Zonia Baber: "The Public May Be Brought to Understand the Importance of Geography" (2023)

Zonia Baber (1862-1955) is one of those people you aspire to be and fear you will never manage to become even half as good as.

And I only chose her as our first Pioneering Woman in Geology because of her name. I had this list of women I knew next to nothing about, and I hovered a finger over it, and said, "There. That's an interesting name. Let's start with her." Then I found out she was a geographer, when I'd hoped to begin with a geologist. She was a teacher, when I'd wanted women who worked in the field. An American, when I'd hoped to start with a different country. Bugger. But Mary Arizona "Zonia" Baber? Still couldn't resist the name. So I read past the first sentence in the Wikipedia article, and promptly fell in love. She co-founded the Geographic Society of Chicago, which was modeled after the National Geographic society? Awesome! Involved in social issues? Brilliant! Feminist, even so! And then I found out that she'd got her start in geology. Her geography had rock and earth all the way through. Outstanding.

I don't think Zonia understood the concept of "Women can't do X." I suspect her childhood was filled with moments where some adult said, "Young ladies don't [something adventurous]" and she answered with the nineteenth century equivalent of "Orly?" She did go into teaching, true, which was an eminently suitable profession for young ladies of her generation. But four years after earning her teaching credential at Cook County Normal School (now Chicago State University) in 1885, she was off traveling the world. She would spend the rest of her life emphasizing the importance of getting out there and actually seeing the geography.

Traveling, teaching, and earning her degree didn't stop her from co-founding the Geographic Society of Chicago in 1898. It was born on January 12, 1889, when she gathered a group of educators and presented an idea:

"I suggest the founding of a Geographic Society in Chicago, similar to the National Geographic Society in Washington, which will bring together not just professional geographers, but all those who travel and study for pleasure. With lectures and field excursions, the public may be brought to understand the importance of geography."

She was passionate about educating the public and students, giving regular public lectures about geography, as well as the political issues that arrested her attention. She took that passion from the private school she headed and brought it to university. In 1895, she began work at the University of Chicago's Department of Education. While teaching, she began taking classes herself. She was in the first field geology class that allowed women. Nothing was going to hold her back.

It took her until 1904 to earn her Bachelor's of Science, considering she was both teaching and working toward her degree. She was head of Geology and Geography at the university from 1901 to 1921. She established an excellent curriculum and would soon pioneer new ways of teaching geography, some of which American students still benefit from today.

"The learning of boundaries and capitals, the location of cities and rivers, was the burden imposed upon the memories of helpless children," she wrote in her article "The Scope of Geography," published in The Elementary School Teacher in 1904. "The student discovers too late that ordinary unrelated knowledge is not power; that only scientific knowledge - unified, related experiences - are valuable."

She recognized that teaching students to recite facts didn't do them any favors. What the world outside the classroom wanted and needed was people who could act and discover rather than regurgitate. She strongly emphasized the use of field work to help students achieve a complete understanding of the world around them. "It is the grossest absurdity to expect the child whose skyline is an eternal stretch of irregular roofs, and whose landscape is made up of dirty alleys, to appreciate the meaning of broad stretches of rolling prairies, dense tropical forests, and high, snow-capped mountains," she wrote. Instead of spending money on textbooks that only described a world so many poor students had never seen, she encouraged that money to be spent on field trips instead. Not that she denigrated books - "The good teacher must be superior to any text," she said, "but excellent books are invaluable."

So, apparently, were desks, because she took the time to invent better ones.

In addition to field work, she insisted on the importance of laboratories. Field work alone wouldn't tell students how the landscapes around them had developed and evolved. "We see a valley and may trace its circuitous path from its source to its débuchere, but the process of valley-making is so slow... that we cannot catch nature in magnified action." Students would have to work it out in the lab, performing experiments. One gets the sense she would have greatly appreciated a stream table. But expensive, sophisticated labs weren't necessary: "In the use of a hose and a hole in the ground the child may find greater scope than in an expensive laboratory."

While they were at it, she encouraged them to make maps. Not just fill in the blanks, but do actual cartography. Children should be encouraged to turn one type of map into another, such as using contour maps to produce relief maps, to drive children "to interpret the map into terms of reality." (I'm glad my school took her up on the idea of labs and field trips. Shame they missed the bit about not merely copying maps.)

