Back to School


“Back to school” at the University of Manchester. September 2013. Photo: Lesley Butler

With the ‘back to school’ air of September, I can’t help but think about the many years spent in grade school. For me at least, sometimes it feels like a different life from my days as a university student. However, what I learned in those formative years has undoubtedly impacted my higher education experience.

My experience with geography stands out in particular.

Throughout elementary and junior high school, we didn’t have geography class. Instead, we had “social sciences.” In high school, however, “social sciences” diverged into separate “geography” and “history” classes, and we had to choose one or the other. One day, our school principal spoke with our class about planning our high school courses. He advised that the more “advanced” students take history, and the “weaker” students take geography.

This sounded absurd to me.

Was it not more important to pursue something you are interested in, rather than something that will give you a convenient grade? Not to mention having grown up with a geographer as a mother, I thought his statement was both incorrect and insulting.

Although most of my friends switched over to history, I decided to stand my ground with geography, both in support of my mother’s career, and in rebellion of our narrow-minded principal.

From my understanding, geography was a complex, changing subject that involved critical thinking.

In other words, geography should not be “easy.”

Now that I am a graduate student reading from various theoretical perspectives, I keep thinking back to this scenario. (Isn’t it interesting how we can reinterpret our memories through theory?)

Specifically, feminist and indigenous theories of geography have helped me reinterpret why I felt uncomfortable and angry at the idea of geography as an “easy” subject.

The works of feminist geographers such as Doreen Massey (1994) and Linda McDowell (1999) have opened my eyes to the patriarchal traditions that are deeply rooted in geography as a field of study.

In short, Massey challenges the largely ‘masculine’ elements of classic geographical epistemologies in order to decenter dominant, contemporary western modes of conceptualizing gender (12-13). Similarly, McDowell attempts to deconstruct and denaturalize assumptions of gender divisions through transnational, geographic, and feminist frameworks (31-32).

Mishuana Goeman (2013) has also been particularly influential in helping me understand the colonial origins, and reverberations, of traditional geography on indigenous women in particular.

Drawing largely from the theories of feminist geography, Goeman confronts traditional geographies as largely masculine and colonial endeavors (22). For example, she argues that the “mapping and invention of America” required (if regrettably so) the heteropatriarchal forms of slavery, colonization, and the ideologies of orientalism, all of which are “gendered forms of violence” (22). Furthermore, she argues that traditional maps have been crucial to colonial projects, and are therefore complicit in the spatial violence inflicted on Native communities, and on women more specifically (14-19).

With this introduction to feminist and indigenous perspectives of geography, I find I am able to trek back through my memories, using theory as a light to reexamine my experience.

Perhaps it was not my principal’s dismissive attitude of geography as a whole that should have angered me as a teenager. In retrospect, I think the real problem is how this kind of simplistic attitude might keep geography from becoming the intersectional field of study that feminist geographers are striving for.

If we think of geography as easy, how will we challenge the undeniably difficult issues of colonialism and patriarchy that are rooted in the history of geography itself?



Goeman, Mishuana. Mark My Words: Native Women Mapping Our Nations. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013.

Massey, Doreen B. Space, Place and Gender. Cambridge: Polity, 1994.

McDowell, Linda. Gender, Identity and Place: Understanding Feminist Geographies. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999.

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @, 2016


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