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Toward a Feminist Historiography of Geography

TL;DR: In this paper, the authors examine how women have contributed to the formation of geographic knowledge, and, by implication, ask what can be learned by considering the contribution of women's ways of knowing to our reconstruction of human geography.
Abstract: Recent attempts to contextualize the history of geography have ignored the gendered construction of much of that history, while arguments for a post-modern human geography have ignored feminist theory. By examining the stories of Victorian women explorers, this essay suggests how women have contributed to the formation of geographic knowledge, and, by implication, asks what can be learned by considering the contribution of women's ways of knowing to our reconstruction of human geography.

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Toward a feminist historiography of geography
MONA DOMOSH
Assistant Professor of Geography, College of Liberal Arts, Florida Aflanfic University, Davie,
Florida 33314, USA
Revised
MS
received 30 August, 1990
ABSTRACT
Recent attempts to contextualize the history of geography have ignored the gendered construction of much of that history,
while arguments for a post-modem human geography have ignored feminist theory. By examining the stories of Victorian
women explorers, this essay suggests how women have contributed to the formation of geographic knowledge, and, by
implication, asks what can be leamed by considering the contribution of women's ways of knowing to our reconstruction of
human geography.
KEY
WORDS: Explorers, Women, History of geography, Post-modem, Feminist theory
It is, too, a matter for pride that our history contains such
a record of achievement at the farthest ends of the earth.
Let us salute with Conrad, men great in their endeavour
and in hard-won successes of militant geography; men
who went forth each according to his lights and with
varied motives.
. .
but each bearing in his heart a spark of
the sacred fire. If that spark ever dies, then our geography
will indeed have become a dry and bloodless thing.
(Stoddart. 1986, p.
157).
Such as it is, Estes Park is mine. It is unsurveyed, 'no
man's land', and mine by right of love, appropriation, and
appreciation; by the seizure of its peerless sunrises and
sunsets, its glorious afterglow, its blazing noons, its
hurricanes sharp and furious, its wild auroras, its glories
of mountain and forest, of canyon, lake, and river, and the
stereotyping them
all in my memory (Bird, 1879, p. 120).
If,
as Stoddard suggests, many of the more heroic
episodes in the history of geography are the results of
a spark in men's hearts that set them out on voyages,
then geography truly is the inheritor of the enlighten-
ment tradition, a tradition that energized and
legitimized that 'spark' that would bring light to the
world. And, as the second quote makes clear, that
spark for exploration was as evident in the accounts
of women explorers as of their male counterparts.
Although a contemporary reading of Isabella
Bird's
travels in the Rocky Mountains may suggest a politi-
cal agenda in her ability to appropriate through love a
land that no man has yet controlled, it can not be
denied that her thrill of discovery and wonder at what
Trans.
Inst.
Br.
Geogr.
N.S.
16:
95-104 (1991)
ISSN:
0020-2754
she has found places her well within the confines of the
male exploratory tradition, as outlined by Stoddart
(1986). The 'sirens' that, in
J.
K.
Wright's words
(1947), lure people to unknown lands were surely at
work in motivating Bird to leave her family in Scotland
and venture by herself, and on horseback, into the
Rocky Mountains. Yet the accounts of Isabella Bird,
and the manv other women travellers, are not included
in the histories of geography, not even in Stoddart's
book, which attempts to recover the exploratory
tradition for geographic historiography. Certainly we
are not to deny that the excitement of discovery,
whether it be of new lands or new ideas, is a spark that
should not be doused, and geography's
roits in the
exploratory tradition are indeed, as Stoddart indi-
cates, quite inspiring and should act as sources of
.
-
pride. 1t becomes problematic, however, when only
part of that tradition is remembered and recorded in
the official histories of the discipline. In so doing,
geography loses some of its history, and in a time
when geographers are looking far afield for sources of
ideas about reconstructing geographic thinking,
(Cosgrove, 1988; Dear, 1988; Daniels, 1989) this loss
becomes even more problematic.
Given the recent attempts to rewrite and
contextualize geographic history (Livingstone, 1988;
Driver,
1988), it would behove us to recover hom our
own history the stories that have gone unnoticed.
Recent work on women travellers has opened an
entirely new chapter on the history of geography
Printed in Great Britain

