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Department of Geography


Women in Geography at Cambridge – a history

Header image: The Geographical group of 1926, the first group photograph to include women. Frank Debenham and Alfred Steers are third and fourth from left, second row. Jean Mitchell, lecturer in historical geography, is second from right, first row

The position of women in the Department of Geography deserves more than a brief mention, but it is obvious to even a casual observer that the Department has been transformed over the last hundred years. It has gone from being male-dominated to predominantly female, at least in terms of undergraduate numbers. That change actually happened as late as the 1990s. Women have moved, in a single generation, from a minority to a majority of students, even if they are still underrepresented as staff, especially at the higher ranks. There are some notable milestones to record here, however: Susan Owens became the first female Professor in the Department, in 2004, and the first female Head of Department, in 2010. Having said that, it is not unreasonable to take the view that women have only been belatedly recognised for their contribution to the Department.

Inevitably, this reflects the limited opportunities for women in higher education, with Cambridge being no exception to the rule, and possibly more restrictive than other institutions. In the mid-1920s, there were no female Professors or Readers at Cambridge, and only 10 female Lecturers in the whole University. There was but modest change after the Second World War – a handful of Professors, but not even one in ten lecturers were women. Just as much to be regretted was the exclusion of women from the kinds of friendship and academic networks routinely available to men. We might think of the physical geographer Margaret Swainson Anderson (née Willis) as an example both of female achievement and of the difficulties that women faced making their way in places like Cambridge. Anderson (1902-1952) was educated at Girton, as had been her mother and aunt, and she was regarded by the Head of Department Frank Debenham as ‘one of the most brilliant students’ in the Department of Geography. She came from a family fully familiar with university lecturing, and she taught first at the University of Manchester before taking up a Demonstrator’s position in the Geography Department at Cambridge in 1928. This progression was interrupted by career breaks and the war, but Margaret joined the Department as a Lecturer in 1948. In 1951, she published Geography of Living Things, but this came only a year before her untimely death.

It is important not to let the difficulties that women faced overshadow their real achievements, nor their significant presence in the Geography Department in its early years. Margaret Anderson was the first of the Geography Department’s University Demonstrators, and before she returned as a Lecturer, Harriet Wanklyn had joined the Department in 1936. Harriet, or Hetty, Wanklyn, married Alfred Steers in 1942, and taught in the Department until the mid-1960s. There was also the historical geographer Jean Mitchell, who joined the Department as a Lecturer in 1949. And, although she was not a university teaching officer, Jean Grove had come back to Cambridge as a college lecturer at Girton in 1953. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, three of the eight University Lecturers in Geography were women. This compares pretty well to the University average of between 5 and 7% from the 1920s through to the 1950s.

It is striking to look at early staff photographs, where we note the small size of the Department, but also the number of women involved. This compares very favourably to the Department of Geography in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, when the Department typically had a single female member of academic staff, or none at all. After Harriet Steers’ retirement in 1965, Jean Mitchell was on her own, although her own retirement coincided with Barbara Kennedy joining as a Demonstrator in 1968 for a five-year stint preceding her move to Manchester and in time a long tenure at Oxford. But after Kennedy had moved on, the Department was exclusively male: from 1973 until 1981, when Susan Owens joined, there was not a single female member of staff. Susan Owens was the sole female voice in the Department for a decade, until Linda McDowell was appointed in 1992. This is a little misleading: there were important women like Jean Grove or Lucy Adrian with college appointments, and with large numbers of female geographers under their wings at Girton and Newnham respectively – but the relative marginalization of women tells its own story. It is a remarkable fact, given the transformations undergone in Geography from the 1960s onwards: the quantitative revolution and its detractors, but also the influence of critical social theory, including feminist geography and related fields.

The Department has come a considerable way since, though one would not want to suggest that we have achieved equality (let alone wider issues concerning diversity). But the changing demographic of geographers is significant. In some ways Geography has long appealed at least as much to women as to men. In the days of the Geography Diploma which preceded full Tripos status, many or most candidates were women: in 1919, eight out of ten candidates were women, and in 1921, five out of six. Even the early tripos cohorts had room for up to 40% of Part II candidates, with near parity in 1931. During the Second World War, female Geographers were unsurprisingly in the ascendancy, and in 1946, 26 out of 31 Part II finalists were female: a record of 84% women. This proportion can be compared with low percentages in the coming decades, with 13% in 1950 and 16% in 1953, 17% in 1972, and 16% in 1976, with the averages around 20%. This we would expect given the fact that most colleges were men-only, and that there was an informal agreement dating to 1946-47, that women were not to matriculate more than a fifth of the numbers of resident men. Girton and Newnham played a very important part in the teaching of Geography students, but their numbers were limited, and thus the numbers of female undergraduates. The numbers of female students were thus artificially low, and probably do not reflect the demand for places in the Geography Department.

By the late 1970s, Cambridge colleges were starting the process of going mixed (the female-only colleges excepted), and the whole ethos of the University was changing. There was now no restriction of the numbers of women, and whilst in some other subjects, women have never applied in equal numbers to men, in Geography they have matched and outmatched their male peers. In our own day, the proportion of female candidates has come to hover around the 60% mark, with occasional blips only emphasising the greater numbers of women. For the record, the Department has very assiduously tracked the performances of men and women in the examinations and assessments, and is statistically confident that there is no difference in performance between the sexes.

In the 2020 Department, we have three female Professors, three Readers, two Senior Lecturers, and three Lecturers. That is still not parity, and the Athena Swan awards reflect progress in equality and diversity generally, but the Bronze Award is still something to be celebrated when we think of the changing position of women in the Department of Geography, particularly over the last thirty years or so.