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Sirens within the IGU - an analysis of the role of women at International Geographical Congresses (1871-1996)

Marie-Claire Robic, Mechtild Rössler et UNESCO

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1Like the history of women in science, the history of female geographers is a complex one. We have tried to study the role of women in geography during the last 130 years, from the first International Geographical Congress (Antwerpen, 1871) to the 28th (Den Hague, 1996). As students, as researchers and as teachers, women are nowadays an integral part of geographical congresses. But when the first international geographical congress started, there were virtualy no female participants. Women in science existed in two forms : outside the scientific institutions or as wives, daughters or secretaries accompanying male scientists and scholars. The congressional life for women at that time was the "Ladies' Program", which remained even in the mid-twentieth century. After the First World War, and from the sixties, women could gradually participate to the scientific commissions of the International Geographical Union (IGU). The shift from the Ladies' Program to the feminist session is another fundamental change in the last decades.

2So, the history of women at International Geographical Congresses and within the organization IGU reflects not only the history of women in scientific organizations but also the development of geography as a discipline.

3To illustrate the role of women at International Geographical Congresses we have first selected a few examples which portray three stages and generations of women's representation at International Geographical Congresses : Exceptional women who were hardly known at their time, Pioneer women of their discipline and Professional women geographers. The following examples of women "within" mirror the different periods of advancement of geographical knowledge from the exploration, discovery and imperialism which dominated 19th century to the emergence of geography as a part of modern social science taking gender into account. Then we study some structural features underlying the acess of women to these geographical congresses. Finally, we give our interpretation of a figure : sirens in geography.

Selected women and their roles

Exceptional Women

4Clémence Augustine Royer (1830-1902), a natural philosopher of the 19th century and french encyclopedist became famous as the translator of Darwin into French. She attended the International Geographical Congress in Paris in 1875. She was not only known as anthropologist, translator of Darwin and evolutionarist, but also as militant feminist at the time. Her attendance at an international geographical congress is an example of the overlapping interest of different disciplines (anthropology, ethnology and geography) and the broad approach towards the natural environment, geography had at the time. One notices particularly the absence of any specialization.

Pioneer women

5Ellen Semple (1863-1932) is representative for a shift of women in the nineteenth century from discovery and travel to scientific research. Semple earned a B.A and a M.A. (1891) from Vassar College and studied - after some travel in Europe - at the University of Leipzig with the German anthropogeographer Friedrich Ratzel.

6"During the time that Semple studied in Leipzig in 1891, [...] no PhD degree had been granted to a woman. Nor would the university allow women to matriculate" (Bushdong, 1984, 88).

7Semple, however was admitted to seminars and she gained a professional focus in her work. This resulted not only in translations from German, but in her own books including American History and Its Geographic Conditions (1903) and Influences of Geographic Environment, on the Basis of Ratzel's System of Anthropo-geography (1911). She "adopted Ratzel's thesis that the characteristics of human societies are determined by their physical environments" (Ogilvie: 1991, 159). In 1904 she was invited to read a paper before the International Geographical Congress in Washington D.C.

8"Like many other geographers during the First World War, Semple worked for the Inquiry, in its Headquarters at the house of the American Geographical Society in New York [...] women in research positions on the Inquiry staff, such as herself, were not allowed to travel to Europe to work on final research matters because they were women. Ironically wives of high officials were allowed to accompany their husbands." (Bushdong, 1984: 89).

9This quote highlights the situation of women in science in the first half of the century and gives a glimpse to what it must have been for Semple and the few others who were present in their professional capacity at the early international geographical congresses.

10Martha Krug-Genthe (? -?) is another example of "pioneer women". She was one of the first German women who earned a Ph.D. in Geography, from Alfred Hettner in Heidelberg in 1901. It was not Semple nor a male geographer, but Martha Genthe who provided the "Hommage" to Ratzel at the International Geographical Congress in Washington in 1904. At the same congress Krug-Genthe presented a paper on "School geography in the United States" in the section on geography and education.

11"She and Semple later became the only women among the forty-eight charter members of the Association of American Geographers (AAG). Moreover, Krug-Genthe was the only one among that group who had a doctorate in geography" (Bushdong, 1984, 88).