96
MONA
DOMOSH
from which we can recapture sources for a post-
modem reconstruction (Birkett, 1989; Middleton,
1982; Tinling, 1989). It is in pointing to these possible
sources that this essay is directed. This essay will
draw on the writings of Victorian and post-Victorian
women travellers to suggest what a 'women's way of
knowing' (Belenky
el
al.,
1986) could contribute
to our rewriting of the history of geography, and,
by implication, to a feminist historiography of
geography.
By focusing on the experiences of these women
explorers,
I
am not implying that they are the only
group to be systematically excluded from the histories
of geography. Many individuals, both male and
female, have been ignored in our institutional accounts
of geography because their views and activities did
not accord with the standards of 'scientific' geogra-
phy. What
I
am suggesting, however, is that the
experiences of Victorian women travellers were dif-
ferent from those of their male counterparts. This
does not imply any statement of essential differences
between men and women, only that Victorian
women explorers could not escape the contexts in
which they lived
-
contexts that were, in significant
and well-documented ways, quite distinct from those
of men. And those contexts shaped not only their
outlook on personal matters and the structure of
their social networks, but operated in very material
ways, by limiting the resources and support networks
available to women in their travels.
This essay draws much of its inspiration from recent
discussions both within geography and the other
social sciences
concerning what has come to be called
the post-modem tum. The issue of post-modemism is
a complex one, providing differing critiques and con-
structions as it has been Filtered through the lenses
of the humanities and sciences. In its questioning of
the assumptions that have supported our deeply-
embedded philosophical systems since the enlighten-
ment, it throws open doors to ways of thinking that
we have yet to explore fully. The issues raised by the
post-modem tum go way beyond those that can be
addressed here, so
I
have chosen to outline only those
directly relevant to my discussion of a feminist
historiography in geography. Although
I
recognize
the tensions that exist between feminist theory and
post-modemism,'
I
have chosen to concentrate on
those aspects of post-modemism that have allowed
us to hear and appreciate the voices of these women
travellers. Specifically, a reassessment and decon-
struction of the enlightenment notions of knowledge,
objectivity and language has provided the space
through which women like Isabella Bird can be seen
and heard. Although here
I
can provide only the
briefest of discussions, an outline of the particular
elements of post-modemism that inform this essay
should help us to understand the importance of
re-telling the stories of Victorian women travellers.
Simply stated, the post-modem deconstruction has
allowed us to understand that knowledge is both
ideologically and socially constructed and therefore
cannot be separated from its specific context.
Accordingly, there can be no universal truths nor
universalizing discourses since knowledge is depen-
dent on the contingencies of social relations. The
very idea of a perspective-less knowledge is revealed
as a product of a
specific time and place, and therefore
is seen as both reflecting and legitimizing the social
conditions and relations of power from which it was
derived (including those of gender).
The idea that there exists a world somehow separ-
ate from the subject, that is, an abstracted, objective
world, is exposed as an assumption on which a
perspective-less knowledge is built. We can investi-
gate the world only from a perspective of the con-
tingencies of our self, which includes our physical,
social and historical experiences. To explore the
world, both Figuratively and literally, involves the
active participation of the subject as observer.
Language embodies and embellishes that partici-
pation, giving form to the observation. That form is
not a direct representation of a separate reality
-
language is not transparent
-
but instead reflects a
articular
way of seeing that world.
A
post-modem
critique allows us to see both words and objects as
socially constructed. The following discussion of
women explorers is grounded within this perspective
of a post-modem view of knowledge, objectivity and
the use of language.
THE CONTEXT OF WOMEN EXPLORERS
To start, it is worth considering why the stories of
these women have been omitted from the official
histories of geography. Many of these women travel-
lers were born into the British upper-middle classes of
the Victorian era, at the time of the professionaliz-
ation of the academic disciplines. Denied access to the
academic training that would confer on them the
appropriate status as 'scientists', women like Mary
Kingsley, Mary Gaunt, Isabella Bird, and Marianne
North found that fieldwork in the sense of explo-
ration was as open to them as to anyone with
adequate resources. Yet, as the disciplines in general

