Susan Ware: My Life in the Archives

My appointment as senior advisor to the Schlesinger Library represents something of a homecoming for me, except that I never really left. My entire professional career has been linked to the library, and after more than 40 years, I’m happy to repay the debt.

I first visited the Schlesinger in 1972 to research my senior honors thesis at Wellesley College about Seneca Falls and the early women’s rights movement. The next year, I enrolled as a doctoral candidate in the history department at Harvard University, where my first two seminar papers were on the Cambridge Political Equality Association, a suffrage group, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, whose collection the Schlesinger had just acquired. I was hooked!

Harvard’s history department was a challenging place to do women’s history in the 1970s, but I had two wonderful mentors, Frank Freidel and Barbara Miller Solomon, and the resources of the Schlesinger nearby. Researching my dissertation on a network of women reformers in the New Deal, I drew on no fewer than 17 collections there, according to the bibliography in the book it became: Beyond Suffrage: Women in the New Deal (Harvard University Press, 1981).

Molly Dewson was the architect of the New Deal network, and her papers were so rich that I decided to embark on a biography of her. As part of my research, I contacted family members still living at Moss Acre, the grand “cottage” in Castine, Maine, that Molly shared with her long-term partner, Polly Porter. Sitting in Moss Acre’s living room, I was allowed to look through a lovingly assembled collection of scrapbooks documenting their life together. That material became the centerpiece of a photo essay for Partner and I: Molly Dewson, Feminism, and New Deal Politics (Yale University Press, 2011). Happily, the family agreed to microfilm the Porter-Dewson scrapbooks for the library’s collection.

For a researcher, nothing matches the moment when a crucial piece of evidence suddenly falls into place. I had one of those moments when researching Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports (University of North Carolina Press, 2011), after I found a memo from October 1972 that laid out for the first time the “separate but equal” framework for Title IX. Eureka, I probably said, hopefully not too loud, although I’m sure none of the other researchers in the Pforzheimer Reading Room would have minded.

But research isn’t just a question of making discoveries. Sometimes it involves offering fresh perspectives. My biography Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism (W.W. Norton, 1993) recounted the well-established facts of the aviator’s life but shifted the field of focus, documenting Earhart’s significance for 20th-century feminism. The result was a different take on a much-admired cultural figure, but it started with her papers at the Schlesinger.

My main responsibility this year is to provide intellectual leadership for the library, but I have two additional goals: I want to settle on a new research project, preferably one that draws on the library’s rich collections. And befitting my interests in the history of women’s sports and Radcliffe, I want to run several laps around the indoor track at the Knafel Center (formerly the Radcliffe Gymnasium) while I still can. Wish me luck on all three fronts!

—Susan Ware, Senior Advisor

Search Year: