Practically All the Geographers were Women

About The Society of Woman Geographers

Janice Monk
Department of Geography and Regional Development, University of Arizona
Presentation at Society of Woman Geographers Triennial, May 25, 2008

My title is a quotation from Ella Keene who taught geography from 1943-1967 at Keene State College, New Hampshire.  She made the remark when an interviewer asked about being a woman in geography. He assumed that women were rare in the discipline. Keene’s response “practically all the geographers were women,” continued “A few men taught in the universities. In the high schools and teachers colleges, almost all of them were women.” (Keene, 1981). For twenty years I have been studying the history of women in the profession of geography, going back to the late 19th century and emphasizing the period up to the 1970s (Monk, 2006; 2004; 2003; 2001; 1998; Monk and Olson, 2007; George and Monk, 2004; Monk et al., 2004), the time when I began as a faculty member in a university geography department. In speaking of geographers, I am confining myself to those who identify that as their professional field, rather than the more inclusive concept we use in the Society of Woman Geographers.

I was attracted to the topic by the development of research and teaching about women’s histories that took off in the late 1970s and which was paying attention to women’s experiences in professions. In geography, the history of the discipline as then taught acknowledged only one woman, Ellen Churchill Semple, who made her name in the early 20th century. Otherwise, we learned of “great men” in research universities and their ideas. From my reading of the emerging literature on the histories of women in the sciences and in fields such as anthropology, as well as from my own experience in having become acquainted with some senior women at geography conferences, I knew there had to be more to the story than Miss Semple. I began to identify other women geographers and to reflect on how their lives fir within American social, cultural, and economic histories and within the histories of higher education. I was particularly interested in how considerations of gender issues might be part of the story. It quickly became evident that women had been actively engaged in professional geography since the late 19th century, not in the university geography departments but in the normal schools that prepared school teachers, later known as state teachers colleges, that they worked in women’s colleges, in government agencies, and in institutions such as the American Geographical Society (Monk, 2004; 2003).

The professional organization, the Association of American Geographers, founded in 1904, was very much a men’s club. The few women who were elected as members up till 1945 give one indication of their alternative locations. (Figure 1) So too, in contrast to the university men who received honors awards from the Association for outstanding accomplishments, those few women to be honored also worked outside universities. (Figure 2). At the American Geographical Society, Gladys Wrigley and Wilma Fairchild  sequentially for 50 years edited the prestigious Geographical Review. Beginning in 1914, Clara LeGear was for 44 years librarian, researcher, administrator and consultant at Library of Congress began in 1914. Evelyn Pruitt’s work at the Office of Naval Research demonstrated the importance of effectively representing the discipline in governmental agencies that funded research and she was key in promoting remote sensing as a tool for studying the environment. Hildegard Binder Johnson, honored for her research in historical and cultural geography, founded an all-too-rare geography program in a liberal arts college. Evelyn Pruitt and Clara LeGear also received Outstanding Achievement awards from SWG, and at this point, it is important for me to note that most of the women I have mentioned so far, and many of the others included in my research, have been long-term members of SWG. Indeed, SWG has been invaluable in this research. I have drawn on our archives at the Library of Congress, on the Bulletins, and the oral history collection, and many of the older women I have interviewed were members.

Gladys Wrigley

Gladys Wrigley

Evelyn Pruitt

Evelyn Pruitt

Hildegard Johnson

Hildegard Johnson

Clara Egli LeGear

Clara Egli LeGear


Wilma Fairchild

Wilma Fairchild



Two of the 46 founding members of the Association of American Geographers were women, but the growth in the number of women members did not keep pace with the modest growth of the organization. Indeed, in 1940, when the organization had 163 members, only three were women. That there were many more women geographers than represented within the AAG is quite apparent when we look at the membership of two other professional organizations – the National Council of Geography Teachers, now known as the National Council for Geographic Education (NCGE). In 1917, 645 women made up more than two-thirds of its membership, including both teachers in schools and those who were primarily engaged in teacher preparation in the Normal Schools, later known as State Teachers Colleges and then State Universities.Ten women had served as president of NCGE by the end of the 1950s and they continue they have continued to take leadership (Figures 3 and 4). Many have also been members of SWG as indeed are the current and two previous Executive Directors of NCGE (Kim Crews, Michal Levasseur, and Ruth Shirey). In addition to women’s roles in NCGE, women also made up a considerable proportion of the membership of the American Society of Professional Geographers (ASPG) in the 1940s. This short-lived organization, founded by geographers (including women) who came to Washington DC during World War II, ultimately merged with the Association of American Geographers. Its origins lay in dissatisfaction with the exclusiveness of the latter from which many of the younger geographers felt excluded. By 1946, 332 women accounted for 30.5 per cent of the ASPG membership. Often they were engaged in cartographic and intelligence work. Some of them who remained in Washington post-war will be well-known as long-term members of SWG, among them Dorothy May Anderson, Betty Didcoct Burrill, Marjorie Howarth Eliot, Lois Olson, and Evelyn Pruitt (Andrews, 1989; Monk, 2004; Tyner, 1999).

