Mapping Out the Hidden World of Women Cartographers

Kirstine Colban’s first known map, of the Lofoten Islands. Source: Avdeling for fag og forskning, Nasjonalbiblioteket, Oslo, Norway.

“Oftentimes the world of women cartographers seems to be hidden, much like the so-called dark side of the moon,” says Will C. Van Den Hoonaard in Map Worlds: A History of Women in Cartography, newly published by Wilfrid Laurier University Press. As it turns, a woman—the Russian-born cartographer Kira Shingareva—was one of the first mapmakers to plot the dark side of the moon in 1965. We asked Van Den Hoonaard, a professor emeritus of sociology at the University of New Brunswick, to tell us more about what he calls “cartography from the margins.”

What provoked your interest in the subject of women cartographers?

I started out as a cartographic editor, at one point served on a committee, and noticed how happy a colleague was.  I asked why and she told me she had just been named chair of the International Cartographic Association’s Commission on Gender and Cartography. That started me thinking…

When did women first appear in the world of mapmaking?

Probably the first maps made by woman came out of nunneries—like the world map made by Ende, a 10th century Spanish nun.

And then?

Women came to the fore in the golden age of cartography in the low countries in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It was the era of family-run map-making ateliers. Women were engravers, colorists, and would stitch the leaves of a map into a book.

Let’s fast forward to the early 19th century and one of the more remarkable and poignant examples of a women mapmaker, Shanawdithit, the last remaining member of the indigenous tribe in Newfoundland known as the Beothuk.

Shanawdithit, the last survivor of the Beothuk, mapped the history of her people in Newfoundland. Source: Collection of the Newfoundland Museum, St. John's, Newfoundland.
Shanawdithit, the last survivor of the Beothuk, mapped the history of her people in Newfoundland. Source: Collection of the Newfoundland Museum, St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Shanawdithit’s family and tribe were purposely eradicated by settlers—it was tragic and stomach-churning. Around 1823, she was taken in by a captain who taught her to draw and make maps. Even though she was only ten or eleven years old at the time of the persecution of her people, she could recollect the events and portray them in a series of maps. It shows the movements of her people, and the horrific actions of the English settlers.  It is a map of memory and pain.

You write that the 19th century also witnessed the birth of maps that instigated social change.

In 1895, Florence Kelley, a social activist in Chicago, created a series of maps plotting the intertwining of immigration and poverty. She plotted the condition of the slums. This brought home to politicians the urgency of the situation and spurred them to make changes.

I’m also quite taken with the story of Phyllis Persall, creator of the London A-Z maps, a comprehensive atlas of the city’s streets and landmarks.

She was going to a party in Belgravia and lost her way. The map she had was inadequate so she came up with the idea of creating an up-to-date map. She would get up at 5 a.m., walk for eighteen hours a day with a draftsman, James Duncan as her only colleague. By the time she produced her first A-Z map of London in 1936, she had walked 23,000 streets. When publishers rejected her map, she published 10,000 copies herself.  Finally, she was successful, and orders started to flow in.

Marie Tharp, one of the women you profile was recognized by the National Geographic Society when she received the Hubbard Medal for distinction in discovery, exploration and research in 1978.

In the 1950s, Marie Tharp, who had been hired by the Lamont Geological Observatory at Columbia University, began plotting the depths of data gathered from echo soundings of the ocean floor from ships in the Atlantic. She wasn’t allowed to go on the ships herself. She stayed in the office and worked with the information. She saw a pattern and realized that it was a valley—a rift—and realized the only explanation for that was continental drift, a theory that was proposed in 1912 and laughed at. Her supervisor, Bruce Heezen, found this embarrassing and dismissed it as “girl talk.” She’d chalk her findings on a board. He would erase it. Finally he saw the light. And they worked together, co-authoring books, maps and articles—with his name first, of course.

In your book you speak about ”Women and children pushed to the margins of maps.” How?

Take city maps. You might not see bus stops marked on the map. Men are not the prime user of buses.  Clinics, schools, playgrounds will be indicated in lighter colors as opposed to the darker, more prominently depicted police station in black. A hockey rink might have its full name on the map; a playground may not.

What kind of reaction has your book generated?

When I went to a conference in Central Europe, some of the male cartographers were upset. ‘Why do we need this book?’ they asked. ‘In our country, women have full equality. We let them stay in the kitchen or we let them work.’

What percentage of cartographers working today are women?
Depending on region and the area of specialization, I’d say between 20 to 33 per cent.

In your book, you mention “alleged gender differences in map reading” and the assumption that men are not expected to ask for directions. How do you explain their reluctance to do so?

I think it’s the sense of failure of not knowing.

Human Journey

Meet the Author
Cathy Newman began her career writing for the Miami News, before joining the staff of National Geographic Magazine where she was Editor at Large. In addition to dozens of articles for the magazine, she is the author of three books for National Geographic. Perfume: The Art and Science of Scent, Women Photographers at National Geographic, and Fashion. She is a regular contributor to Smithsonian Journeys.