UWE to explore women expeditioners' records

Issue date: 27 May 2010

Book cover image The history of twentieth century women expeditioners is being unearthed, in many cases for the first time since the accounts of their travels were written. A three-year partnership between geographers at the University of the West of England (UWE) and the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) (RGS-IBG) will study women's geographical expeditionary work from 1913, when women were fully admitted to the RGS, to 1986.

Twentieth century women's travel and travel writing has been neglected within geographical research, compared to the rich body of work on nineteenth century travel writing. Examples of twentieth century women explorers are Gertrude Bell, who was awarded RGS medals for her work in Arabia in 1913 and 1918, and Gertrude Caton-Thompson, Elinore Gardiner and Freya Stark, whose expedition to The Yemen in 1937-8 was sponsored by the RGS and Lord Wakefield.

Dr Avril Maddrell of UWE said, “None of the RGS-IBG archives of twentieth century women's expeditions have had their content fully catalogued or their long-term significance analysed. Expedition records show shifts from single to mixed sex expeditions and to women's leadership of these mixed expeditions by the mid-1980s. Women undertook expeditions in single sex groups both from choice and through necessity - some universities would only sponsor single sex groups, and women faced exclusion from most male expedition societies and groups until the 1960s.

“This studentship, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), will explore the role of funding constraints, equal opportunities legislation and positive choices to work in an all-female group. The significance of expeditions in contributing to today's geographical knowledge in areas such as people-environment relationships will also be analysed.”

Among the aims are to:

• Map the number, location and scope of women's geographical expeditionary work 1913-1986
• Analyse the content of archive records, including members of expeditions, their class, education, motives, methods and outputs.
• Contribute to debates including women's access to funding or places on expeditions, their roles within expeditions; the reception of their work; whether geographical work in the field is an inherently masculinist experience; and whether women were encouraged or discouraged to undertake expeditionary work.
• Evaluate the significance of the expeditionary research, and the experience of leadership on women's subsequent careers
• Ask how well the findings of these expeditions were received and what impact they had on geographical knowledge and issues.

A postgraduate student under the supervision of UWE and the RGS-IBG will spend around half of their time delving into the unique expedition archives of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) which include expedition committee and council minutes, post-expedition reports, society correspondence and publications. Researchers will also conduct oral history interviews with any members of the expeditions still living, creating a new digital archive of these interviews.

The dates in this new study encompass periods of great social change, including changes in educational opportunities, women's suffrage in 1928, and Second Wave feminism in the 1960s-1980s. From the period 1913–1986, 80 women-only expeditions and over 173 mixed-sex expeditions took place.

Dr Catherine South of the RGS-IBG said, “The Society's 'Unlocking the Archives' project has access to the Society's collections, research and education at the heart of its agenda. Outputs from this research will provide new interpretations and new materials for the archive. Recording oral histories from some of the women expedition members and rediscovering materials that can be used in exhibitions means we are enhancing our collections for future scholars, educators, students and the general public.”

This research project will build on Avril Maddrell's recent book Complex Locations. Women's geographical work in the UK 1850-1970, published in 2009 by Wiley/ Blackwell in the RGS-IBG monograph series; it explores 120 years of women's contribution to geographical knowledge, including war work, government committees, travel writing, teaching, university lecturing and research.


Editor's Notes

The RGS-IBG 'Unlocking the Archives' project is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

Jpeg visuals available upon request from the Press Office.

Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC): Each year the AHRC provides approximately £112 million from the Government to support research and postgraduate study in the arts and humanities, from languages and law, archaeology and English literature to design and creative and performing arts. In any one year, the AHRC makes approximately 700 research awards and around 1,300 postgraduate awards. Awards are made after a rigorous peer review process, to ensure that only applications of the highest quality are funded. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. www.ahrc.ac.uk

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