Women's Worlds at the American Geographical Society*

By Monk, Janice | The Geographical Review, April 2003 | Go to article overview
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Women's Worlds at the American Geographical Society*

Monk, Janice, The Geographical Review

All of this is so close to my heart that I'm sure if anyone cut me open
they'd find a map inside, with rivers and roads for veins.
--Ena L. Yonge, AGS map curator, 1917-1962

From the late nineteenth century until the early 1970s, women scientists found it difficult to obtain appointments in universities. Their opportunities were in high schools, the normal schools that subsequently became state teachers' colleges, women's colleges, governmental agencies, and alternative institutions such as museums and research organizations (Rossiter 1982, 1995). The American Geographical Society (AGS) was one such alternative institution. The long tenures of Gladys Wrigley and Wilma Fairchild as editors of the Geographical Review are well known--sequentially they held office for more than fifty years. Douglas McManis's (1996) essay on "leading ladies" at the AGS described thirteen women associated with the Society, nine of whom were employees. When we include other supporting actors, the numbers expand substantially. John K. Wright (1952) recorded seventy-four women employees between 1894 and 1951, of whom more than half did professional work, while the others occupied clerical positions, though those boundaries were often blurred. Women's presence continued over the next two decades, accounting for about two-thirds of the fifty-seven employees in 1996 (Miller 1967).

In this article I address several aspects of women's work at the AGS, including the types of employment in which they engaged, their backgrounds, how they experienced their work, what perspectives they brought to it, and some implications of their work for the Society and geography. My aim is to contribute to two strands of literature on the history of geography. First, I seek to widen the scope of feminist understanding of women's engagement with geography and of some ways in which gender and class have been implicated in the discipline's history. In so doing, I am less concerned with the history of geographical ideas than with the nature of the institutions in which those ideas are created and through which they are disseminated. My second goal is to contribute to the emerging literature on practices within geographical institutions.

Calling for a feminist historiography of geography, Mona Domosh (1991) argued for directing more attention to women travelers' writings. Such research has since flourished, emphasizing nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century women in the context of imperialism (for example, Blunt 1994; Morin 1995, 1998; McEwan 1996; Garcia-Ramon and others 1998). A second strand of research on women's geographical work addresses the current status of academic women in the United States and elsewhere (for example, Zelinsky 1973a, 1973b; McDowell 1979; Momsen 1980; Garcia-Ramon, Castaner, and Centelles 1988; Lee 1990; Winkler 2000; Hall, Murphy, and Moss 2002). Only a few authors have brought historical perspectives to bear on women in the profession (for example, on women educators, Vining 1990; Pittser 1997, 1999; on cartographers, Tyner 1997, 1999; Hudson and Ritzlin 2000; on women in government, Andrews 1989; on women associated with Clark University, Monk 1998). These works suggest the importance of looking to multiple arenas and paying attention to context.

Arguments for histories of the discipline to attend to its social, political, and economic contexts are not new (Berdoulay 1981; Capel 1981; Stoddart 1981; Glick 1984), but they are gaining increasing currency as scholars look to the intersections of biographies, contexts, and specific activities (Barnes 1996, 2000, 2001a, 2001b). This literature relates largely to academic institutions, although David Stoddart's (1986) portrayal of the social relations within the Royal Geographical Society offers one example of the nexus of context, contingencies, and personalities in shaping developments beyond academia. Particularly relevant for my research is the call by Hayden Lorimer and Nick Spedding (2002) to "excavate geography's hidden spaces," to pay attention to the labors not only of great men but also of the students, lecturers, cartographers, technicians, and porters on whose daily routines reproduction of the discipline depends.

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