97
Toward a feminist histr
griography
of
geography
were professionalized, and geography in particular
came to be rigorously defined, these women were
removed from the newly defined label of 'geographer'.
The fieldwork of 'professional' geographers was
codified and regulated in order to advance scientific
learning. Fieldwork as geographic inquiry was limited
to a few, elite, white males and was fostered in the
male club atmosphere of the Royal Geographic
Society (RGS) in England and the American
Geographical Society in the United States.
It was not until 1915 that women were elected to
membership in the RGS, and the 30-year story of that
battle reveals the predilections and prejudices of
Victorian male culture (Middleton, 1982). Women
had been elected to membership earlier, but only as
exceptions to the rule. When it became apparent that
the few women members might represent a trend, the
doors to their membership were effectively shut. Such
fervour followed the election of twelve women as
fellows in 1893 that membership to others was
immediately closed. As Birkett points out, much of
the objection to women began to be voiced in terms
of proper geographic knowledge. Women travellers,
it was thought, were not truly adding to geographic
knowledge
-
i.e., they were not surveying new lands
and therefore could not qualify for membership,
although such a requirement of 'new' geographic
knowledge was never applied to men seeking mem-
bership. As one member inquired, were the ladies to
be 'young and beautiful' or 'old and scientific' (Birkett,
1989, p. 219)? George Curzon, on his return from
Asia, was a vehement speaker against women's mem-
bership: 'Their sex and training render them equally
unfitted for exploration, and the genus of professional
female globe-trotters with which America has lately
familiarized us is one of the horrors of the latter end of
the nineteenth century' (quoted in Middleton, 1982,
p. 13). Curzon and his group were effective in pre-
venting those 'professional globe-trotters' from
becoming professional geographers.
Denied institutional support, Victorian women
explored and travelled at their own expense and in
their own contexts. Their lone travels were neither
followedup with full-scale explorationsnor sponsored
by institutions (as was the case with their male
counterparts). Thus their names survive, if at all,
through their writings but not through their
sanctioned deeds; their stores were, and are, not part
of the institutional histories of geography.
Stoddart is
not alone in writing a man's story of geography, but
by celebrating the exploratory tradition in geogra-
phy, his omission of women is even more blatant than
many other authors. The 'spark' that energized many
women explorers took them to places they themselves
could not have imagined, and it contributed far more
to geographic knowledge than we have heretofore
recognized.
WOMEN AND GEOGRAPHICAL
KNOWLEDGE
If our post-Kuhnian critiques of science have taught
us anything, it is that knowledge is socially and there-
fore ideologically contructed; it is as much a product
of who defines it as of some objective reality. The case
of the redefinition of 'exploration' mentioned above
clearly makes the point for the field of geography, and
one of the challenges for a post-modem geography is
somehow to come to terms with the subjectivity of
defining what constitutes knowledge. The stories of
women travellers are incredibly diverse, yet they
share some common threads, one of which is their
quite explicit recognition of the personal goals of
their travels. The so-called objective discoveries of
new places were not separated from the discoveries
of themselves.
Women travellers set out on their treks with some
definite goals, but 'discovery'
per
se,
in the sense of
discovering new lands, was not one of them (Birkett,
1989; Middleton, 1982). Many of these women
travellers were in middle age when they started to
live the life they had only imagined in their youth.
Most had grown up with family members who had
been involved in some aspects of exploration, but
they could only dream of setting out on voyages
themselves. It was usually only after they had fulfilled
their family 'duties' that they were free to set out on
their own. Divorced from the institutions that served
to legitimize travel for discovery, for fulfilling some
objective purpose, women travellers were free to
explore in the broadest sense. As Gertrude Bell states,
'My thoughts travelled forward, and
I
longed to fol-
low the path they had taken' (quoted in Birkett, 1989,
p. 62).
If
one were to draw their journeys on a map,
their routes would not resemble the fairly direct lines
to sources of rivers or tops of mountains, as was the
case with most of their male counterparts. Instead,
their routes were often circular, appearing to have no
definite destinations. They often took the form of
what
Stoddart calls planned journeys, 'of which the
aim is simply to proceed between known points, with
no suggestion of adding to knowledge other than
through traversing unfamiliar routes' (1986, p. 142).
Yet the lack of such external and institutional support

