Virginia Tower Northwood is sometimes called “the mother of Landsat” for her invention of the multispectral scanner that was launched aboard Landsat 1. An alumna of MIT, she is the subject of this long profile by Alice Dragoon in the MIT Technology Review, which looks her entire career, which prior to Landsat involved radar and antenna design—including, notably, the transmitter on the Surveyor 1 lunar lander. See also this profile on NASA’s Landsat Science page.
On the WMS Facebook group, Bert Johnson had this to say about this latest profile: “Hers is a standout story, but I wish some of these journalists who keep running these would spend some time and effort discussing some of the other women—known and unknown—who made contributions and helped open the doors of cartography to women.”
When I started contributing edits to OpenStreetMap in earnest, I couldn’t help notice certain idiosyncrasies in its tagging: for example, there was a tag for brothels, which I didn’t need to use, but there wasn’t one for daycares, which in Quebec there are rather a lot of. That seemed odd. And it was indicative of a project whose contributors were overwhelmingly male. On CityLab, Sarah Holder examines OSM’s abysmally low female participation rate (only two to five percent of contributors are women), makes the case for better representation, and looks at where women are making a difference to the map. Because a map built overwhelmingly by men can have some massive blind spots.
When it comes to increasing access to health services, safety, and education—things women in many developing countries disproportionately lack—equitable cartographic representation matters. It’s the people who make the map who shape what shows up. On OSM, buildings aren’t just identified as buildings; they’re “tagged” with specifics according to mappers’ and editors’ preferences. “If two to five percent of our mappers are women, that means only a subset of that get[s] to decide what tags are important, and what tags get our attention,” said Levine.
Sports arenas? Lots of those. Strip clubs? Cities contain multitudes. Bars? More than one could possibly comprehend.
Meanwhile, childcare centers, health clinics, abortion clinics, and specialty clinics that deal with women’s health are vastly underrepresented. In 2011, the OSM community rejected an appeal to add the “childcare” tag at all. It was finally approved in 2013, and in the time since, it’s been used more than 12,000 times.
Interestingly, when you look at crisis mappers, the female participation rate jumps: to 27 percent, based on a survey of the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team community.
The Future Mapping Company looks at the unrecognized women of cartography. They point out that there are only two women (Marie Tharp and Jessamine Shumate) among the 200-plus names on Wikipedia’s list of cartographers, and come up with 10 names, some of which you might have heard of (Tharp, Phyllis Pearsall), others maybe you haven’t, but should have—and now you have. [NLS]
The Associated Press has a story about Gladys West, now 87, an African-American mathematician who did pivotal early work on the calculations that led to GPS.
She collected information from the orbiting machines, focusing on information that helped to determine their exact location as they transmitted from around the world. Data was entered into large scale “super computers” that filled entire rooms, and she worked on computer software that processed geoid heights, or precise surface elevations.
The process that led to GPS is too scientific for a newspaper story, but Gladys West would say it took a lot of work—equations checked and double-checked, along with lots of data collection and analysis. Although she might not have grasped its future usage, she was pleased by the company she kept.
If that reminds you a bit of Hidden Figures, it’s not just you. And if reading this piece makes you want to read about the process that led to GPS, even if it’s too scientific for a newspaper story, it’s not just you either. [Blavity]
Christina E. Dando’s Women and Cartography in the Progressive Era (Routledge) came out earlier this month. From the publisher: “As women became more mobile (physically, socially, politically), they used and created geographic knowledge and maps. […] Long overlooked, this women’s work represents maps and mapping that today we would term community or participatory mapping, critical cartography and public geography. These historic examples of women-generated mapping represent the adoption of cartography and geography as part of women’s work. […] This study explores the implications of women’s use of this technology in creating and presenting information and knowledge and wielding it to their own ends.” [WMS]
Related: Map Books of 2017.
A recent psychology paper challenges the notion that men are better than women at directions. When the same test was presented as a measure of spatial ability that women typically did worse at, women did worse than men. But when the same test was presented as a measure of empathy, women did just as well as men. Social conditioning, in other words, may be at play here. Good magazine. [MAPS-L]
With Hillary Clinton quite possibly on the verge of being elected the first woman president of the U.S., it’s not surprising that some attention has been given to the women’s suffrage movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. The suffrage movement used maps to make the case for voting rights for women, particularly as western states began to extend the franchise to women in advance of the 19th Amendment. Yesterday Atlas Obscura posted a selection of suffrage maps from the P. J. Mode Collection of Persuasive Cartography at Cornell University Library (search results). And the British Library’s Twitter account posted this suffragist flyer this morning:
— The British Library (@britishlibrary) November 8, 2016
Another profile of ocean cartographer Marie Tharp, this time from Smithsonian.com’s Erin Blakemore. As Blakemore recounts, Tharp crunched and mapped the sonar sounding data collected by her collaborator, Bruce Heezen; her calculations revealed a huge valley in the middle of a ridge in the North Atlantic seafloor.
“When I showed what I found to Bruce,” she recalled, “he groaned and said ‘It cannot be. It looks too much like continental drift.’ … Bruce initially dismissed my interpretation of the profiles as ‘girl talk’.” It took almost a year for Heezen to believe her, despite a growing amount of evidence and her meticulous checking and re-checking of her work. He only changed his mind when evidence of earthquakes beneath the rift valley she had found was discovered—and when it became clear that the rift extended up and down the entire Atlantic. Today, it is considered Earth’s largest physical feature.
When Heezen—who published the work and took credit for it—announced his findings in 1956, it was no less than a seismic event in geology. But Tharp, like many other women scientists of her day, was shunted to the background.
The Smithsonian’s Ocean Blog has a profile of ocean cartographer Marie Tharp, whose discovery of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge’s rift valley provided hard evidence for the theory of plate tectonics.
Catholic News Service: “Of the many momentous or menial tasks women religious perform, one of the better-kept secrets has been the role of four Sisters of the Holy Child Mary who were part of a global effort to make a complete map and catalog of the starry skies. […] Sisters Emilia Ponzoni, Regina Colombo, Concetta Finardi and Luigia Panceri, all born in the late 1800s and from the northern Lombardy region near Milan, helped map and catalog nearly half a million stars for the Vatican’s part in an international survey of the night sky.” [@CUATheoPhilLib]
Laura Bliss and Carlyn Osborn continue their series of blog posts on women in cartographic history at CityLab and Worlds Revealed, respectively. Bliss looks at 20th century women, including illustrators Louise E. Jefferson and Ruth Belew as well as seafloor mapper Marie Tharp; Osborn looks at Dutch mapmaker Anna van Westerstee Beek (1657–1717).
CityLab’s Laura Bliss has a second post on women and cartography, this time focusing on the work of 19th-century women cartographers, geographers and educators in the United States. The Library of Congress’s map blog, Worlds Revealed, focuses on the work (and maps) of one of those women, Emma Hart Willard.
On the Library of Congress’s map blog, a post about the women cartographers employed by the military and government during World War II—the so-called “Military Mapping Maidens.”
The Guardian has a brief item on ocean mapper Marie Tharp.
CityLab’s Laura Bliss presents a selection of maps by women mapmakers like Mary Ann Roque, the Haussard sisters and Shanawdithit, the last known member of the Beothuk people.
Previously: Women in Cartography.