Four exceptional women founded SWG in 1925. Marguerite Harrison, Blair Niles, Gertrude Shelby, and Gertrude Emerson Sen– all recognized explorers – created a group to bring together women who shared ambitions and interests in exploration and achievement. No women’s organization then existed to share experiences, exchange knowledge derived from field work, and encourage women pursuing geographical exploration and research. In naming their organization the Society of Woman Geographers, the founders intended the word “geographer” in its broadest sense.
In the Society’s early years, there were still many unknown places and populations to be visited and studied, and Society members were in the vanguard of courageous explorers. Air transportation was just beginning when one of the first SWG members, Amelia Earhart, made her solo flight across the Atlantic. Margaret Mead pioneered much of modern anthropology. (Of SWG, Mead said: “This is my gang!”) Mary Douglas Leakey helped discover the earliest humans at Olduvai Gorge in Africa.
With time, as communication and transportation have made the world a smaller place, and opportunities for women have expanded, there is still a place for an organization devoted to multidisciplinary intellectual exchange and support among women. Today our 500 members are connected in ways our founders could not have imagined.
We have grown from a single group in New York to a total of six nationally, adding Washington D.C. (our headquarters), South Florida, Chicago, Southern California and The Bay Area. Each group meets several times between September and May to hear from a member or guest reporting on research or unusual travel. A growing group of At-Large members, who do not live near a group, keep in touch and are welcomed at any group meeting. We also have Corresponding Members, who reside outside of the United States, currently in twenty-seven countries on five continents. Every three years we hold an international conference, the Triennial. At this meeting we award a Gold Medal and an Outstanding Achievement Award to members of particular distinction.
Our history inspires us to match the exploits of earlier members. In 2005 Karen Huntt and Michele Westmorland re-traced the 1920s journey of Caroline Mytinger in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Elisabeth Booz and Ann Hawthorne were inspired by Alexandra David-Neel, who was one of the first western women to enter Tibet. They made two trips, in 1980 and 1985.
Members who are embarking on a particularly challenging expedition may apply to carry the SWG flag. Our most recent flag carriers are Martha Hayne Talbot, who carried the flag to the Annanite Mountains of Laos in 2007 and 2011 as part of a group documenting livelihood conditions in remote mountain villages and assessing biodiversity conservation 2007 and 2011, and Deborah Atwood, who carried it to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro in 2009 as part of a team conducting high altitude physiological research.
As a correspondent for Associated Press, she reported—and spied—from Moscow in 1920, and was imprisoned for almost a year in Moscow’s notorious Lubianka. Later she filmed for forty six days the nomadic Bakhtiari tribe on their spring migration into the Persian mountains, producing an early documentary, Grass.
In 1927 she became the first American woman to visit Devil’s Island, France’s penal colony off the coast of French Guiana. Her best-selling expose led to some improvements in conditions there. She lived among tribes in Mexico and Southeast Asia, and traveled by ox cart in Colombia, and then Peru, and wrote extensively about the link between their contemporary cultures, their history, traditions and legends.
Gertrude Emerson Sen was an Asia specialist, and led an expedition around the world in 1920. Traveling by elephant, she built a house in a tiny unmapped village in northeastern India in order to participate in rural life. She married an Indian and spent most of her life in India, devoting herself to improving village life, and writing.