98
MONA
1
did not mean that these women were undirected.
Their direction came from internal sources, for most
were seeking places where they could live a type of
life denied them at home. Growing up in worlds
circumscribed by Victorian standards and expec-
tations, their lives had been molded for them. Their
freedom came from living in places removed from
that circumscription.
These women often spoke of the empowerment
they felt when they were exploring, and their utter
despair on losing that power when they returned
home. It was felt most acutely when they were visit-
ing regions that were located within the colonial
power structure. Colonialism allowed women to be
powerful as representatives of the white race; it
created a structure for a type of power dependent on
race, not on sex. In this light, we can begin to under-
stand their political support for colonialism, and their
belief in the essential nature of the differences
between the races. Their power and control over their
lives was based on their race; once those differences
were eroded or erased, their power was drained.
Overcoming the dangers encountered in their travels
was also a source of empowerment for such women,
and many wrote of these experiences with great
pride. Dangerous situations allowed them to prove
their abilities
-
abilities that could not be tested at
home
-
and it provided testing grounds for their own
strengths in controlling their life situations. These
sources of empowerment certainly were not exclusive
to women, but given the general context of Victorian
women's lives, they often provided the only sources
of such intensely-felt personal power and authority.
For some women explorers, their empowerment
when travelling often overcame physical disabilities.
Isabella Bird, for example, was continually diagnosed
with severe physical problems when she returned to
Britain from her travels, only to find the symptoms
disappear when she set out again. When speaking of
her decision to travel through Japan, she claimed it
was recommended for her health:
Having been recommended to leave home, in April
1878,
in order to recruit my health by means which had
proved serviceable before,
I
decided to visit Japan,
attracted less by the reputed excellence of its climate
than
by the certainty that it possessed, in an especial
degree, those sources of novel and sustained interest
which conduce so essentially to the enjoyment and
restoration of a solitary health-seeker (Bird,
1987,
p.
I).
Women travelled, then, for quite specific reasons,
but what they were seeking was as much empower-
ment and self-knowlegde as 'objective' knowledge.
'The women travellers followed invisible red lines
across a map into a distant unknown. But the pot of
gold they were chasing was not the mountain, the
source of the river, or the oasis in the desert, but the
long shadows, cast by the tropical sunlight and
mountain glare, of themselves' (Birkett,
1989,
p.
71).
Their satisfaction was derived not in the external dis-
covery of 'new' geographies, but in the process of
exploring, in experiencing a world in which they
could participate in their own definition.
In our questioning of the objectivity privileged by
the scientific method and in our recognition that our
choices of research topics, methodologies and results
tell us as much about ourselves as of some objective
reality, we might do well to reflect on a geographic
heritage in which such goals were explicitly recog-
nized.
Certainly male explorers were also interested
in self-exploration, but their contexts usually
demanded that the external discovery of 'places' was
given priority. Denied institutional context, women
were in a sense more free in their travels, and more
explicitly aware of their subjective goals.
WOMEN AS OBSERVERS: THE VIEW
FROM THE OUTSIDE
The process of exploration is by definition an
ambiguous one. On the one hand, it involves the so-
called 'opening up' of previously unknown lands and
peoples (that is, the exploration of 'foreign' peoples
by Western culture), while on the other, that 'opening
up' itself changes and ultimately destroys those very
societies that it 'discovers'. The role of the explorer
also is by definition ambiguous: explorers are both
outsiders and insiders, observers of, yet participants
in, the lives and lands that they travel through. In the
histories of exploration, these perspectives frequently
conflicted, and the external demands of discovery so
often a part of the male explorer's mission often
meant that these conflicts were ignored. Yet many
women explorers were arguably better suited to deal
with their ambiguous role. They were outsiders in the
everyday world by virtue of their sex, and much of
their energy throughout their lives had been spent
dealing with that fact. The ambiguity of the role of
explorer was not new to them. As women, their lives
were created around that dilemma; they were certainly
insiders and participants in their culture, yet they
always stood outside the structures of power.
Women carried that duality of identity into the field
with them, and they found that such duality served
them well. At home they were outsiders by virtue of