To situate the experiences of individual women, it is important to offer a brief discussion of the wider contexts that gave rise to gendered histories.  From the late 19th century into the early 20th, American education at all levels expanded reflecting the changing economy and demography. Middle-class valuing of professionalism led to growth of higher education, including graduate study, and to the professional preparation of teachers. The period also saw middle-class women entering the paid labor market. Intertwined with these was late 19th and early 20th century feminism which promoted higher education for women. Academic positions multiplied rapidly. But professionalism was also associated with gendered ideas about prestige. For universities, prestige came to mean building masculine preserves, with the practice and sometimes clear expressions of values that placed women and men in places of different status and unequal power. From the mid-1890s to the 1930s, for example, women made up around 60 percent of normal school faculties compared to about 12 per cent of college and university faculties. To illustrate how the contexts and changes over time shaped women geographers’ careers, to explore how they maneuvered within them and saw their own work, I have selected five women, all of whom were members of SWG, as examples of different time periods and settings

Zonia Baber Field ShotZonia Baber, the earliest of those I discuss, challenged the norms throughout her life (at right). Earning a teaching credential in 1885 at Cook County Normal School (now Chicago State University) in 1885, she went on to earn her BS at the University of Chicago in 1904. In 1895 she was in the first field class in geology to which women were admitted. Beginning in 1889, Baber traveled widely in the US, Latin America, and in 1899-1900 “around the world” (including Asia and the Middle East) and later the Pacific, and southern and eastern Africa. She was Head of the Geography Department at Cook County Normal for a decade, then Associate Professor in the Department of Education (not Geography) at the University of Chicago (1901-1921).  An active organizer, when others procrastinated in efforts to support teachers she organized a meeting at her home that led to the founding of the Chicago Geographical Society, of which she was President (1900-1904) and which awarded her its Gold Medal in 1948.

Baber was strongly committed to feminist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, and environmental politics. She was active in the leadership of many organizations and gave regular public lectures. Among her activities were serving as Chair of the Race Relations Committee of the Chicago Women’s Club, on the Executive Committee of the Chicago Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and on the Board of Mangers of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. She also worked with the Asociación Puertoriqueña de Mujeres Sufragistas and the Liga Social Sufragistas, Puerto Rico. Seeking recommendations for women speakers for the Chicago Geographical Society, she wrote to SWG President Harriet Chalmers Adams in 1927 asking for a list of women who might speak on geographical subjects: “Men speakers are almost invariable chosen, first from lack of knowledge of women geographers, and second from prejudice.” Titles of some of her own public presentations clearly show her political commitments (Figure 6).

Julia ShipmanBorn in Danville, VT, Julia Shipman (at left) apparently taught school for some years, then earned her bachelors degree which enabled her to take up faculty positions in normal schools in New Hampshire and Connecticut, simultaneously studying for her 1923 MA in geography at Clark University. Next came a frustrating year at the State Normal in Glassboro, New Jersey. She carried a heavy load with an unsupportive supervisor and saw her future there as hopeless. She returned to Clark University for the PhD, encouraged by Wallace Atwood, Director of the Graduate School of Geography and President of the University. Although judged to be a bright, energetic and competent woman, the next stage of her career proved frustrating, leading her to comment “If I’m ever reincarnated, I’ll teach home economics.” As Wallace Atwood wrote of her experience of a one-year position as an instructor at the University of Tennessee:

“Miss Shipman faced a very serious problem last year…they frankly admitted they wanted a man, but not finding one that measured up to their requirements, accepted her on a temporary basis. She is quite uncertain that she can hold the position, there is such a strong prejudice…in the Department for a one hundred per cent masculine staff.”

