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'The races and conditions of men': women in nineteenth-century geography school texts in the United States

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Geography schoolbooks published in the United States were important opinion makers in the nineteenth century, often joining the Bible as the main source of information about the world outside North America. The texts examined here are noteworthy for their static and pejorative treatment of non-American cultures and may be seen as playing a key role in forming isolationist and chauvinist American public opinion. They also played a role in reinforcing ideas about the proper niche for women in American society, even though it may seem at first that these books could not have had much influence on ideas about American women because they barely mentioned women, almost always relegating them to illustrations and captions. The few women depicted were usually characterized as 'poor souls' in distant lands worthy of pity. We discuss the national political context in which these writers (many of whom were women) were producing geography school texts, the social roles they were fulfilling by reinforcing such limited images of 'foreign' women, and the sources they may have used in their research. Furthermore, we demonstrate that much more could have been drawn ethnographically from the illustrations of women. The images of women in these geography schoolbooks reinforced the marginalization of women, particularly non-white and non-western women.

Keywords: cultural geography; gender; historical geography; schoolbooks

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Curriculum and Instruction, Tennessee Technological University, Cookeville Tennessee, USA 2: Department of Geography, University of Tennessee, Knoxville Tennessee, USA

Publication date: 2008-08-01

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