Toward a
feminist histc
their sex; in the field they were outsiders by virtue of
their race. And they realized the precariousness of
that position. Their authority in the field was derived
from their role as outsiders
-
as representatives of the
white race
-
yet the basis of that authority is what
made them insiders in a culture in which they had no
authority. Their skills at switching the basis of their
authority must have been well-honed, which, in turn,
allowed them to accommodate the ambiguities of the
role of 'observer'. 'Women travellers continually
juggled their identities in the foreign lands to meet
these turbulent emotions of sympathy yet distance,
and found comfort in a role which did not necessitate
the resolution of these seemingly insurmountable
conflicts of interest' (Birkett, 1989, p. 176).
Many such women found that their inclinations as
sympathetic observers could act as a basis for their
authority within their own culture, and therefore they
were keen supporters of the uniqueness of fieldwork.
Isabella Bird made a point of noting that as a woman
travelling alone, she was able to observe matters that
others may have missed:
As a lady travelling alone, and the first European lady
who had been seen in several districts through which my
route lay, my experiences differed more or less widely
from those of preceding travellers; and
I
am able to offer
a fuller account of the aborigines of Yezo, obtained by
actual acquaintance with them, than has hitherto been
given (Bird,
1985,
p.
1-2).
Fieldwork was based on subjective experience, and
women could claim that they provided valuable
insights that could not be gained from reading books
or studying in the university, luxuries denied to many
of them. Although herself highly educated, Gertrude
Bell supported the preciousness of knowledge gained
from direct experience:
Often when one sets out on a journey one travels by all
the roads according to the latest maps, one reaches all the
places of which the history book speak. Duly one rises
early and turns one's face towards new countries, care-
fully looks and laboriously one tries to understand, and
for all one's trouble one might as well have stayed behind
and read a few big archaeology books. But
I
would have
you know that is not the way that
I
have done it..
.
Here
is a world of history that one sees with the eye and that
enters the mind as no book can relate it (quoted in Birkett,
1989,
p.
173).
Ironically, it is this very claim to knowledge that
eventually was used to deny women's experiences
and exclude them from the status as professional
geographers. The subjectivity of fieldwork that
women could claim as their special contribution to
geographic knowledge was, as pointed out above,
systematically taken out of the realm of scientific
geography. The suppression of the subjective and the
denial of the ambiguity of observation was part of the
legitimation of the academy and the professionaliz-
ation of the social sciences that occurred in the first
decades of the twentieth century. Yet as anthropolo-
gists and other social scientists have recently argued,
fieldwork and ethnographic studies are by definition
exercises in metaphorical storytelling, and are as
much constructions of the subjective realm as of the
objective realm (Clifford and Marcus, 1986). Indeed, it
is the very recognition of the blurring of distinctions
between the subjective and the objective
-
between
observer and participant
-
that is at the heart of recent
critiques of science (Harding, 1986; Sayers, 1987;
Grosz, 1987). The 'pre-scientific' experiences of
women travellers at the turn of the century, therefore,
are in one sense more relevant today for what they
can tell us about the role of the outsider and the
methods of observation than for any information
about 'new' places.
REPRESENTING WOMEN'S EXPERIENCES
The inherent ambiguity in the experiences of women
explorers necessitated forms of representation that
differed from the scientific accounts of their male
counterparts. At one level, their choice of language
was circumscribed by the fact that they were women
engaged in work that was male-defined. To utilize the
discourse of exploration was to deny their gender and
identify totally with the male explorer. To 'conquer'
and 'penetrate' unknown lands was a male activity,
and the exploratory routes had provided the grounds
upon which men could prove their masculinity, sup-
pressing foreign lands as they had suppressed
women, imagining and describing those lands as
female (Said, 1979). The tensions between being a
women and being an explorer were made manifest in
many ways, including how the women chose to dress
themselves (whether they should dress like men in
trousers or wear long dresses was always at issue), but
in their choice of language these women were con-
fronted directly with those tensions. Their search for
a vocabulary that would lend legitimacy to their
experiences was a search that brought them abruptly
against the confines of the world circumscribed by a
male-defined
language.' In this, they could not take
language for granted, and they undoubtedly were
forced to recognize its opacity.

