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For Women Who Know No Boundaries

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This is a report and guest post by Giselle Aviles, the 2019 Archaeological Research Associate in the Geography and Map Division on the recent Society of Women Geographers Conference held at the Library of Congress.

For women who know no boundaries is the motto of the Society of Woman Geographers (SWG), and it is precisely that idea that the participants shared during From Earth to Sky: Women Making a Difference in Geography, a conference held at the Library of Congress, in collaboration with the Geography and Map Division, on April 2, 2019. The event was part of the American Association of Geographers Annual Conference, which, from April 3 to April 7, brought together more than eight thousand geographers, cartographers and spatial scientists, from across the globe, in Washington, D.C.

The SWG conference, held one day before the official AAG opening, was full of diverse and deeply engaging contributions from women geographers of different expertise, from biologists and librarians, to medical geographers, geologists, and historians. The objective: To inspire participants to consider how women strengthen the practice of geography.

Early morning coffee and pastries fed the spirit of the event, which was launched by Dr. Paulette Hasier, Chief of the Geography and Map Division and Dr. Mollie Webb, President of SWG, who both offered welcoming remarks and inspiration to the assembled scholars. Mary van Balgooy, Executive Director of SWG, followed her opening with an enlightening talk describing the amazing lives and work of women explorers, scientists and scholars who make up the society’s membership.

Dr. Paulette Hasier offering welcoming remarks at the opening of the SWG Conference.

Using biographical sketches mixed with historical photographs, Dr. Webb recounted the details of the origins of the Society, in 1925, and how a group of close friends, Gertrude Emerson Sen, Marguerite Harrison, Blair Niles and Gertrude Mathews Shelby, founded the society to give women explorers and geographers a place to gather for professional exchange and companionship. Although at the time women scientists were sought after and were some of the most popular speakers in professional organizations like the National Geographic Society, and the Cosmos and the Explorers Clubs, they were excluded from membership. Thus, the objective of SWG was to create a place for women to share and validate their experiences, their accomplishments, and to support the publication of their ground breaking geographical scholarship. Including the word “geographer” in the society’s name was intended to make it broadly inclusive, and a welcoming place for female geographers, scientists and explorers.

Gertrude Mathews Shelby, Majorie Turnbull and other founders of the SWG with their newly designed flag in 1932. Courtesy of the SWG Archives

The founders of the Society were all extremely accomplished. Gertrude Emerson Sen was an expert on Asia, an educator, explorer and writer. In 1920 she embarked on a round-the-world expedition, which included episodes of stunt flying and spelunking. Marguerite Harrison was a journalist and America’s first foreign intelligence officer. In 1918 she was sent to Germany to collect clandestine information for U.S. negotiators during World War I. Blair Niles was a novelist, explorer, and travel writer. Gertrude Mathews Shelby was also an author and a contributor to several important American magazines. All four founding members paved the way for future women to be recognized as professionals in their fields and opened up a space in geography for diversity to flourish.

Flag of the Society of Women Geographers. Designed by Carroll Bill, members have carried and planted the flag on expeditions all over the world.

The lectures of the morning session came from Nancy Lewis, former Director of the Research Program of the East-West Center and Professor Emeritus of the University of Hawaii; Kavita Pandit, Associate Provost for Faculty Affairs at the Georgia State University; and Susan Shaw, Founder of the Shaw Institute and Professor at the School of Public Health at the State University of New York at Albany. Lewis’ presentation on women in sustainability science stressed the importance of empowering women in climate change research as agents for transformation. Pandit’s talk focused on the current trends in careers for women geographers and highlighted some of the difficulties in obtaining and maintaining tenure-track positions in academic geography and science departments. Shaw spoke eloquently about the role of geographical and spatial research in public health arenas, concentrating on problems such as tobacco and the hazards of post-war plastic production, among other topics.

The afternoon was reserved for young scholars who are currently advancing the representation of women in geographic research. Each of the talks was given by a recent Fellow of the Society and included Kelsey Brain, Katherine Glover, and Maegan Miller. Kelsey Brain, Ph.D. candidate in Geography and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Penn State University, shared her research on migration patterns of Europeans and North Americans to the South, and the results of fieldwork in Talamanca, Costa Rica. Katherine Glover, postdoctoral scholar at the Climate Change Institute, University of Maine, presented her findings on landscapes that have changed because of climate change, and stressed the importance of role models for young women. Citing her experiences in the geosciences, where all her professors were men, she explained the excitement of her fieldwork and her vision for including more women in the sciences. Maegan Miller, Ph.D. candidate in the Geography Program at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, shared her research on trans-Atlantic activism and political education among black sailors and dockworkers in the early 20th century, all with an eye on critiquing current political discourse.

The formal presentations of the day ended with a series of “enlightening talks” by Paulette Hasier and Stephanie Stillo, Curator of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Graphic Arts Collection in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Historical anecdotes about subjects like Millie the Mapper and her role producing accurate maps during World War II were particularly exciting to the crowd, as were Anne Blunt’s journeys in Northern Arabia and her detailed documentation of her expeditions through sketches, watercolors, and maps. Stillo was followed by Kathy Hart, Head of the Geography and Map Division’s research center, who offered examples of three women and their exceptional work in geography and library science, Mary Larsgaard, Marcy Bidney and Nicole Kong.

Members of the SWG and conference attendees at the Geography and Map Division open house.

From Earth to Sky: Women Making a Difference in Geography concluded with a Geography and Map Division open house where SWG members gazed at wonderful maps and rare cartographic treasures from the Library’s collections. The more relaxed ambience of the reading room was the perfect time and place for participants to reflect on the stories and papers heard during the day. In considering the bright future for young women entering the fields of geography and the geosciences, everyone finished the day inspired and hopeful.

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