Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Feminism, Geography and GIS

I attended my first ever Landscape Surgery today at Bedford Square.  The subject was, first, the history of how women came to gain admission as fellows of the Royal Geographical Society and, second, the possible renaming of the Women and Geography Study Group (WGSG) at the RGS (now with IBG since the 90s).  The Geographic Perspectives on Women (GPOW) group of the Association of American Geographers was mentioned as a similar group that keeps women in the title.  The debate revolves around whether or not to remove the word 'women' from WGSG's title and replace it with 'gender.'  The argument against this move is that it might de-politicize and take some of the focus on women away.
Image from The Geographical Journal article discussed at today's meeting in Bedford Square

The history of how women came to be included in the RGS, very nicely summarized by Innes Keighren at today's Landscape Surgery session, shows how much has been gained over the last century and a half or so, from the creation of spaces (including 'powder rooms') within the RGS such that women are able to participate, to the realization by men that the inclusion of women in geographical society will not necessarily lead to serious geographical research being turned into a tea party.  One of the most edifying parts of today's talk was when Katie Willis and Harriet Hawkins, at separate times in the discussion, reflected upon how radical certain texts from the 80s or the 90s seemed at the time they came out.

I was left wondering if WGSG includes any GIS people.  It seems to me that some of the issues around inclusion of women might be re-played out a bit in the development of GIS over the last half century.  In GG3090, Critical GIS and the Geoweb, we devote a large part of one lecture to feminism in GIS, noting along the way how early development of GIS was a kind of geek-heaven filled with hyper-competitive young men.  We show a video of Nicolas Chrisman with his big white beard explaining how the team at the Harvard Graphic Lab decided to solve technical issues around topology by a process of Darwinian selection, involving large sticks and bashing metaphors.  I follow this video up with one by Nadine Schuurman explaining her work in health and GIS.  The contrast is a comment upon how far we have come in GIS.

I was pleased this last semester to see so many women in GG3090, a strong majority in fact.  This should not be that surprising since the makeup of the Royal Holloway student population is a strong majority female.  But in the land of GIS it is worth noting that GIS does have its dalliance with a masculine past.  We do, more recently, also have a tradition of feminism developing, through the work of people like Nadine Schuurman (also part of GPOW) and Mei-Po Kwan.  We also have the work of Matt Wilson, Sarah Elwood and Agnieszka Leszczynski, all of whom appear in the 2009 volume Qualitative GIS. This text featured prominently in both the master's workshop run 10-14 December as well as the third year critical GIS/geoweb course at Royal Holloway.

Is GIS masculinist? I don't think so. But I could not have said this with such confidence even a decade ago when what Schuurman, Kwan and others were writing was still very new and risky. This only points out that what we take for granted today is the result of long struggle and overcoming bias, stereotype and exclusion.

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