She deplored such cookie-cutter approaches to producing educated children. "It is impossible to realize our ideals in teaching so long as the 'factory system' obtains in our schools," she wrote. "No teacher can turn out forty pieces of humanity yearly, each bearing the same stamp, and not do violence to her better self." She wanted teachers to inspire, engage, and elevate their students, not merely zip them through a curriculum that gave them a head full of facts, but no idea how the world actually worked.

And she thought a thorough understanding of geography was desperately important. We can get a sense as to why she was so passionate about it through what she wrote in that same paper. She reminds me of Jared Diamond, almost a century before his bestselling book on the impact of place on civilization: "No historian of today would dare to claim a supreme indifference to geography. Man cannot go entirely beyond his physical environment, either biologically or socially. The effect of climate on the physical, mental, and moral condition of individuals is everywhere admitted, and the influence of topography and native products upon humanity cannot be denied."

She recognized that the world was shrinking, and that we needed to understand both the physical and cultural landscapes in order to navigate this interconnected new world we found ourselves in, a world in which "it is impossible to decide who is our neighbor." Her ideas carried through the years to my own education in geography, where physical and cultural landscapes intertwined to explain why we are, who we are and who we may yet become.

With this new world came the urgent need to address problems such as war, racism, imperialism, environmental degradation, and societies that refused to recognize women as equal human beings. Zonia Baber was passionate about all of those causes. She was chair of the Race Relations Committee of the Chicago Women's Club, and served on the executive committee of the NAACP in Chicago. She helped Puerto Rican women fight for their right to vote, work that is still remembered today. And she served as chairman for the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She saw ways to merge those causes: during the 3rd International Congress of Women, she proposed that the WIPF create a standing committee to vet textbooks, replacing phrases that could lead to "misunderstanding and war" with ones designed "to promote respect and understanding." Education was a tool we could use to create a better world. She certainly wasn't afraid to let her politics shine through in her papers: she got a subtle dig in against imperialism in "The Scope of Geography:"

The Peruvians were also quite advanced in the art of cartography when stricken by the Spanish. They possessed relief and political maps of their country which were of great value to their destroyers.

To Zonia, it seems, all was part of a whole. As it is.

She used her Chicago Geographical Society to give voices to people who might otherwise not have been heard. Seeking new speakers for the Society, she turned to those who were rarely given a platform. "Men speakers are almost invariable chosen," she wrote to Society of Women Geographers president Harriet Chalmers Adams, "first from lack of knowledge of women geographers, and second from prejudice." After she was done, the first would be no excuse and the second would be inexcusable.

Her Society, which she served as President from 1900-1904 and remained intimately involved with for fifty years, awarded her their Gold Medal for lifetime achievement in 1948. Her achievements in geography not only won her the award, but earned her a place in several editions of American Men of Science, a distinction few women of her day earned. Because of women like her, women who refused to listen when people said they couldn't do science, women who used their voices not just for themselves, but other women, the book is now called American Men and Women of Science.

Because of Zonia Baber, the way geography is taught changed in many schools. And her ideas still apply today. She was a pioneer, and should be unforgettable.


Baber, Zonia (1904): "The Scope of Geography." The Elementary School Teacher, Vol. 4, No. 5, pp. 271-282.

Bailey, Martha J. (1994): American Women in Science: A Biographical Dictionary. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Monk, Janet (2008): Practically All the Geographers were Women. Presentation at Society of Woman Geographers Triennial.

University of Tenneessee (1913): The University of Tennessee Record, Volume 16. Knoxville, TN: University of Tenneessee Press.

Women's International League for Peace & Freedom (WILPF).

WILPF: "Zonia Baber.

WILPF (1921): Report of the Third International Congress of Women. Geneva, Switzerland.

Winchell, N.H., ed. (1905): The American Geologist. Minneapolis, MN: The Geological Publishing Co.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


Zonia Baber: "The Public May Be Brought to Understand the Importance of Geography" (1)

    A confirmed adorer of the good science of rock-breaking, Dana Hunter explores geology with an emphasis on volcanic processes, geology news, and the intersection of science and society. Her home away from SciAm is Dana Hunter's UnconformityFollow Dana Hunter on Twitter

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