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Patricia Molen van Ee, Specialist in Cartographic History, Geography and Map Division (retired)
Julie Stoner, Editor, Reference Librarian, Geography and Map Division
Note: This guide is adapted from the original chapter in American Women: A Library of Congress Guide for the Study of Women's History and Culture in the United States.
Created: October 24, 2018
Last Updated: January 7, 2022
The intersections and mutual influences of “geography” and “gender” are deep and multifarious. Each is, in profound ways, implicated in the construction of the other: geography in its various guises influences the cultural formation of particular genders and gender relations; gender has been deeply influential in the production of “the geographical.”
— Doreen Massey, Space, Place, and Gender1
The Geography and Map Division acquires, processes, maintains, and provides access to “cartographic materials,” which are defined as spatial data that are presented graphically. Traditional formats include single maps, series or set maps, atlases, globes, nautical charts, and three-dimensional maps and terrain models. As of 2018, there are approximately 6 million maps and more than nintey thousand atlases in the division. 2
The division also collects a wide variety of recent spatial data sets that vary in terms of their accuracy and usefulness and require the use of associated geographic information system (GIS) software packages. Although specialized training is necessary to use these parts of the collection, many recent atlases contain maps that have been made with this kind of material assisted by GIS technology, producing cartographic products which can easily be interpreted by researchers.
Only a small proportion of the Library's retrospective maps and atlases directly address the status of women or their spatial characteristics, but the division's traditional resources, previously overlooked by most scholars, are readily available to researchers and contain a wealth of information awaiting discovery.
Some of the most exciting questions being studied by scholars of American women's history can be answered only by the use of cartographic collections. Historical differences between men's and women's spatial behavior and their responses to physical and social environments; the nature and varieties of gender relationships in urban, suburban, and rural settings; the similarity and differences between men's and women's work and workplaces; the concepts of space and place—central, gendered, public, private, and communal—are but a few of the subjects that not only benefit from the use of cartographic material, but require it. As Doreen Massey, a pioneer in the field of feminist geography has said, “Geography matters!” 3
Examples of new approaches using traditional materials and re-framed questions about geography in the context of gender roles, space, place, and time can be found in the works of Massey, Daphne Spain, John Paul Jones III, Heidi J. Nast, Susan M. Roberts, and Alison Lee, which offer historians exciting perspectives from which to interpret the history of women in America. Although scholars have long recognized that gender relations evolve over time, an important contribution of the feminist geographers to historians has been to point out that gender relations also vary between spaces within similar time frames and in those same spaces over longer periods of time.4 Past Time, Past Place: GIS for History provides an excellent introduction to how GIS can be used by historians.
The result of these studies is a growing realization that geographic differences—including such characteristics as topography, vegetation, climate, geology, urbanization, transportation networks, power source availability, labor pools, and access and proximity to markets—create different social structures that determine gender roles and behavior. This body of work also demonstrates that interpretation of geographic information is essential not only to the study of gender but also to discussions of broad historical topics such as regionalism, urbanization, industrialization, borderlands, frontiers, migration, immigration, contact zones, and cultural encounters.5
Nikolas H. Huffman, in the 1997 compilation Thresholds in Feminist Geography, notes that traditionally the fields of geography and cartography have had a masculine bias that has limited the scope of field studies as well as cartographic products produced by these studies. He points to the systematic exclusion of women “which can be seen in the ensuing history of women in cartography, and how masculinity is reflected in maps as images of power, communicating world order as well as world views, and in the virtual silence about women in the disciplinary discourse of academic cartography.”6
For these reasons, some feminist geographers have been reluctant to use maps as sources. They argue that maps fail to adequately represent women and women's lives and that they are primarily the work of men. They recognize that maps are also products of the prevailing masculine culture, and, as artifacts of that culture, maps can be used as tools of domination and power.
But despite legitimate reservations about the objectivity of maps as reliable sources, significant work is currently being done that indicates that a much larger role has been played by women in the fields of geography and cartography than was previously recognized. Even more important is evidence reflecting the presence of significant amounts of information about women on traditional maps to a far greater degree than has been reported by scholars.
Close examination of a variety of cartographic material, such as the pages of the atlas below reveals a wealth of information about women's lives that has until recently been overlooked. Many more female landowners' names appear on maps than have previously been noted. Indications of their occupations, the distances that they travel to and from work, and their relative wealth and standing in the community are only a few examples of data that can be found on cartographic materials.
J.A. Caldwell. Caldwell's Illustrated historical combination atlas of Clarion County, Pennsylvania. 1877. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.
Doreen Massey has illustrated the connections between geography and gender in her publications primarily on the basis of studies of the lives of British women. An example is found in “A Woman's Place,” the chapter she wrote with Linda McDowell in Geography Matters! 7 In a section entitled “Coal Is Our Life: Whose Life?” she elaborates on the themes of her study. Her research has led her to the conclusion that “danger and drudgery: male solidarity and female oppression—this sums up life. . . . Here the separation of men and women's lives was virtually total: men were the breadwinners, women the domestic labourers, though hardly the ‘angels of the house’ that featured so large in the middle class Victorian's idealization of women” (p. 129).
“For miners' wives almost without exception, and for many of their daughters, unpaid work in the home was the only and time-consuming option” (p. 130). Although men worked in dirty and dangerous coal mines, during their leisure hours they gathered together in the union halls or the local pubs, sharing a sense of community and commonality. Women, however, worked in isolation in their homes, cooking and cleaning for husbands and sons who often worked different shifts and came home dirty. Food preparation around the clock and the constant need to launder work clothes and rid the house of coal dust consumed their time and energy. Women were subordinate to men and unable to work outside the home. Their daily lives were clearly connected to geology, geography, and mining technology.
Massey's research was based on work done in Europe, but her concepts are applicable to other parts of the world, particularly the United States, which has a close cultural affinity to Great Britain. Geography and technological capabilities make coal mining possible. Where there are mines, the social conditions that Massey describes are likely to be found, although more research into women's lives in coal mining communities of the United States remains to be done. Her analysis of life in agricultural societies and factories using female laborers is also relevant to the history of the United States. Massey and her colleagues have indeed proven that “geography matters!”
Perhaps the most important result of this work is that maps are finally receiving the attention they deserve as primary sources for the study of topics in women's history. Use of geographic information and maps in historical studies on topics in American women's history has produced some gratifying initial results. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich's Pulitzer Prize-winning work A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812 analyzes subjects such as migration patterns by identifying places of origin of residents settling in a new community in Hallowell, Maine.8 She also traces the distances traveled in the course of women's daily lives and the proximity of dwellings to each other and to other significant places in and around the community. Maps are then created to illustrate her findings. The importance of cartographic information to her work suggests that other historical studies may come to be evaluated in part on whether and how maps are integrated into the research, analysis, and presentation of the finished product.
Benjamin C. Ray has skillfully applied GIS in his chapter, “Teaching the Salem Witch Trials,” in Past Time, Past Place.9Using a relatively simple GIS to show locations of households of accusers, accused, and defenders, he also studies the relative affluence of those involved, and the spread of accusations throughout New England during 1692. Past Time, Past Place is an excellent introduction to the use of historical maps as well as GIS for research projects.