Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Changing Expectations and Institutions: American Women Geographers in the 1970s

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Changing Expectations and Institutions: American Women Geographers in the 1970s

Article excerpt

In 1973, during his presidency of the Association of American Geographers (AAG), Wilbur Zelinsky broke new ground for the leadership in addressing the status of women in academic geography. In "The Strange Case of the Missing Female Geographer," his views-and-opinions article in the Professional Geographer, he opened with "I bear evil tidings ...[:] the lot of the female geographer is, and has been, a discouraging one, and there is little assurance of substantial improvement during the foreseeable future" (1973a, 101). His companion article, "Women in Geography: A Brief Factual Account" (1973b), analyzed the AAG'S membership and the composition of faculties in U.S. and Canadian departments of geography. He reported that women accounted for only 12.3 percent of more than 6,000 AAG members and 6.3 percent of more than 2,000 members holding college faculty appointments. He wrote with "a sense of outrage that is difficult to control, and strong dismay over the wastage of the great quantity of unused and underdeveloped talent so sorely needed by the world of learning and by society as a whole" (1973a, 102). His articles reflect the tenor of the times--women's growing restiveness and politicization, pressures for affirmative action from courts and governments, and modest efforts in the AAG represented by the appointment of a Committee on the Status of Women in Geography (CSWG) in 1971 in response to activism by women members and their supporters.

A decade later Zelinsky returned to the situation of women in geography, this time including not only a discussion of status but also an extensive review of geographical research in the emerging field of feminist geography that he agreed to coauthor with two then-junior women geographers, thereby enhancing their visibility (Zelinsky, Monk, and Hanson 1982). Since those articles, numerous scholars have assessed the situation of women in geography in a variety of national, institutional, and subdisciplinary contexts, expressing concern about limited progress and discrimination. (1)

My purpose is not to update such research. Rather, I am interested in the gendered cultures and politics of changes in the profession in the United States in the 1970s, the period bounded by Zelinsky's articles on the status of women and on a new field, the geography of women. It was a time of marked transitions in the makeup of the profession, transitions that had implications for the creation of geographical knowledge. I explore the shaping of careers and look at the ways in which activist networks within the AAG endeavored to instigate change. My interpretations are framed by the evolving approaches of feminist geography. I incorporate the goals of early work to give visibility and voices to women, to recognize gender as a social and cultural phenomenon, and to explore inequalities and power relations. I am attuned to more recent work concerned with differences among women--by class, ethnicity, age, and marital status, for example--with subjectivity, and with the interplay of individual actions and larger social structures. (2) I aim to be sensitive to the diversity of contexts. My interpretations also reflect the literature on women academics in other disciplines, especially history and sociology, in which scholars have addressed the transitions of the era (Meadow-Orlans and Wallace 1994; Laslett and Thorne 1997; Boris and Chaudhuri 1999).

My research draws on published articles and statistics, archival records, and personal narratives that show how individuals change and are changed by the contexts in which they live and work, accepting and challenging norms (Personal Narratives Group 1989). Since 1988 I have conducted extended interviews with more than sixty women geographers who were in graduate school sometime between the 1930s and 1980s. Most of the interviews took place by 1995, supplemented by follow-up communications and some additional interviews. The narratives reflect generation, the time at which they were told, and the extent to which we were personally acquainted. …

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