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Chapter 3 - Women Writing Geography Texts, 1790–1830

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 October 2023

Louise Joy
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
Jessica Lim
Affiliation:
University of Cambridge
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Summary

Instructing the young in geography began in Britain in the eighteenth century. John Locke advised that it could be taught to young children in his treatise Some Thoughts Concerning Education. As a new subject of instruction, geography was presented variously as a ‘useful amusement for boys’, a ‘delightful and useful Amusement for Ladies’, an ‘accomplishment for gentlemen’. Like much science in the eighteenth century, geography was perceived as a polite subject, useful for contributing to conversation in the spaces of sociability of eighteenth-century culture. According to a contemporary commentator, adults ‘cannot well converse either with Men or Books […] without some knowledge of geography’. It was also thought the best subject ‘to initiate [the Fair Sex] in the study of useful knowledge’. The minds of both sexes were considered ‘improvable’, and ‘to occasion an innate love of Virtue and Knowledge must be to increase human felicity […] Science naturally tends to enlarge ideas, to give a benevolence of mind, to moderate the passions, and to render human nature charming.’ Because of the moral necessity of improvement associated with the practice of politeness, geography texts often had a didactic objective.

Taught by and to both sexes, geography instruction was largely not gendered. Although some texts were designed for ‘Ladies’, this did not mean their content was made easier than that taught to males. Rather, it meant avoiding the use of language or concepts females tended not to learn, such as Latin or geometry. William Butler’s Exercises on the Globes Specifically for the Use of Young Ladies (1803), for example, was not simplified but amplified. He required his pupils to learn definitions and technical terms and provided ‘anecdotes from biography, and […] facts from natural history and the annals of nations’ to construct a wide cultural frame for dry designations. For instance, Butler’s definition of longitude includes a reference to Hipparchus, who ‘determined the longitude and latitude of places; which he effected by observing the stars, and thus, by connecting geography with astronomy, fixed that science on certain principles’. Nor are the problems on the Globes simplified for female consumption; they are identical to those in other schoolbooks.

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2023

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