Join In: Exclusion by Men’s Professional Associations Led to the Founding of the Society of Woman Geographers

Marguerite Harrison seen here pictured in sepia tones atop a camel with a canopy protecting her from the sun circa 1920s.

Society of Woman Geographers founder Marguerite Harrison “starting on a desert ride from El Gaim in Mesopotamia on the Syrian frontier,” Wide World Photos, circa 1920s. Box I:14, Society of Woman Geographers Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The recently opened exhibition at the Library of Congress, Join In: Voluntary Associations in America, on view until December 31, 2023, features materials related to the history of “uniting at work,” including labor unions and professional associations. One of the professional associations highlighted in the exhibition is the Society of Woman Geographers (SWG), whose records can be found in the Manuscript Division.

When the Society of Woman Geographers (SWG) was founded in 1925, women were excluded from membership in most professional organizations that promoted world exploration, geography, anthropology, and allied fields. Due to the discriminatory policies of the prestigious Explorers Club, which would not admit women until 1981, the SWG emerged to help women organize and exchange ideas in their associated professions.  The four SWG founders (Marguerite Harrison, Blair Niles, Gertrude Emerson Sen, and Gertrude Mathews Shelby) conceived of the SWG as an organization where members could share knowledge, recognize excellence, and offer mutual encouragement in geographical exploration and research. SWG chapters were first organized in New York, then in Washington, D.C. (now the group’s headquarters), and later in Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, South Florida, and the San Francisco Bay Area. At-large and corresponding members have resided throughout the United States and in more than fifty countries around the world.

The SWG uses the term “geographer” broadly to mean women who are united in a common interest in geography, but who pursue very diverse careers. During the organization’s early years, members at the forefront of their fields explored places and cultures around the world. The accomplishments of new members reflected the advances in transportation and communication that made world exploration more attainable. Notably, Amelia Earhart, the famous female aviator, was elected to the SWG in 1931. In her acceptance letter, currently on display in the Join In exhibition, Earhart wrote, “Thank you for notifying me of election to The Society of Woman Geographers. I am very much honored but doubtful of my qualifications. However, if the other members will bear with me a while I’ll try to make up the deficiencies.”[1] The SWG later presented Earhart with the organization’s first gold medal, honoring her accomplishment as the first woman to complete a solo transatlantic flight in 1932. The tradition of awarding a gold medal continues today and is the highest honor an SWG member can receive.

Letter, Amelia Earhart to Harriet Adams about her election to SWG, June 6, 1931. Box I:11, Society of Woman Geographers Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Letter, Amelia Earhart to Harriet Adams about her election to the SWG, June 6, 1931. Box I:11, Society of Woman Geographers Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Also in 1931, the SWG established a flag-carrying program to demonstrate the far-reaching accomplishments and explorations by its members. According to the rules of the organization, the SWG member is to carry the flag “upon expeditions of such unusual character that their successful accomplishment adds real distinction to the Society and makes a permanent contribution to the world’s store of geographical knowledge; or the bearer is engaged in work of a professional, geographic, or scientific nature that is new, original, or represents a ‘first’ in at least one sense.”[2] Members have proudly carried the blue and white flag of the SWG on travels to Antarctica, to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, on scuba diving expeditions, and even into outer space.

Society of Woman Geographers Records as they appear in the Join In exhibition. Photograph by author.

As women gained entrance into a broader array of professions over the course of the twentieth century, the occupations and scholarly output of SWG members have also evolved, reflecting broader social changes in women’s roles and career opportunities. Individuals obtain SWG membership by election following a selective process of nomination and evaluation. More than one thousand women have become members since the SWG’s inception, and there are approximately five hundred active members at present. Notable members have included geographers; anthropologists; archaeologists, artists, environmentalists and naturalists; explorers and mountaineers; historians; librarians and archivists; journalists; novelists; photographers; specialists in public health; scientists; First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt; and member of Congress Frances Payne Bingham Bolton.[3]

Explore the records of the Society of Woman Geographers and other manuscript collections about women in the social sciences and allied fields as part of the American Women Research Guide, and visit the Join In exhibition at the Library of Congress to learn more about Americans joining together for a common purpose.

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[1] Letter, Amelia Earhart to Harriet C. Adams, June 6, 1931, Society of Woman Geographers Records, Box I:11, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[2] “The Society’s Flag Carriers,” Society of Woman Geographers website, http://www.iswg.org/about/flag-carriers (accessed December 16, 2022).

[3]  Jane Eppinga, They Made Their Mark: An Illustrated History of the Society of Woman Geographers, (Guilford, Conn.: Globe Pequot Press, 2009), passim.