Mildred Berman

During her professional career as a geographer, Mildred (Millie) Berman experienced and participated in two linked transitions, one the changing structure and size of higher education, the other the advancement of women in the discipline and in society. She was well aware of both of these changes. Her institutional affiliations were affected by the structure and size changes, and her support for greater recognition for women is clearly evident in her writing, teaching, and service. Millie was a cultural/economic geographer with a focus on the Middle East, but her identity in life and within the profession was very much tied to her identity as a woman, and her keen awareness of and support of other women in the field became a hallmark. She bravely wrote about women in the discipline a good decade before writing on gender was broadly acceptable in geography, and her work provided a foundation for much of what was to follow. Millie’s career also reflected her Jewish heritage and her life as a New Englander. She was engaged in both research and service in these communities that were closely tied to her life.

The daughter of immigrants, Millie grew up in Chelsea, Massachusetts, “a good place…because we didn’t have a lot of diversions. We were all expected to go to school, do our work—to do our very best. Our parents were working very hard for us and we just sort of went along.”1 Reflecting the expectations of the time for women, she did not anticipate an academic career, thinking that she would perhaps work as a stenographer. On graduating from high school she was drawn to pursuing a college education, however, and enrolled at nearby Salem State. It was a small teacher-training institution of fewer than 350 students that had originated, in 1854, as a normal school. She lived at home with her parents and earned money from summer jobs, including waitressing in Berkshire resorts, to pay the $75 annual tuition, buy books, and have spending money. She graduated salutatorian of her class in 1948.

During her training as an elementary teacher, Millie realized that this was not the life she wanted. Key in inspiring her to pursue geography were two women faculty members, Verna Flanders and Amy Ware, “superb and interesting” teachers who, like other women geographers of their era, spent their long careers in institutions of teacher education. They were well prepared in the discipline, with master’s degrees from Chicago and Columbia, respectively. When Millie’s thoughts turned to graduate school, she sought advice from Flanders, who recommended Chicago, her alma mater, or nearby Clark University, where she had taken summer courses (Berman 1984). The latter appealed to Millie for its proximity and because she had heard from a teacher in history, her other favorite subject, that Clark prepared people for the State Department.

Entering Clark directly from her undergraduate program, Millie experienced the traditional three-week field camp, tramping through and mapping southern New England and rising at “teeth-chattering pre-dawn hours” if Dr. Van (Valkenburg) thought it was time to measure a temperature inversion (Berman 1984). Fellow students included widely traveled ex-servicemen, people who had worked in the Office of Strategic Services, and international women students from India, Burma, Iraq, and the Netherlands. There were fewer American women than had been usual at Clark in the 1930s (Monk 1998), but it is unlikely that she thought much if any about it at the time. Millie felt inexperienced and parochial, but she soon found she could hold her own. She also initiated some lifelong friendships with fellow students at Clark. As a graduate student, she was not aware that women would be facing limited professional opportunities, but she did recollect later that the camaraderie of the field course dissipated as men established dominance in the classroom, received the teaching assistantships, and were recommended for the “best” jobs. She was surprised to be told by one professor that her cultural background could limit her employment opportunities. On completing her MA she was still not interested in the elementary teaching positions that seemed the only obvious openings. She contacted Ginn and Company, a Boston textbook publishing firm, where she obtained an editing position, another traditional niche for women. Among other tasks, she authored the workbook for a seventh-grade geography text and wrote specifications for maps. Two years later, in 1952, she received a call from the President of Salem State and was lured into higher education. It was just before a major time of transition. Hiring was still the president’s prerogative, most faculty in teachers’ colleges had only master’s degrees, most of the students in the former teachers’ colleges were still women, and salaries were modest ($3,700 per year). Women faculty of the older generation were still at Salem, though they were approaching retirement. By 1958, Millie was the only woman in what by then had become a seven-member geography department.