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TL;DR: Harding as mentioned in this paper provides the first comprehensive and critical survey of the feminist science critiques, and examines inquiries into the androcentricism that has endured since the birth of modern science, and argues that the critical discourse they foster is vital to the quest for a science informed by emancipatory morals and politics.
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01 Jan 1985
TL;DR: Keller's book as mentioned in this paper explores the possibilities of a gender-free science and the conditions that could make such a possibility a reality, and it represents the expression of a particular feminist perspective made all the more compelling by Keller's evident commitment to and understanding of science.
Abstract: Why are objectivity and reason characterized as male and subjectively and feeling as female? How does this characterization affect the goals and methods of scientific enquiry? This groundbreaking work explores the possibilities of a gender-free science and the conditions that could make such a possibility a reality. "Keller's book opens up a whole new range of ideas for anyone who cares to think about the history of science, that is, the history of the modern world. . . Let us be glad to be in times when such a sparkling, innovative. . . book can be produced, a book to start all of us thinking in new directions."--Ian Hacking, New Republic "A brilliant and sensitive undertaking that does credit not only to feminist scholarship but, in the end, to science as well."--Barbara Ehrenreich, Mother Jones "This book represents the expression of a particular feminist perspective made all the more compelling by Keller's evident commitment to and understanding of science. As a lively and important contribution to the scholarship of science, it will undoubtedly stimulate argument and controversy."--Helen Longino, Texas Humanist "Provocative arguments, presented with authority."--Kirkus Reviews "Consistently thoughtful, provocative, and interconnected. . . A well-made book that will be useful in upper-level undergraduate and graduate women's studies, philosophy, and history of science."--E.C. Patterson, Choice "Written with grace and clarity, [this book] will stand as an important contribution to feminist theory, to the sociology of knowledge and to the continuing critique of the established scientific method."--Lillian B. Rubin "A powerful book."--Jessie Bernard

2,146 citations

Book
30 Sep 1986

1,779 citations

Journal ArticleDOI
TL;DR: The term "new ethnography" is commonly used to refer to cultural accounts that are reflexive in a sense seldom seen in traditional ethnographic writing, such as identification of the fieldworker as an actor in the ethnographic situation.
Abstract: We wish to thank Mary Margaret Kellogg for her generous support of the Women's Studies Program at Simon's Rock of Bard College and its Faculty Development Fund. Support from that fund and from Vassar College made it possible for us to present an earlier version of this paper at the 86th annual meetings of the American Anthropological Association in Chicago, Illinois. We also wish to thank Francis C. Lees for keeping us warm and well fed while we worked, Nancy Hartsock for her inspiration and helpful suggestions, and Alissa Rupp and William Maurer for their assistance. 'The term "new ethnography" is commonly used to refer to cultural accounts that are reflexive in a sense seldom seen in traditional ethnographic writing. This reflexivity can take the form of identification of the fieldworker as an actor in the ethnographic situation, as in Paul Rabinow's Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1977); Barbara Myerhoffs Number Our Days (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978); Paul Friedrich's The Princes of Naranja: An Essay in Anthrohistorical Method (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986); Marianne Alverson's Under African Sun (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1987); J. Favret-Saada's Deadly Words: Witchcraft in the Bocage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980); and Manda Cesara's Reflections of a Woman Anthropologist: No Hiding Places (New York: Academic

393 citations