Publication Date

May 1, 1999



"I was around only for the beginning; for the planting of an acorn. The greatest satisfaction is to see it go on developing, growing in ways beyond my ken, into a staunch oak tree."1

To those of us fortunate enough to have known Margaret Storrs Grierson, founder of the Sophia Smith Collection (SSC) at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, these words typify her characteristic grace and humility. Grierson's pivotal role in laying the groundwork for the field of U.S. women's history is largely unknown, due in no small part to her own modesty. A deeply private and unassuming woman, Grierson shunned recognition for her achievements. Collaborating with historian Mary Ritter Beard, whose letters and frequent visits helped shape the collection's mission from its inception in 1942, Grierson assembled one of the world's premier collections of historical materials devoted to the study of women.2 Grierson used her diplomatic skills to explain and promote the collection to skeptical, sometimes indifferent academicians, in the process converting at least some into enthusiasts. A persuasive and tenacious collector, Grierson found similar success among donors, and today, over half a century later, the SSC preserves approximately 380 collections comprising 6,000 linear feet, documenting the historical experience of women in the United States and abroad from the colonial era to the present. Subjects of particular strength include women’s rights, suffrage, birth control, peace activism, social and political reform, the contemporary women’s movement, U.S. women working abroad, women in the arts and the professions (especially journalism and social work), and middle-class family life in 19th- and 20th-century New England.

Margaret Grierson died in December 1997, but her memory continues to inspire the staff of the SSC. Under the direction of Sherrill Redmon since 1993, many more important, and sometimes controversial, collections have been acquired. Grierson's legacy continues to direct the development of the SSC in more tangible ways as well. With her generous bequest received this year, Smith College has established the Margaret Storrs Grierson Scholars-in-Residence program to encourage and support research in the collections.

The "Agents of Social Change" Project

The launch of the Grierson Scholars program will coincide with the opening to research of eight important collections that provide a significant body of new materials for the study of 20th-century U.S. women's activism. Funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the two-year processing project "Agents of Social Change" will be completed in fall 1999. Included in the project are the papers of six women activists: Gloria Steinem, feminist leader, journalist, lecturer, and founder-editor of Ms. magazine; Constance Baker Motley, civil rights attorney, public official, and federal judge; Dorothy Kenyon, pioneering attorney, judge, feminist, and civil libertarian; Jessie Lloyd O’Connor, labor journalist and pacifist; Mary Metlay Kaufman, civil rights attorney, professor, and speaker; and Frances Fox Piven, professor, welfare rights activist, author, and lecturer; plus the records of two women’s organizations: the Women’s Action Alliance, a national antisexism information clearinghouse and advocacy group, and the National Congress of Neighborhood Women, a support network for grassroots organizing and community building among poor and working-class women.

The work completed so far has revealed both anticipated and unexpected treasures that promise to advance and alter our understanding of the movements to which these women committed themselves. Together, these collections represent the span of 20th-century radicalism, illuminating connections between the Old Left and the New as well as the complicated interplay of gender, race, ethnicity, and class within these social reform movements. The earliest collections—the papers of Dorothy Kenyon, Jessie Lloyd O'Connor, and Mary Kaufman—illustrate those connections as they document political activism of the first half of the 20th century, in labor reform, socialism, peace, women's rights, the cooperative movement, and urban reform. Each of these women fought and survived the conservative post–World War II era and McCarthyism to carry on the radical impulse with younger activists in the Civil Rights movement, and later in the anti-Vietnam War, women's liberation, and antinuclear movements.

The papers of attorney and judge Dorothy Kenyon (1888–1972) reflect her lifelong commitment to feminism, civil rights, and numerous other social reform movements on local and international levels. Kenyon utilized her position on a number of New York City commissions in the 1930s to fight for public relief, minimum wage legislation, and housing, and to advance the status of women and minorities. She was also president of the Consumers League of New York and was active in the cooperative movement. A substantial portion of Kenyon's papers are devoted to her international work to advance the rights of women worldwide. In the 1930s she served on a League of Nations committee of jurists to study the legal status of women and from 1946 to the early 1950s she was a delegate to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women.

