suffrage movement of the early 20th century represented a crest, which was followed by a lengthy trough until the “second wave” of the 1960s and 1970s. Clara Beyer’s 60-year career is a reminder that the movement persisted in multiple incarnations through the middle of the 20th century. It shows that individual women bridged the seeming gaps, providing living links between circles of reformers, activists, and feminists from different generations.

Her career also points to the internationalism of the 20th-century women’s movement. The Schlesinger Library has a long-standing reputation as the foremost archival repository for US women’s history. What is less well-known is that it also holds critical collections for historians studying women’s participation in international organizations. The Clara Beyer Papers, for example, contain records on women’s activism in the Economic Commission for Africa, the International Labor Organization, and the Organization of American States.

In 1974, USAID surprised Beyer with a celebration of her long years of service. In an article on the event in the agency’s in-house paper, Beyer claimed that she was “no woman’s libber.” She had worked, she said, for “the benefit of men and women,” noting that “all workers are in need of protection of their basic rights.” (And indeed they are.) But even though Beyer refused the “libber” label, she spent decades, as her archival collection attests, working with women in behalf of women. To cap her career, she served, at the age of 85, as the oldest delegate to the 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston. A photo from the time shows her seated with her delegate’s badge around her neck and an eye-catching “ERA YES” sticker affixed to her jacket.


 

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