M.A. Cultural Geographers at the Royal Geographical Society

M.A. Cultural Geography students at the RGS

M.A. Cultural Geography students at the Royal Geographical Soceity

On 6 December, students from the M.A. Cultural Geography programme visited the Royal Geographical Society to explore its archival collections. The day began with presentations from two of the Society’s current Collaborative Doctoral Award holders—Sarah Evans (University of the West of England) and Emily Hayes (University of Exeter)—who spoke wonderfully on their experiences of archival research and working with primary and secondary material at the RGS.

The group was given a behind-the-scenes tour of the special collection and artefact climate-controlled storeroom—seeing, among other treasures, an 1482 Ulm edition of Ptolemy’s Cosmographia (once owned by William Morris), Henry Morton Stanley’s boots, and bags of food recovered from the tent in which Robert Falcon Scott died.

The students were working with a collection of material relating to the permanent admission of women Fellows to the Society in 1913. Here follows their report (errors and omissions expected):

The number of members of the Royal Geographical Society in 1892-3 was 166: “144 male Fellows, 22 Ladies”. There were 3 key dates in this period that laid the foundations for this change. On 28 November 1892, Admiral Inglefield proposed the motion that it was impossible to exclude all women from the RGS as it would be against the Charter on which the Society was based. February 1893 was another key date in the process, as it saw Admiral Cave convert from being opposed to being in favour of admitting women, based on the recommendations of Inglefield. On 24 April 1893, a Special General Meeting was held to discuss the limited proposals put forward by Inglefield and backed by Webster and Sutton. The conclusion of this meeting was that women were to be admitted as Honorary Fellows, restricted to duties of membership rather than duties of office.

Legal advice sought from Stuart Moore QC and Richard Webster QC in April 1893 concluded “Neither the Fellows in the General Meeting nor the Council have any power to elect ladies as Fellows or making regulations for such elections”. In response to this, Douglas Freshfield wrote “We lead it shall be lawful for the Fellows of the said body politic and corporate to meet amongst other things for the admission of Fellows and the honorary and foreign members”.

This decision to admit 15 women Fellows, and then another 7 two weeks later was met with consternation by several male Fellows of the RGS, including Fred Pollock, Mr Webster and Leopold M’Clintock. M’Clintock said, in an address to the president of the council, “I think that although the admission of ladies might make the society more or less enjoyable and pleasant, I do not think it would intensify the geographical character of it”. Their objection was grounded in the fact that the Charter referred explicitly to men and thus electing women was a change which needed to be ratified in a General Meeting.

As the twentieth century progressed, the Society received an increasing number of requests to allow women to become Fellows. Women such as Charlotte Raffalovich, author of ‘Via Rhodesia’ were keen to stress they were “sincere traveller[s] and not merely pleasure loving tourist[s]”. She expressed her “grief and indignation” in 1911 that she was not allowed to join. Around 1912, there was also the issue of the Society moving to new premises in South Kensington, which made increased accommodation available, and forced the President of the Society to propose a motion to allow female Fellows at a General Meeting. After months of discussion, a referendum was held, in which 2088 Fellows voted to allow female Fellows, while only 675 voted against it, finally making ladies eligible to become Fellows. March 2013 will mark the centenary of this important vote.


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