Her files also include extensive preparation for her defense against Senator Joseph McCarthy's charges that she was affiliated with communist organizations during her work for the United Nations. Kenyon was the first person to appear before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee in 1950. Kenyon's legal case files also include correspondence, research, and briefs she prepared for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)—Kenyon served on the national board from 1930 until her death—and briefs prepared for the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund in the 1960s. Also included is material related to a number of community projects in lower Manhattan, including the Mobilization for Youth legal services for the poor, which she cofounded in 1968, at age 80.

Jessie Lloyd O'Connor (1904–88) began her career as a labor journalist in the 1920s. She was born into a wealthy family of social reformers, including her grandfather, Henry Demarest Lloyd, and her mother, Lola Maverick Lloyd. As a reporter for the Federated Press (a union-oriented news service), she covered the National Textile Workers Union and United Mine Workers, including strikes in Harlan County, Kentucky, and Gastonia, North Carolina. Family money (she had inherited part of the Chicago Tribune fortune) offered Jessie and her husband Harvey O’Connor, the freedom not only to be benefactors of radical causes but also to travel and conduct research. They collaborated on exposés of the wealthy and worked with union organizers, the ACLU, and the League against War and Fascism. During World War II, Jessie served on the boards of 13 reform organizations. In 1948 the O’Connors settled in Little Compton, Rhode Island, where peace activists, union organizers, novelists, and folk singers came to visit and sometimes stay in one of their outlying cottages. After Harvey O’Connor was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and Jessie’s passport was revoked, they helped organize the National Committee to Abolish HUAC. The O’Connor collection contains extensive personal correspondence with family and friends including Mary Heaton Vorse, Josephine Herbst, Ann and Carl Braden, Earl Browder, Ella Reeve Bloor, Rosika Schwimmer, and Pete Seeger. Her involvement in numerous progressive organizations—the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, People’s World Constitutional Convention, the American League against War and Fascism, the Chicago League of Women Shoppers, and the Special Committee on Aliens of the ACLU, to name only a few—also left an extensive paper trail. Finally, these papers contain a wealth of information on Hull House, CARE’s post–World War II relief efforts, the Massachusetts branch of the Progressive Party, and many civil rights, civil liberties, and women’s organizations.

The papers of Mary Metlay Kaufman (1912–95) document her professional career as attorney, teacher, and activist for civil liberties, peace, and international human rights, from her early years as a labor attorney in the 1930s and 1940s to her participation in the nuclear disarmament movement in the 1980s. In 1947 Kaufman served on the prosecution team of the U.S. Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, against the giant chemical company, I. G. Farben. She returned to the United States in 1948, in the midst of the Cold War, and from 1948 to 1960 her practice consisted primarily of defending leaders of the U.S. Communist Party indicted under the Smith Act. During this period she also represented individuals before the HUAC and the Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB). Kaufman's case files, containing revealing court testimonies, research material, and personal correspondence with CP-USA state and national leaders, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Claudia Jones, Robert Thompson, James and Dorothy Forest, Betty Gannett, and others, provide important source material for the study of communist and anticommunist activities in the United States.

Kaufman's papers also reflect her active involvement in the National Lawyers' Guild from its inception in the 1930s. As director of the Guild's Mass Defense Office in New York City from 1968 to 1972, she supervised the defense of Vietnam War protesters and others arrested in political actions. Kaufman's experiences in Nuremberg greatly influenced the rest of her career as a defense attorney, as well as in her teaching, writings, and speeches. The concept of individual responsibility, derived from Nuremberg Principles, was a guiding force in her defense of political activists protesting government crimes against peace and humanity. In the 1970s and 1980s she was a legal adviser and witness, as an expert in international law, in several political trials including cases against anti–Vietnam War protesters targeting the Trident nuclear submarine. She also participated in international tribunals investigating U.S. war crimes in Southeast Asia, the nuclear arms race, and Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy.

