Female Cartographers

March 15, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Last week’s blog took a look at Artemisia, an ancient female mariner. Despite the lack of discussion in print, women have spent time at sea, either in disguise or as themselves. Artemisia is only one historical example of a strong female capable of captaining her own ships. Unfortunately, many of the stories have been lost or buried in unread journal entries. As an example, a timeline of women at sea presented by the Mariners Museum begins in 1493 and notes how much more research is warranted in this area.

Mapmaking is another industry in which women have been all but elided. Ironically, according to Peter Barber, editor of The Map Book, “In the eighteenth century there were a surprisingly high number of female mapmakers” (212). In truth, it is difficult to find any map of history penned by a woman without digging deep. In much the same way that jobs of clerks and scribes were often denied to women, so too was cartography. Yet, there are pockets of history in which women combined skills of art and science in the form of maps. Barber continues, “In keeping with the eighteenth-century France’s enlightened attitude towards the position of women, this map predicting the eclipse of 1764 was produced by three women: Madame le Pauté Dagelet, Madame Lattré and Elisabeth Claire Tardieu” (220). This map emerged during the boom of the Enlightenment and clearly demonstrates a juncture between science and art. Barber continues, “The map has a more scientific appearance than earlier maps but the title cartouches are very decorative and impart a good balance of the artistic and scientific” (220). The map’s right-hand side incorporates background information regarding the eclipse. Embellishments draw attention to the subject (solar eclipse) and to Madame le Pauté Dagelet as author of the information. Barker also notes, however, that not much is known about her other than she was “an astronomer and member of the Académie Royale des Sciences (Béziers)” (220). Madame Lattré, the engraver, however, was part of a “well-established dynasty of map makers,” (220). No mention is made of how many maps Madame Lattré might have made, or if she officially contributed to the illustrious career of her husband’s map-making business.

Despite their involvement, little was known about the impact that women have had on cartography until recently. With the advance of technology, information can be parsed more quickly which greatly assists our ability to research topics previously thought obscure, such as female cartography. As an example, a current article from CityLab chronicles librarian Alice Hudson’s research in which she restricts herself to the last 300 years in North America alone because she had found thousands of maps by women. In the article, Hudson explains how tricky it is to discover the true identity of the mapmaker. For example, women often used initials rather than full names to hide their identity. As a further complication, indexes only mention male-owned businesses, and rarely the cartographers themselves.

During World War II, while men were sent off to war, women began to fill the gaps in some geography and engineering courses. In the first year alone, Chicago’s Geography Department witnessed more than two hundred women complete the course. After the war, many women went back to their domestic lives, but Marie Tharp continued on with graduate school in order to earn a PhD. She then became a research assistant at Columbia University working alongside Bruce Heezen. In her research, she discovered a large rift along the Atlantic, now known as the Mid-Atlantic Rift. After a year, she succeeded in convincing him about the existence of plate tectonics, however, she still needed his approval and name in order to distribute the information since it was Heezen’s name that legitimized the research.

Today, their map is considered to be one of the most influential maps of the 20th century. Though much of Tharp’s career was marked by limitations, she persevered. Though unable to be on job sites and out in the field, she learned how to parse data efficiently and intelligently. She also found a male colleague willing to listen to her ideas. She partnered with Bruce Heezen for almost thirty years, in part because he saw the brilliance of her work. According to, Tharp was finally able to go to sea in 1965, not through her own institution (which still prohibited women from working at sea), but through a program offered by Duke University. continues, “Largely invisible as a researcher early in her career, Tharp gained recognition for her geographic insights and cartographic skills later in life. She received awards from the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, as well as the first annual Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory Heritage Award in 2001. Four years later, Lamont created the Marie Tharp Visiting Fellowship program to aid promising women researchers.”

Along with female mariners, the field of cartography offers rich potential to those willing to do a little digging.

To view an image of the Heezen-Tharp map, click here.

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