“A Woman’s Sphere” – Florence Bascom (Part 2)

(Cover Image Credit: Bascom (facing camera) teaching students in the field.1 From Bryn Mawr College Archives, Public Domain)

Florence Bascom succeeded in a world designed to keep women out

In 1889, a young woman was admitted to the graduate school at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Her PhD candidacy caused quite a stir among the faculty and trustees of the school. Women were not allowed to attend unless they could prove they could not get an equivalent education elsewhere.2,3 She instantly was an unwelcome pariah, and so in her isolation she focused on her study of petrography. 

Florence Bascom became the first woman to earn a PhD from Johns Hopkins. When her name was read aloud at commencement, there was an uproarious round of applause and vociferous cheering, but there was also outcry from the faculty who thought that a woman earning a PhD lessened the prestige of the university.2,3

The animosity young Dr. Bascom faced as a learner would portend a career full of bias, hostility, and sexism. As a result, she would often feel alone and overwhelmed as she struggled to balance the expectations placed on her by a biased system and her personal desire to break free from those boundaries.

Bascom rose to international fame in spite of her gender not because of it. She succeeded in a sexist system that actively worked to hold her back. Unfortunately, much of the same discrimination Bascom faced is still a part of Earth sciences.4 This is part two in my series on Florence Bascom. You can read part one here.

I will be discussing, in plain terms, the discrimination Bascom faced while at many extant universities. I do not mean to defame these institutions or accuse them of wrongdoing. They reflect an older discriminatory system and many of these schools were actually more progressive than other places of higher learning at that time. I seek not to offend, merely inform. 

Bascom’s Early Hurdles

A young woman and a bearded man sit at a lab desk with books and microscopes
Florence Bascom in her lab at Johns Hopkins.3 From: Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College5

Florence Bascom’s geologic journey began at the University of Wisconsin. While at Wisconsin, Bascom was subject to strict rules and guidelines that were unequally hoisted upon women.6 Women were only allowed to use the campus library on certain days. They were also barred almost completely from using the gym. If a classroom became full, women were asked to leave if there were not enough seats for male students.2

As an undergraduate at Wisconsin, Bascom wrote two essays that described the unequal treatment of women in society. In one essay, she wrote:

“A woman’s sphere has repeatedly been laid down by mankind. [The boundaries] seem to narrow for womankind who are constantly being blamed for going out of their sphere… men are seldom found in their proper sphere, they go blameless”

Florence Bascom 6

Her masters adviser at Wisconsin, Roland Irving, treated Bascom differently from his male students. Irving did not allow Bascom to go into the field with him6. At the time, field work was considered a prerequisite for becoming a “true” geologist (as it often is today). Key networks were built by groups in the field, and most training was conducted outside of the classroom. By keeping her in the lab, Irving actively stalled Bascom’s growth.

Bascom later remarked that her time at Wisconsin was characterized by “no manifestation of the spirit of research.”2 She craved more and so decided to pursue her PhD at Johns Hopkins University.

At Johns Hopkins, Bascom faced even more discrimination and hardship. It took a herculean effort to get her into the school. Women were generally not allowed to attend Johns Hopkins. One trustee at the time even called women “the foreign enemy within the walls.”3

It was only after her father, then president of Wisconsin, and some of the faculty at Johns Hopkins wrote her positive recommendations that the school relented. Bascom however, was not admitted as an official student. She was ineligible for scholarships or fellowships, and it was only through financial support from her family that she was able to attend.3,6

At Johns Hopkins, Bascom first faced the most significant impact of the discriminatory system she existed in: isolation.

She was the only woman at Johns Hopkins. Unlike Wisconsin, which was coeducational, there were no support networks and no family to help her. Bascom had to sit behind a screen in the classroom in order to not distract the male students from learning.2 She also had to reapply for her position every year, which made her withdraw from social functions to not gain unwanted attention.3 

In her loneliness, she flourished. She owed some of her success to her PhD adviser, George Williams, who felt strongly about equal education for women. Williams also caused controversy when he insisted Bascom do field research with him. He supported her work for publication and cited her in his publications.3

Bascom’s work at Johns Hopkins was so thorough and amazing that the school had no choice but to admit she earned her PhD. There was immediate outcry from the faculty who publicly denounced women PhD candidates in general.2 Her life would not get any easier as she transitioned into a career in a field dominated by men.

Florence Bascom in a “Man’s Field”

Florence Bascom with three other men in the field looking off to the distance. Bascom is holding a map and compass.
Photo of Bascom teaching in the field around 1915.6 Bryn Mawr College Archives (Public Domain)

The field work Bascom did as part of her work for the United States Geological Survey (USGS) was her primary passion. It allowed her to study geology on equal ground with men. It was also arduous, difficult work that left her lonely and resulted in significant conflict with her primary position as professor at Bryn Mawr.