The papers of Judge Constance Baker Motley (1921– ) provide a record of the career of a pioneering African American woman in her ascent to national prominence and her courageous fight against discrimination of any kind, often in the face of strong prejudice. Motley began her remarkable career as a law clerk for Thurgood Marshall, then chief counsel for the NAACP's Legal Defense and Educational Fund. She went on to participate in almost every important Civil Rights case of the era. In 1964, Motley became the first African American woman elected to the New York State Senate, representing Manhattan's Upper West Side and west Harlem districts, and in 1965 she was elected president of the Borough of Manhattan. In 1966, she was appointed judge for the Southern District Court of New York, becoming the first African American woman ever named to a federal bench. She was appointed chief justice in 1982, and currently holds the status of senior judge.

Judge Motley's SSC papers focus primarily on her tenures as state senator, borough president, and her first years as a federal judge in one of the busiest district courts in the country. While little material here relates to her early career as a civil rights attorney, an oral history transcript, biographical writings, and speeches include reminiscences of that period. The bulk of the collection, however, consists of constituent correspondence reflecting the turbulent social and political atmosphere of New York in the mid-1960s, particularly relating to issues surrounding racism and discrimination, community activism, and urban renewal in Harlem.3

Like Motley, professor and welfare rights activist Frances Fox Piven (1932– ) also channeled concern over conditions in U.S. cities into political action. A research assistant for Dorothy Kenyon's Mobilization for Youth project in the early 1960s, Piven's 1965 paper "Mobilizing the Poor: How It Can be Done," coauthored with Columbia University professor Richard Cloward, provided a theoretical base for the National Welfare Rights Organization, and launched Piven and Cloward into an ongoing national conversation on the welfare state that continues to the present. Piven's papers offer a comprehensive critique of the welfare state, from Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty to the present, and ongoing efforts, in the late 1990s, to reform it. In addition to the community of academics and activists interested in the welfare rights movement, her correspondents include friends and colleagues such as the poet June Jordan and Senator Paul Wellstone. Related subjects illuminated throughout her papers include community development in New York City; working-class political activity; housing rights, reform, and homelessness in New York City; campus politics at Columbia University, Boston University, and the City University of New York; and voter registration (especially HumanSERVE, an organization cofounded by Piven to dramatically open the political system by making voter registration available through thousands of public and voluntary agencies, and the 1994 Motor-Voter legislation, which Piven helped champion).

The papers of Gloria Steinem (1934– ) were an easy choice among the many important holdings needing processing, as research interest in the widely known feminist leader, journalist, political activist, lecturer, and founder-editor of Ms. magazine has been, unsurprisingly, intense. Indeed, Steinem’s papers provide a complete picture of the public and personal aspects of the life of an important feminist leader, but this material captures a story much larger than that of a single individual. The correspondence, writings, speeches, subject files, memorabilia, photographs, and other papers, together with the records of the organizations she founded, document not only the career of one of the most influential feminists of the 20th century, but also the trajectory of the women’s movement from the early 1970s to the present.

The heart of Steinem's papers is the correspondence she received from the general public. From the moment she became a public figure, Steinem was inundated with letters from women all across the nation seeking advice and guidance on a variety of women's issues. Her effort to answer those needs was nothing short of heroic; scribbled notes in margins document her effort and that of her various assistants to carry forward the objectives of the women's movement on a one-to-one level.

But Steinem could not single-handedly address the needs and questions of American women, and so she, together with Brenda Feigan Fasteau and others, founded the Women's Action Alliance (1971–97). The WAA was a nonprofit service organization working to provide tools and resources to women confronting sexism. Within a few months of its formation, the WAA was receiving some 200 letters weekly from women nationwide seeking advice and information. They wrote in search of women's organizations in their area, legal advice, feminist doctors, female plumbers, women's organizations in their areas, and so forth. Letters to the Information and Referral Services—filed under categories from "Abortion" to "Employment" through "Prison" and "Sports" to "Welfare"—capture the joy, pain, relief, and frustration that accompanied the women's liberation movement. As a result of the data-gathering initiatives launched by the WAA partly in response to such queries, the records contain caches of replies, questionnaires, reports, and surveys on subjects from women in nontraditional occupations to computer use among junior high school girls to the nonsexist child development techniques employed by day care center workers working with young children.

