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American Women: Resources from the Geography and Map Collections

Thematic Maps and Atlases

Recent interest in women's history in the context of geographic location has resulted in the creation of thematic maps and atlases that focus on topics related to women. Thematic cartographic material addresses a single topic or closely related topics, illustrating the distribution of that topic or subject. Some of the newer thematic publications are rich sources of information about twentieth-century women. The quality and complexity of these works has greatly increased in the past decade as more systematic approaches have been used with more accurate statistics, and often with the application of GIS technology.12 In some cases, however, distribution patterns or variations with regard to place can be shown quite effectively with simple line drawings, such as those found in A Midwife's Tale13

Selected thematic atlases show the promise and products of GIS technology and its effectiveness in conveying information about American women. A stunning example of a thematic atlas using carefully researched recent data that has been analyzed by GIS technology is The State of Women in the World Atlas by Joni Seager. Seager's subjects include women's work, motherhood, female children, the beauty culture, lesbian rights, domestic violence, women in government, poverty, property ownership, education, and the use of contraception. The maps display the spatial distribution for that topic around the world, making it relatively easy to compare various countries and areas of the globe with each other and with the United States. The author uses additional symbols and statistical information to compare the United States in greater detail to other countries in the world, elaborating on the subject or theme of the map.

Joni Seager. Property: women own about one percent of the world's land. 1997. Plate 27. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

For example, in plate 27, “Property,” seen at the top of this page, the author states that women own about 1 percent of the world's land (Seager, 76-77). The map compares countries of the world where women can legally own land with those areas where there are customary or religious laws preventing women from inheriting or owning property, land, or wealth on the same basis as men. There is an additional symbol showing the percentage of women who own agricultural land in many countries of the world; at 6 percent, the United States has one of the lowest rates. Detail for the United States on the map shows home ownership in 1993, indicating that of households headed by women, 44 percent own their own homes, whereas 79 percent of married couples own their homes. The pictorial comparison between female-headed households versus married couples is further broken down by race. Only 24 percent of Hispanic female-headed households own their homes, followed by 30 percent for African Americans, and 51 percent for whites. The figures for married homeownership are 53 percent for Hispanics, 64 percent for African Americans, and 81 percent for whites. The volume contains extensive lists of source material used for each of the topics and identifies additional resources for further study. This work provides a model for compiling similar maps illustrating geographical patterns and distribution that can be used to analyze historical trends and change over time.

The Routledge Historical Atlas of Women in America, edited by Sandra Opdycke, is one of the few thematic atlases specifically designed to address major themes, trends, and topics in American women's history. Taking a geographical and demographic perspective, it uses maps and charts to document the growth of women's social and political rights and reform movements, such as temperance, women's suffrage, abolitionism, contraception, abortion rights, and the Equal Rights Amendment. It is inclusive of groups of women that are sometimes overlooked; for example, it contains material on women living in tenements and the migration of African American women from the South to cities in the North between 1914 and 1925. Although statistical data are the basis for much of its content, it is one of few atlases placing demographic information within the political and social contexts of the past that is solely devoted to American women.

Two atlases about American women related to twentieth-century women's history are The Women's Atlas of the United States by Timothy H. and Cathy Carroll Fast and Atlas of American Women by Barbara Gimla Shortridge. In addition to mapping recent trends and topics, they also suggest ways in which retrospective data can be analyzed in studying earlier time periods.

The Fasts' work is primarily based on 1990 census data, comparing them to past census information. It is divided into sections on demographics, education, employment, health, politics, family, and criminal activity and victims of crime, but few of the plates show change over time. One plate that does show the population of women from 1800 to 1980, with benchmarks for 1850, 1900, and 1950, also indicates states where men outnumber women. The Fasts provide current data and maps on women minorities other than Hispanics, as well as maps focusing specifically on Hispanics. For the latter, there are data on AIDS, education levels, immigration, out-of-wedlock births, poverty, and unemployment. Information on Native Americans includes demographics, education levels, suffrage, numbers of victims of crime, prisoners, and those living in nonfamily households or in nursing homes. For Asian Americans there is information on immigration, demographics, high school graduates, poverty levels, and those living in nursing homes or in prison.

The Women's Atlas provides more categories of data for African Americans than for any other racial group. Information on birth weight, AIDS, correctional officers, number of homicide victims, those living in poverty or on death row, and life expectancy is given; there is also a category for African American women in Congress.

The major source of data for the Shortridge atlas is the 1980 census, but there are additional maps illustrating patterns of change over a longer period of time. Categories of information include data on demographics, the labor force, earnings and income, occupations, education, sports, relationships, pregnancy, health, crime, and politics. Groups are more narrowly defined in the Shortridge atlas than in the Fasts' publication. There is information about elderly women and those dwelling in rural areas. Data on Pacific Islanders, Eskimos and Aleuts, and the foreign born are also included. In general, Shortridge makes comparisons between groups of women, whereas the Fasts primarily compare data between men and women. Used together, these two atlases provide a wealth of information about American women in the late twentieth century.

A new atlas published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Women and Heart Disease: An Atlas of Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Mortality, analyzes deaths from 1991 to 1995 by county and race. Between various regions of the country, large disparities exist, but within local areas, the difference between the death rate for white women and those of minorities is also considerable. For the entire country, 370,000 women die annually from heart disease; the death rate for black women is 533 per 100,000 population compared to 388 per 100,000 for white women. Atlas plates highlight these differences.

Another example of a thematic atlas that includes material about women is the Atlas of American Sport by John F. Rooney Jr. and Richard Pillsbury. It contains information on participation of women in sports such as gymnastics and swimming between 1970 and 1990. Finding this kind of material is difficult without examining the volume because it is not always evident that the content includes data on women. The best strategy for finding these resources is to locate a theme or themes related to your research topic to use in the subject field—such as “sports”—for a computer catalog search. Other subject headings that may lead you to useful source material are “minorities,” “race relations,” “ethnic relations,” “urban poor,” or the more general heading “historical geography.”

Print Materials Referenced


  1. Geographic Information Systems are software packages that analyze and arrange layers of data into a map format. Back to text
  2. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, A Midwife's Tale (New York: Vintage Books, 1991; F29.H15U47 1991). See pages 15, 26, 41, 78, 128, 166, 228, 268, 289, 321, and 330. Back to text