(Wallace W. Atwood to Carol Mason, 30 January, 1929. Atwood Papers, Clark University Archives)

Next came an underpaid temporary position at the University of Nebraska. Fortunately Shipman then secured a position at the distinguished women’s college, Mt. Holyoke,  where she spent the rest of her career, quickly doubling geography enrolments. She taught for a semester in China, drove one summer to Mexico City, traveled in the Caribbean, South America, and extensively in the US. During World War II she worked for the Board on Geographic Names in Washington. After retirement, she continued her geographic interests and community activism into her 80s. At 90, she reported in the SWG Bulletin “I would like to keep my membership…at least one more year.”

Lucia HarrisonLucia Harrison’s experiences differed somewhat from Shipman’s in that she had a 38-year career at Western State Normal School (now Western Michigan University) beginning in 1909, just after she earned her BA at the University of Michigan. (at right). She earned her MS at the University of Chicago in 1917. Harrison studied and conducted research in Mexico in the 1920s, riding a mule in the Sierra Madre Oriental. She completed courses for the doctorate at the University of Chicago but illness, followed by a car accident and financial pressures in the 1930s, prevented her from finishing the degree.

Harrison was a demanding but respected teacher to whom students dedicated the 1930 Yearbook. Another year the students wrote “L is for Lucia so methodically wise, who is able to tell the stars in the skies.” She was an active feminist on campus. When women were excluded from the Faculty Science Club which had been her brainchild, she took a leading role in organizing the Women’s Faculty Science Club. When a campus bulletin listed only men as potential public speakers, she led in preparing a counter-document, “Western State Abnormal School Bullet: Shriekers Prevailable.” Harrison published in the Journal of Geography and Economic Geography, wrote a school text, and published her last book when she was 82 years of age. She served as a Vice President of National Council of Geography Teachers.

Moving beyond academia, I now look at the distinguished career of Helen Strong who, in 1920 was the first woman to be awarded the PhD geography in Geography at the University of Chicago.Though she once described herself as “unbusinesslike” Strong was far from it. In 1930, seeking to promote applied geography within the Association of American Geographers, she wrote to Ellen Churchill Semple:

Isn’t it a great game….With you, I know it is the most significant subject for the Worcester meeting, but they don’t realize it. They will though. You and I will swing this project with flying colors!! Two unbusiness like women!!

(Helen Strong to Ellen Churchill Semple, December 9, 1930. Atwood Papers, Clark University Archives).

Strong knew when games were called for. On her appointment to the University of Missouri in 1921, colleagues insisted that golf was the required game, so she promptly learned to play. In 1923, a Chicago alum asked her to make a study for Congress on US foreign agricultural trade. Strong widened the assignment, with the result that a position was created for her as Geographer of the Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce. Over the next decade, she studied commodities from alfalfa to swimsuits, solving trade problems for American farmers and manufacturers. She promoted geography to many business groups and was featured in The Washington Post (Figure 9). On one occasion she slipped an equal area projection map into a report to Herbert Hoover, persuading him to replace the Mercator projection then used in Department of Commerce maps. She also convinced the US Geographic Names Board to expand its agenda to include foreign places, not only domestic.

The 1930s Great Depression saw massive staff reductions at Commerce. Strong transferred to the U.S.Coast and Geodetic Survey. For the next three decades she maintained an active career in government (Figure 10). During the Dust Bowl she promoted education through the Soil Conservation Service. Traveling in 48 states, she often gave multiple speeches in a day to teachers, agricultural workers, and women=s clubs; she spoke on radio and with reporters. With the advent of World War II, she was recruited to the Military Intelligence Committee of the War Department General Staff and then to the Foreign Economic Administration. On her “retirement” she taught at Elmhirst College in Illinois, serving as Acting Chair of Geography.

AGS Farewell PartyFinally, I turn to Alice Taylor, one of the senior women who had a sustained career at the American Geographical Society. Most of these women were active members of the New York Group and office-holders within SWG (Figure 11). From among them,  I’ve chosen to write about Alice Taylor, partly because it was she, along with Evelyn Pruitt, who proposed me for SWG membership in 1978. But she also represents a somewhat different life story and career than the other women I have profiled. Alice Taylor spent her early years in Paris where she studied decorative arts and philosophy, but she did not earn a degree. When she came to the US, she had few marketable skills so learned short-hand and typing and obtained a position as secretary to the Director of the American Geographical Society. Taylor was given time off to take graduate courses but again did not study for a degree. Her talents and potential were quite evident, however, and by the mid-1950s she was tapped for editing the Society’s new popular magazine, Focus. Alice Taylor was motivated to reach wide audiences. In addition to editing Focus she developed two highly successful series of booklets, Around the World and Know Your America which had wide circulation and were critical in sustaining the Society’s finances. Her editorial and writing philosophy reflected, as she said in a presentation to SWG:

