Maps and views blog

23 February 2017

Maps and women

“This is all very manly, isn’t it” a visitor said to me a while ago as I was showing a group around our current exhibition Maps & the 20th Century: Drawing the Line. And the visitor (whose own work explores identity and gender in society) was right – there is something apparently rather masculine about cartography, particularly 200 maps in a big room all shouting for attention, forcibly promoting their world-views.

Mapping has historically been portrayed a male pursuit, like many professions, but particularly given the active and even aggressive role of maps in empire and militarism (maps are never ‘submissive’, an outdated perception of femininity). So too the use of maps has been seen as a male pursuit. Note the lack of women on the covers of Ordnance Survey maps, except where they are passengers. Note the cliché of the terrible reluctance of many men to ask for directions when lost.

Over the past few decades we have  begun to question established norms (as we have many established world views) and gender is one of the many key narratives of the 20th century. Van den Hoonaard’s ‘Map Worlds: a history of women in cartography’ (2013) was jst one of a number of works to ‘recover [the involvement of women with map-making] from history’. Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line was curated specifically to engage with themes and aspects of history which have been hidden from sight, and this includes shining a retrospective light upon the role of women in cartography. Here are some of them. 

Mary Ann Rocque


Anonymous (after Mary Ann Rocque), [A map showing part of the road from London to Luton Park], London, 1767. Add. MS74215

Mary Anne Rocque inherited a map business from her husband John Rocque, who died in 1762 (Laurence Worms has produced some important research on this role of female business people in the British map trade). Not simply content to maintain the business, she published new and significant maps such as ‘A set of plans and forts in North America’ in 1765. This watercolour map of part of the road from London to Luton, based closely on Rocque’s work, was produced for the earl of Bute in 1767.

Phyllis Pearsall

GeographersAtlasofGreaterLondonGeographersAZMapCompanyCourtesyoftheBritish Library

Geographers’ Atlas of Greater London. London: Geographers A-Z Map Company, 1956. Maps 198.f.37. 

Pearsall is regarded as one of the most successful business people of the 20th century through her creation of the London A-Z (by the Geographers’ A-Z Map Company) in 1936. Compact and convenient maps of cities have a history which goes back centuries, but Pearsall’s was a marketing success in its clean, simple and efficient design and cover. It became the unofficial map of London which even Londoners were not ashamed to own.

Gertrude Williams

96b77f49-d920-4917-8229-5bc8a7ff09bc-1354x2040Otto Neurath & Gertrude Williams, 'Occupation of women by regions, 1931', from Women in work. London: Nicholson & Watson, 1945. W.P.8741/3.

Lady Gertrude Rosenblum Williams was an economist and social strategist whose research and writing impacted on the foundation and development of the Welfare State in the United Kingdom from the 1940s. Of Williams’ books of the ‘New Democracy’ series, the 1945 publication on ‘Women in Work’ contains some of the most distinctive infographic maps to make statistics more intelligible. These infographics were by Otto Neurath’s Isotype Institute. ‘The occupation of women by regions’ using 1931 census data is one of the best. Williams’ social mapping sits in a tradition begun by Booth and Webb, and continued into the 21st century by, for example, Bethan Thomas and Danny Dorling.

 Marie Tharp

6a00d8341c464853ef01b8d23592df970cHeinrich Berann, Bruce Heezen and Marie Tharp, Atlantic ocean floor. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Magazine, June 1968. Maps CC.5.b.42.

Marie Tharp was a geologist and mapmaker whose research and observations were instrumental in the production of detailed maps of the ocean floor, produced for the US Navy after World War II. These maps, particularly the ocean floor maps illustrated by Heinrich Berann which were published in National Geographic magazine in 1968 did much to popularise the theory of continental drift. Because she was a woman Tharp was not permitted to go on research vessels.

These are just some of the female contributions to cartography which you can see in our map exhibition. It is particularly fitting that the British Library should be able to contribute to the recovering of this part of the 20th century experience. After all, the first Head of Maps of the British Library as it was created out of the British Museum in 1973 was Dr Helen Wallis OBE. Wallis was a key figure in the emerging discipline of the history of cartography throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and instrumental in bringing the British national map collection to the attention of the world. 'That monstrous regiment of women’, was how a (female) former employee remembers the Map Library being referred to during that time, but thanks to Maps we can continue to balance the scales.