What is "The Society of Woman Geographers"?
ASP's connection to the famed society through author, poet, journalist, Joanna Biggar.
Joanna Biggar, author of That Paris Year and the upcoming Melanie’s Song, is a member of an organization called “The Society of Woman Geographers” a group with its origin in the roaring 20s, a time when new technology was rapidly catching up with the West’s most expansive ambitions. Boasting members as diverse as pilot Amelia Erhart and primatologist Jane Goodall, Joanna Biggar, herself a consummate traveler and former journalist, as a member, is rubbing elbows with some of the world’s leading female scientists.
But, to understand what it means for Joanna Biggar to be one of the five hundred current members of The Society, we must look further back still, past even its inception, to the beginning of the golden-age of American exploration.
In 1900 science was more cosmopolitan than ever before. On the forefront of the west’s rapid industrialization were the until-then quiet Americans who leveraged their newly harvested wealth toward exploration in the Pacific and Arctic territories. A young nation, Americans were still playing catch-up with their European counterparts—though it was made easier for them as they had been sitting idly until then upon some of the most resource-rich soil in the entire world. During this time, Americans were first to the North Pole, first to create a canal connecting the Pacific and the Atlantic, among the first to successfully utilize submarine technology, and, above all, the first in flight.
In May of 1904 explorer Henry Collins Walsh called a meeting of American explorers at the Aldine Association in New York City. Fifty men attended. This gathering was the genesis of the first American professional association of explorers, “The Explorer’s Club.”
In an age before the internet and wireless communication, The Explorer’s Club provided a needed infrastructure for the dissemination of scientific ideas in American intellectual and adventure society. The club put on lectures, official and unofficial, many discussion series, and printed limited-run publications dressed up as “oral histories.” In a time when access to exploration and its enabling technology was growing faster than could be handled by old-guard academic publishing methods and too-disparate distributive means, The Club provided a more formal, more connected diffusion of cutting-edge ideas and discoveries. But, despite its intense inter-connectivity and its goal of uniting the latest American discoveries in publication, The Club was exclusive to men.
When Marguarite Harrison returned from her expedition living with and studying the habits of the people of Bactriana (an historical region in Central Asia), she saw many of her colleagues, all of them men, being elected to the now well-known Explorer’s Club on the merits of what was partly her own research and sacrifice. This was not, unfortunately, a singular injustice; Gertrude Emerson Sen who traveled with Mahatma Ghandi, Blair Niles who wrote about the cultures of Colombia while traveling through the country in an ox cart, and Gertrude Shelby, an experienced economic geographer, who studied the folklore of Surinamese natives, along with Harrison, all felt they were kept from the recognition they rightfully deserved in their respective fields.
As many of the fiercest movements have been stirred and kindled, so from rejection came a society the likes of which would underwrite some of the most brilliant scientific minds and adventurous spirits in American History. From the frustration of four brilliant scientists (who so happened to be women) came not destruction, not rejection, not spite, not malice, but, as would befit the sciences, invention.
The Society of Woman Geographers, an American-based international multidisciplinary professional society, is just this invention. In February of 1932 they hosted their first dinner at the American Museum of Natural History which was attended by Amelia Erhart and Elizabeth Dickey among many others.
Since its founding, The Society has grown into an international force for the funding and diffusion of discovery. To understand the role of the society in many of American scientist’s most important discoveries, one can read oral histories from members of the organization over on their website HERE.
Joanna Biggar, as a member of The Society carries the torch first lit by Harrison, Emerson Sen, Shelby, and Niles in the early 1920s. She continues to bear the torch through her travel writing for Wanderland Writers, and in her dedication to cultural examination and critique within her most recent fictional works.
You can read more about Joanna’s induction into and experience with The Society in a blog post on her personal website HERE.
The Explorer’s Club admitted its first class of women in 1981.
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