  • it is essential that citizens of rich nations try to understand the underlying
  • problems of two-thirds of the worlds people who live in the developing nations…who are beginning to question their fate.” (SWG files, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress and Atwood Papers, Clark University Archives)

Booklets by other authors in the series often expressed relatively conservative views, but in those she wrote herself, Taylor was more critical of Western and elite powers. She also paid attention to women’s lives and included photos of women at work.

Concluding Comments

While Ella Keene may have exaggerated in claiming that “practically all the geographers were women,” she does draw our attention to the important roles that many women played in the profession over much of the 20th century. So we might ask, what did they contribute, and what did their experiences mean? For me, several themes emerge. These women encountered barriers but they were not stalled. They showed persistence, enthusiasm, commitment to encountering new worlds and to changing the ones they knew. They were leaders and collaborated with other women. And they played significant roles in communicating and applying geography, especially in the positions they could access: as teachers, librarians, editors, archivists, speakers, and organizers. We owe them respect and honor.


Andrews, Alice. 1989. “Women in Applied Geography.” In M.S. Kenzer (ed.) Applied Geography: Issues, questions, and concerns. Dordrecht, Boston, London: Kluwer Academic Publishers. Pp. 193-204.

George, Sunita and Janice Monk (with Juanita Gaston). 2004. “Teachers and Their Times: Thelma Glass and Juanita Gaston,” In J.O.Wheeler and S. Brunn (eds) The South’s Role in the Making of American Geography:Centennial of the AAG, 2004. Columbia MD: Bellwether Publishing, pp. 327-42.

Keene, Ella O. 1988. “Ella O. Keene. Interviewer, Thomas Havill, Keene State Collage, March 19, 1981.” In John E. Harmon and Timothy J. Rickard (eds) Geography in New England. A Special Publication of the New England/St. Lawrence Valley Geographical Society (place of publication not given), pp. 66-69.

Monk, Janice 2006. “Changing Expectations and Institutions: American Women Geographers in the 1970s.” The Geographical Review , 96(2): 259-277.

—-. 2004. “Women, Gender, and the Histories of American Geography,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 94(1): 1-22.

—-. 2003. “Women’s Worlds at the American Geographical Society,” The Geographical Review 93(2): 237-257.

—-. 2001.  “Many Roads: The Personal and Professional Lives of Women Geographers.” In Pamela Moss (ed.) Placing Autobiography in Geography,  Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, pp.167-87.

—-. “The Women Were Always Welcome at Clark,” Economic Geography, Extra Issue, 1998, 14-30. (also

Monk, Janice and Judy M. Olson. 2007. “In Memoriam: Mildred Berman, 1926-2000.” ) Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 97(3): 633-40.

Monk, Janice, Joos C. Droogleever Fortuijn, and Clionadh Raleigh. 2004. “The Representation of Women in Academic Geography: Contexts, Climate and Curricula.” . Journal of Geography in Higher Education 28(1): 83-90.

Tyner, Judith. 1999. “Millie the Mapper and Beyond: The Role of Women in Cartography since World War II. Meridian 15: 23-28.


Figure 1. Source: Monk (2004)

Figure 2. Source: Gladys Wrigley photo courtesy of American Geographical Society; Clara Egli LeGear photo courtesy of Library of Congress; Evelyn Pruitt photo courtesy of H.J. Walker and Gayle Virtue; Hildegard Binder Johnson courtesy of Macalester College; Wilma Fairchild photo courtesy of American Geographical Society

Figure 3. Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Figure 4. Photo courtesy of family of Mamie Anderzhon

Figure 5. Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Figure 6. Photo courtesy of Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago Library

Figure 7. Photo courtesy of Mount Holyoke College Archives and Special Collection

Figure 8. Photo courtesy of Western Michigan University Archives and Regional History Collections

Figure 9. Helen Strong memorabilia from Society of Woman Geographers files, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress and Atwood Papers, Clark University Library.

Figure 10. Helen Strong appointments. Source Society of Woman Geographers files, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Figure 11. Photo courtesy of Sarah Kerr