12Millicent Todd Bingham (1880-1968) was one of the few women who read a paper at the International Geographical Congress in Paris in 1931. Bingham had studied geography at the University of Berlin from 1909 to 1911 and continued at the Department of Geology and Geography at Harvard University. She met Ellen Semple in 1916, who had urged Bingham "to make geography her profession" (Berman, 1987: 8). In 1923 she completed her dissertation on Peru. Her main influence and also recognition was the translation of works of Vidal de la Blache, in particular Principes de géographie humaine, which was published in 1926. Like other women at that time, she was concerned about the protection of the environment and donated an island belonging to her family to the Audunbon Society as a wildlife sanctuary.

Professional women geographers

13Marguerite A. Lefèvre (1894-1967) is representative for a transition stage between the "pioneer women" and the professional women geographers, the first group of women with a scientific career who also made a "real career" in an international scientific organization, the IGU. She was the first women to study geography in Belgium, with Paul Michotte and she completed her thesis with Albert Demangeon at the University of Paris in 1926.

14"There can be few people who shared her record of attending every congress of the International geographical Union from Cambridge in 1928 to London in 1964. [...] The International Geographical Union had no more devoted supporter than Marguerite Lefèvre and she was a member of several commissions, of which that on rural habitat, founded in 1925, was clearly related to her post-graduate researches: for this commission she produced several reports of a synthetic character and acted as a secretary from 1928". (Denis: 1986, 106-107)

15Marguerite A. Lefèvre was not only among the first professional women attending and contributing to International Geographical Congresses. She moreover strengthened the work of the commissions and became Vice-President of the IGU from 1949 to 1952.

16Jacqueline Beaujeu-Garnier (1917-1996) represents the first professional women geographer, one of the first mentors, who was recognized in her own country and internationally. She has a classic education on the highest scientific level. In 1947 she earned her thèse de doctorat d'Etat from the Sorbonne in Paris with her thesis in geomorphology. She was not only the first women to do so, but became University professor and in 1959 Professor at the Sorbonne. She was active within the IGU and participated in a number of commissions : medical geography, population geography, regional and international atlases and urban areas, a working group, which she presided from 1980 to 1988. She never, however, had any functions in the Executive Committee of the IGU.

Paths, detours, networking and new approaches

17These few examples are representative for three generations of female presence at International Geographical Congresses: we have seen exceptional women, hardly recognized and disputed, such as Clémence Royer, the pioneer women in their disciplines such as Ellen Semple and the professional geographers, who followed a classical geographical education and career.

18The congress which was held in Cambridge in 1928 seems to be a turning point when women are significantly accepted. In this congress, a few of them are official delegates of their country, some of them are "officers of sections", some of them are elected as secretaries for the working commissions, some of them present scientific papers and collaborate to the international programs.

Are there special routes for acceeding to geographical congresses ?

19Concerning the ways women could use for acceeding to geography, we can give three main conclusions. Of course, due to the little number of women involved in the first times of the geographical congresses, qualitative evidence rather than quantitative one can be stressed here.

20The first point is that a privileged access for women to International Geographical Congresses has been geographical education. After Clémence Royer (Paris Congress, 1875), one of the first women who spoke in the Paris Congress (1889) was Miss Kleinhans, a French teacher who was active in the group on Geography and "Pedadogy". In 1904 (Washington), four of the five women who attended actively the congress presented pedagogical topics, and 3 of the 16 communications of the pedagogical group were due to women (about 150 papers were read during the Congress). During the inter-war, many women presented papers in the pedagogical sessions (for instance they presented 4 of the 12 summaries quoted in the report of the Warsaw Congress in 1934).

21A second point is the leading role played by human geography, in opposition to physical and mathematical geography, in permitting the women's access to geographical research. In the end of the 19th century, women were of course excluded from geodesy, topography and physical geography, which were largely kept in by military hands. But this exclusion lasted during the first part of the 20th century, when women participated significantly in the commission on rural settlement, and then to colonial, urban and economic issues, but were not present in geomorphology during numerous decades.

22A third interesting point is that a woman from a latin and/or a catholic country had a better chance to be present at IGU congresses than women coming from an anglo-saxon /and or a protestant one. A first evidence for this is the fact that the first official female delegates came from this type of countries (this is the case of Myriem Foncin from France and of Rosa Filetti, the Mexican delegate, in 1928 at Cambridge). Secondly, relatively a higher number of women from Belgian, France and Poland attended the International Geographical Congresses during the interwar period, compared to Great Britain and the USA.