Had she been alive today, Bascom may have been a full-time USGS geologist or perhaps a research professor at a large university. In her time women were expected primarily to teach, and Bascom’s primary job at Bryn Mawr included a significant teaching load. Even though she was able to juggle both careers successfully, she lamented in her personal letters that she wished she could quit her teaching job to focus on survey work.1

Bascom’s overwhelming teaching load, lack of companionship in the field, and feelings she was not living up to expectations may have led to mental health issues. She often wrote to others about how difficult her career was and how she was often sad and lonley.1

Women of her day were forced to choose between science or a domestic married life. Bascom chose to focus on her career and never married. She commented on this unfair dichotomy for women several times. She wrote that one paleontologist was “lost at present to the science by marriage.” When another woman she knew married a fellow geologist, and was still allowed to do science, she wrote that her husband “evidently does not intend that her activities shall be swallowed up in marriage.”2

Marriage and family commitments are still cited as a key reason women leave geoscience careers.7

Bascom persevered through discrimination and made it her mission to help other women succeed. She ensured the women students at Bryn Mawr received equal training, especially field training, as men. She went to great lengths to place her students in jobs or prestigious schools to ensure their career growth. Most of the preeminent women geologists and paleontologists of the mid 1900’s were Bascom’s students.2

Bascom actively tried to make that system more equitable, but how successful were her efforts?

Discrimination in Modern Geosciences

Circular sketches of mineral grains as viewed in microscope. There are bladed crystals in the top circle and blades and more rectangular crystals in the bottom
Bascom’s hand-drawn plates of thin sections she studied for a 1926 USGS publication.3

In many ways, geosciences are much more inclusive to women than they were in Bascom’s day. Yet, women still face many of the discriminatory practices that Bascom battled with her entire life.

Geosciences significantly lag other STEM professions in diversity. Only about 24% of people employed in a geoscience profession are women, and only 20% of geoscience faculty are women.4 Minority women make even less of the overall total of the workplace, only around 5%.4 

Despite these low numbers, around 40% of geoscience bachelors degrees are earned by women. Earth Sciences therefore do not face a recruitment problem, but a retention problem. Women and other minorities find it difficult to remain in geoscience careers primarily due to bias, discrimination, and harassment.4,7

Bascom wrote about the inequality she faced as a field researcher, and despite years of progress, women still face significant discrimination in the field. Field work is often unsafe and discriminatory. Women are more likely to be victims of harassment, assault, microaggressions, or other exclusionary practices. Over 60% of women field workers have reported sexual harassment, and 20% sexual asault.4

We still consider a “true” geologist to be a bearded mountain man hiking alone with Brunton compass in one hand and rock hammer in the other, a stereotype that makes women and other minorities feel unwelcome. Those who chose not to do field work are often ostracized. Professional and social norms strongly suggest that “true” geology is only learned in the field, a sentiment discriminates against women, minorities, and the disabled.4

As a graduate student, Bascom faced discrimination that we would find abhorrent today. However, bias, active discrimination, and harassment still present serious hurdles for women in graduate school and in faculty positions.4

As in the field, a majority of women geoscience students have reported harassment or bullying. Over 50% of women geoscience faculty have reported being victims of sexual harassment which, even though it is illegal in the United States, almost always goes unpunished.4

Bascom did not find success easy. The male-dominated world actively threw up road blocks in her every direction. She succeeded through her own will and determination and with the help of men who were allies (which I will discuss next time). However, nothing in her life came easy. 

We can use Bascom’s story to better understand the difficulties women face in Earth science and work more adamantly at upending the culture that continues to discriminate against women. We must all do better.

Bascom shows us that women can be excellent geologists if we support them and let them be who they are.


  1. Arnold, L. B. (1993). The Bascom-Goldschmidt-Porter Correspondence 1907 to 1922. Earth Sciences History, 196-223.
  2. Clary, R. M., & Wandersee, J. H. (2007). Great expectations: Florence Bascom (1842–1945) and the education of early US women geologists. Geological Society, London, Special Publications281(1), 123-135.
  3. Arnold, L. (2000). Becoming a geologist: Florence Bascom and Johns Hopkins, 1888-1895. Earth sciences history19(1), 2-25.
  4. Marín-Spiotta, E., Barnes, R. T., Berhe, A. A., Hastings, M. G., Mattheis, A., Schneider, B., & Williams, B. M. (2020). Hostile climates are barriers to diversifying the geosciences. Advances in Geosciences53, 117-127.
  5. All images marked in this way originally come from: Florence Bascom Papers, Sophia Smith Special Collections SSC-MS-00012. https://findingaids.smith.edu/repositories/2/archival_objects/80734.
  6. Arnold, L. (1999). Becoming a geologist: Florence bascom in Wisconsin, 1874-1887. Earth sciences history18(2), 159-179.
  7. Holmes, M. A., & O’Connel, S. (2003). Where are the women geoscience professors?. Papers in the Geosciences, 86.
Five portraits of my founding geoscientists. Shows Mary Anning, Shen Kuo, and Florence Bascom with two others hidden.

Part of my “Founding Five” diverse geoscientists

3 thoughts on ““A Woman’s Sphere” – Florence Bascom (Part 2)

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