In the same years as the WAA began to flourish, in 1975 the National Council of Neighborhood Women (NCNW) started out in Brooklyn, New York, providing community-based higher education with special curricula and courses in family life and neighborhood studies, ethnic cultural heritage, and women's leadership. A grassroots feminist organization, the NCNW is diverse in class, race, and ethnicity and dedicated to preserving neighborhoods by empowering women to take charge of their lives and their communities through higher education, job training, and leadership training. In addition, NCNW formed a coalition of 30 women's groups to offer employment and services for women and their families in the New York City area, designed a leadership training program and maintained communication with other grassroots organizations. The NCNW also conducts research on the impact of federal programs on women's community organizations. The NCNW has encouraged low-income women to participate and lead in the development of their communities, in both urban areas and the rural communities of Appalachia, in the Dakota Nation of North Dakota, and the Pacific Northwest. Since the 1980s, they have developed an international grassroots women's network, achieving consultative status at the United Nations, to support women in community development around the world.

Finally, the records of the NCNW along with those of the WAA will be an excellent source of material on development of large feminist organizations. Each illuminates (as do the papers of Ms. magazine, also held by the SSC) feminist organizations’ efforts to establish nonhierarchical workplaces, with the promise and pitfalls of the collective process. These sets of papers would support a fascinating study of such organizations’ inner workings, with all of the personal and political dynamics, and mixed successes and/or failures at incorporating feminist perspectives into the workplace.

Once the "Agents of Social Change" project is completed the SSC will host a symposium to celebrate the opening of the collections and explore their research potential and historical significance.4 An exhibition will be mounted in the SSC and on its web site and the collections will be cataloged in the national library database, OCLC, so that researchers will have subject access via the Internet. In collaboration with the National Women’s History Project, the SSC will also create curriculum packets to be distributed among K–12 teachers.

While opening these important collections has been the SSC's priority over the past 18 months, we have also acquired and processed other important collections. Among the most tantalizing of these are the papers of feminist architect and lesbian activist Noel Phyllis Birkby (1932–94), which trace the career of a pioneering feminist architect and her activities in the New York lesbian feminist community from the 1950s to the 1990s. A number of Birkby's circle, which included Barbara Love, Sidney Abbott, Alma Routsong (a.k.a. Isabel Miller), and Kate Millett, have also promised their papers to the SSC. This documentation of lesbian culture and radical feminism in the United States has become one of the SSC's top collecting priorities.

Research Funding

To expand the availability of these and the many other collections housed in the SSC and Smith College Archives, the newly established Margaret Storrs Grierson Scholars-in-Residence Program will provide awards to support research tenures ranging from four weeks to three months. Applications will be accepted from faculty members, independent scholars, and graduate students whose research interests and objectives would be significantly advanced by extended research in SSC's holdings. Some travel-to-collections grants will also be available to offset travel expenses of researchers whose projects would benefit from access to the SSC's holdings. In order to give students and scholars just developing their research questions and agendas a chance to explore these and other collections, the latter funds are also available to researchers at the preproposal stage.

We trust that Margaret Grierson would approve of the new branches that have sprung from her 1942 acorn, now a mature oak. Though Grierson would never have permitted a program in her name while she was alive, fortunately she conceded that we could do as we pleased once she was no longer around to suffer the accolades. We delight in doing so, and will host a reception at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women in Rochester, New York, June 4–6, to celebrate the opening of these collections, to launch the Grierson Scholarship program, and to meet and congratulate this year's recipients; look for further details as the conference approaches, and please join us.

For further information about the Sophia Smith Collection, see its web site: of the Margaret Storrs Grierson Scholar-in-Residence Awards and Travel to Collections program are also available on the web site (the deadline for the 1999 awards was April 20), or you can contact us directly at the Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA 01063. (413) 585-2970. Fax: (413) 585-2886. E-mail:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.