23The analysis of the London Congress in 1964 emphasizes these points for a more recent period. On about 30 women who published a summary in the Congress Report, 4 attended the pedagogical session, 15 attended the human and economic sessions, and 10 worked for physical ones. Of these 30 women, 7 were French geographers, 7 came from Central and Latin America, others from Poland, Austria and Belgium : i.e 2/3 of the women speaking in the sessions of the London Congress came from a "catholic" sphere and half of them came from a "latin" one. Only 5 women came from USA and 3 from Great Britain, though it is well known that, usually, the more numerous group of people attending a congress comes from the country where it takes place: in this example, the very low score of Great Britain seems to be significant of a low rate of female participation in International Geographic Congresses, and the contrast between remote countries like South and Central America on one hand and USA on the other is significant too of the gendered situation in USA.

24The composition of the Executive Committe of the IGU might give another insight in this cultural opposition. But, as the choice of a woman for this official position is extremely rare, it would be adventurous to seek for a statistical analysis. Nevetheless, we can notice that M.A. Lefèvre, from Belgian (Liège), has been the first women acceeding to the Executive Committe. Other female officials of the Executive Committe came from catholic countries too. That is the case, first, of Maria Teresa Gutierrez de Mac Gregor, from Mexico, who is the second woman to be a IGU Vice-president, and who was elected in 1984 only!

Networks ?

25At the turn of the century the few professional women geographers turning up at International Geographical Congresses (among them Ellen Semple, Martha Krug-Genthe and Millicent Todd-Bingham) knew each other and although you cannot call it networking, they supported each other and encouraged each other in geography. Women at the time had rarely access to universities and to scientific organizations. Even Geographical Societies were closed for women, such as the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) in London until 1913 and the New York Explorers Club until 1981. In response to this situation women geographers and explorers founded in 1925 their own organization: the "Society of Women Geographers" (SWG). A number of women mentioned were members of this society and the SWG played a role at several IGU congresses. First and foremost at the 1952 congress in Washington, where they organized the social programme and 40 years later in 1992 in supporting young women from developing countries with grants to attend the IGU congress.

26From networking to their own organizations it is one step, to discussions on "gender and geography" another: the Commission on Gender and Geography, founded in 1992, is one of the most active of all IGU Commissions and has with their symposia in South Africa (Gender and Migration, March 1995), Ghana (Gender and Environment, december 1995) and the Caribbean regional Meeting (Cuba August 1995) opened passageways to other parts of the world.

Symbolic representations

27Female allegories is another interesting aspect of the history of exploration, geography and mapping. Asia, Europa and Africa represent the different continents, and Marianne, Helvetia and Germania the respective countries: France, Switzerland and Germany. These allegories, not surprisingly, were used for map production and symbolic representations. National symbols are female (with the exception of the populist ones such as the German Michel and Uncle Sam) and these symbols are widely used.

28In the case of the IGU, however, the symbolic representations were never used, as can be seen from the reproductions we have gathered in our book on the history of the geographical congresses, with one exception. At the congress of Warsaw in 1934, a "Syrenia" is placed on the official plakette of the IGU congress. This figure is the symbol of Warsaw : its presence on the "logo" of this Congress, together with a map of Poland, reveals the strong nationalistic feelings of the thirties.

29We have herewith unveiled the double meaning of the title of our paper: Sirens in the IGU with the allegoric use of Syrenia in a national context of an International Geographical Congress and - Sirens - in their relation to the motto of this congress "Land, Sea and human effort" in a new interpretation of the sirens of the Odyssey. Sirens in the Greek mythology, are creatures made of half bird and half women, who lured sailors to destruction by the sweetness of their songs. They were mainly located in the mediterranean and the sirens "seem to have evolved from a primitive tale of the perils of exploration combined with an Oriental image of a bird-woman."

30To come back to the Odyssey of women in the IGU one can conclude, that their representation mirrors the social change of society, the access of women to higher education and to science, slower of course in the natural sciences than in the social ones (and geography considered itself closer to nature...). We have also demonstrated the main areas of research to which women have first contributed: geographical education and human geography. Women were rarely present in their scientific capacity in the early history of the IGU, but if we look today at the programme of the IGU congress in Den Hague, they contribute with an enormous part to this conference, both in numbers and in papers and they have made an impact with the Commission on Gender and Geography, which may also contribute to a new analysis of the world.

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Marie-Claire Robic, Mechtild Rössler et UNESCO, « Sirens within the IGU - an analysis of the role of women at International Geographical Congresses (1871-1996) », Cybergeo: European Journal of Geography [En ligne], Epistémologie, Histoire de la Géographie, Didactique, document 14, mis en ligne le 14 décembre 1996, consulté le 24 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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