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Giants in Geography: Zonia Baber

Zonia Baber

Not all nineteenth century geographers used maps and theories as a means to describe and conquer, but they often did. Early practitioners had what we today call “an agenda”: they were sent out before or after conquering foreign lands to map them and describe differences in people and topography, for instance. Giants such as Frenchman Paul Vidal de La Blache with his genre de vie or Jovan Civi? and his ethnopsychology classifications of the Balkans seemed determined to classify and divide. Even the beloved folk figures Lewis and Clark were on a political mapping mission, not a fun frontier adventure.

Zonia Baber transformed the field of geography, by seeing it not as a means of colonization but of connection and understanding between cultures. She managed to change how schools teach geography, by encouraging students to share knowledge and perspectives as opposed to dividing them based on cultural differences. She also believed that children should get out of classrooms. Textbooks have their purposes, but fieldwork exposes children to real things in their actual environments.

Born in Illinois in 1862, she was a lifelong educator, working as a principal or teacher usually while taking classes at the same time. She started her career as a private school principal in 1886. She served as the head of the Geography Department at what is now Chicago State University from 1890–1899. Somewhere along the way she invented a desk specially designed for geography students, featuring compartments for specific supplies. (Surely among these must have been colored pencils for drawing maps, in spite of her drive to take geography out of the classroom?)

These courses focused on primarily geography, continental study, meteorology, and mathematical geography. While teaching, Baber also took classes in geology, including the first class that accepted women, earning her Bachelor of Science in 1904. From 1901-1921 Baber worked as an associate professor and head of geography and geology in the Department of Education at the University of Chicago.

Baber also contributed to educational and geographic journals, with such articles as ‘Lost opportunities in teaching geography,’ ‘A proposal for renaming the solar circles,’ and ‘Field work in the elementary school.’

How had geography been taught before Baber took it outside? Well, for girls, it was rare enough to be in school. In the early 19th century, for instance, the curriculum at Misses Martin’s School for Young Ladies in North Yarmouth, Maine, consisted of “a little French, music, painting and many kinds of fancy work,” as well as “geography with the use of globes,” according to Maine editor and historian Edward H. Elwell, (1825-1890). Was this merely a safe, indoor pastime for girls that served as practice for future lives constructing and mending their own and their children’s clothing?

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were an eventful period for the globally minded. The Louisiana Purchase and the resultant Lewis and Clark exploration, the American and French revolutions, wars between France and England, the War of 1812, Captain Cook’s voyages, Livingstone in Africa, polar expeditions . . . the wide world was opening up for the common man and to envision it, a rudimentary knowledge of geography was needed.

In this light, map samplers and embroidered globes represent a transition in women’s education from ‘accomplishments’ in the eighteenth century to challenging geographic education and conventional map drawing in schools and academies of the second half of the nineteenth century. And for girls, already accustomed to stitching samplers, sewing globes took the place of drawing maps.

Publications: Contributions to educational, geographical, and social journals.

Inventions: In 1896, Baber filed a patent for a desk specially designed for geography students,

Associations: Co-founder of the Geographic Society of Chicago, 1898. Served as president and was involved with the Society for 50 years. In 1948 she received a lifetime achievement award.

Baber was passionate about social issues throughout her life including what we now know as sexism and racism. She served as chairwoman of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and was a member of the executive committee of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s (NAACP) Chicago branch.