Just before her 43rd wedding anniversary in 1976, Ramona Barth typed up a two page “Proposed 5 Year Plan and Contract” and presented it to her husband, Rev. Joseph Barth. It was her 65th birthday, and an argument that had occurred just ten days before had inspired her to lay out exactly how she thought the next five years should go. The resulting “contract” is a surprisingly funny, tongue-in-cheek list of demands, or rather “needs” as Ramona clarifies, since according to her, “demands is an unfeminine, unladylike, un-Christian word never to be part of the vocabulary of a ‘true woman’ and has for a lifetime pushed Pavlovian buttons of horror and anger in spouse Joseph.”
Line by line, Ramona lays out her expectations – the uses of shared space, who retains control over the kitchen and her willingness to, “…in sickness and in health to continue to protect his egg shell ego as per my record of the decades.” I was unable, much to my amused pleasure, to tell how much of it was serious, and how much was tongue in cheek. What is clear, however, is Ramona Barth’s wit. Whether or not the barbs directed at Joseph were sincere did not change the sentiment behind them. Barth had expectations and boundaries and she was not about to defer to her husband. Feminism was not simply a political ideology for Barth, but rather an integral part of the way she lived her life. That it bled into her marriage so acerbically is not a surprise.
For the past few months, I’ve been processing the Ramona Barth collection and the above mentioned contract is one of my favorite discoveries, and perhaps one of the more revealing pieces of material. Feminism had long been a part of Barth’s life, particularly in it’s applications to marriage, motherhood and religion. A graduate of the Jackson College for Women at Tufts, and the Meadville Theological Seminary at University of Chicago, Barth spent most of her adult life writing about and organizing around second wave feminism. The newly processed collection contains her work from grade school to graduate program, and Barth’s passion for feminist theory, and critical thinking shines through it all.
When Barth attended Tufts in the early 1930’s, secondary education was still unusual for a woman. But Barth embraced the intellectual atmosphere with gusto and she took to the notion of cultural, political and personal critique like a fish to water. In 1931, Barth had an essay published in the Tuftonian, the university’s literary magazine, entitled Formula C2K. In it she pushes her classmates to ask questions of everything. “Now is the time to doubt,” she writes, “to question, to wonder just how much we should accept and how much we should reject from the many and complex beliefs that have been handed down to us.” This was a philosophy she took to heart, and carried with her into her married life, into her political life and her spiritual life.
The daughter of a congregational minister, religion and spirituality were strong presences in Barth’s life from the very beginning. She preached a sermon from her father’s pulpit in 1930, when she was 19 years old. It was the first time a woman had ever preached in the 150 year history of this particular church. A prolific writer throughout her education and beyond, Barth’s collection is dotted with gems of feminist, Unitarian thought. In 1974, she wrote an essay entitled “Why We Burn: A Feminist Exercise in Exorcism,” which detailed all the multitude of sexist and misogynist passages from a wide variety of religious tracts. “Why burn?” she writes, “The answer is simple. Read your Bible – your Bibles of the world, and then ask, how else raise the theological consciousness of an obtuse, callous, sexist society?” It became clear to me, while processing this collection, that writing was as much a part of Barth’s activism as the protests she attended, and the events she organized.
As a young mother, Barth engaged her feminism through writing and publishing articles on motherhood and domesticity. She held lecture series with her husband, Rev. Joseph Barth, during which the pair would debate topics such as “Meaningful Marriage” and “Men and Women – Do They Play An Equal Role?”
Later in life, Barth took part in protests in connection with the National Organization for Women (NOW) and ultimately helped found the Maine chapter of NOW. Her reverence for historical icons such as Margaret Fuller and Anne Hutchinson led her to organize a multitude of events commemorating such figures. She took part in performances, celebrations and memorials, and clearly drew much of her political and spiritual inspiration from these women. Another large presence in her papers is the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, whom Barth held in high regard. She became closely involved in the centennial celebration of the poet’s life, and wrote on her extensively. Barth’s passion for and personal connection to these women is obvious throughout the collection and I found it powerful to see so clearly the source of inspiration for a seasoned activist like her. She devoted time, energy and much of her writing to them, and seemed to get much in return.
Barth’s papers are a treasure trove, and an interesting glimpse into the thoughts and life of one of the many women who made up the larger movement. Her commitment to the cause – fighting to advance equal rights for women – rings out in everything she wrote, from her school papers, to that five year plan and contract. Barth knew what she had to offer and she worked hard to make her voice heard. That voice is a very distinct one and her message is clear: Question everything you take for granted, and never back down.