The research approaches to urban and economic geography characteristic of classes she had taken from Raymond Murphy at Clark were remote from the content of undergraduate courses at Salem State, the teaching load was heavy, and there were few resources to support the faculty. After six years of teaching at Salem State and supplementing her income with summer work for Ginn and for a market research company, Millie sought relief. In 1958-1959 she took leave without pay in order to work in the young state of Israel, which was recruiting professional and technical workers. The experience offered intensive Hebrew language training (in classes designed for recent European immigrants) as well as work opportunities. Millie was offered two positions, one in the Bureau of Statistics, and the other with the National Survey. She took the latter, contributing to the first atlas of Israel. She found it a wonderful year, professionally, culturally, and socially, and she met some of her relatives for the first time, a significant personal experience.

The expansion of higher education in the late 1950s and early 1960s, fueled by enrollment of baby boom students and U.S. concerns about international competition in science following the Soviet’s launching of Sputnik, created a new context. At first, Millie returned from Israel to Salem and teaching. She was promoted from instructor to assistant professor and earned tenure, though that was deferred in order to advance a male colleague whose wife had just had another child. Shortly thereafter, she successfully applied to the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Fellowship program and again took leave without pay, this time to return to Clark to earn her doctorate. She was not required to retake her earlier courses for credit but attended classes to prepare for exams, and her Hebrew was accepted as part of the foreign language requirement since she planned to do her doctoral research in Israel.2 By this time, the student body at Clark was changing. Though some international students were still enrolling, they were mostly men; the few women were younger, coming straight from undergraduate degrees.

On completion of her Ph.D. in 1963, Millie returned to Salem State. As the only member of her department with a doctorate, she applied for an Associate Professorship, which was denied by the University President with little if any explanation. The stimulus of having done doctoral research and the nature of processes at Salem prompted her immediate resignation and her acceptance of an Associate Professorship at Southern Connecticut, where she remained for three years. In 1966 Millie was attracted to Boston University (BU), where she taught until 1971, attracted by the prospect of engaging in graduate teaching. Again she had to face a pre-tenure period. The department was not then highly regarded by the administration, and after the probation period she was denied tenure, despite having an active publishing record and departmental and student support. Her appeal went to the incoming administration at BU but the decision was not overturned. Dealing simultaneously with an aging parent and a shrinking national job market, she learned from a former student that the President of Salem State had departed and that there was an opening in geography. She was offered a position as full Professor, though again with tenure deferred in favor of a young man who was deemed to “need it more.” It is small wonder, given her history of appointments and her early experiences with women faculty, that Millie had a keen awareness of gender discrimination and the undervaluing of professional women. The times were again changing, however, with the emergence of the women’s movement and Millie’s work in the 1970s and early 1980s responded to that era.

Documenting Discrimination, Making Women Visible

In the early 1970s, Mildred Berman took leadership in documenting discrimination within the profession of geography, gave visibility to earlier women geographers, and worked with colleagues at Salem to introduce women’s studies into the curriculum (Berman 1978). Her first published contribution in this arena highlighted discrimination against one of geography’s historically best-known scholars, Ellen Churchill Semple. Millie wrote of the third codicil to Semple’s will (1932), called to her attention by Clark Archivist and good friend and geographer Bill Koelsch. The codicil revoked a bequest to Clark, citing both the financial stringencies of the time and the institution’s practice of paying her less than male colleagues who were less productive and who lacked her reputation (Berman 1974). Millie used the article to draw attention to new federal legislation relating to discrimination against women and to equal opportunities regardless of sex. She urged geographers to accept the realities of the struggle “to marshal our ideas and not inconsiderable strength, bind up old wounds, and start shaking up our academic departments and administrations” (p. 10). She identified the barriers facing women geographers as subtle as well as blatant, frequently demeaning, and offensive. Recognizing that geographers of the era were channeling research toward social and cultural responsibility beyond the academy, she criticized the practice of educating women in graduate schools but not being willing to hire them in such institutions.

In short order, Millie organized and chaired (and presented a paper in) a session for the recently organized Committee on the Status of Women in Geography at an Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers (AAG), and she initiated a women’s committee in the New England/Saint Lawrence Valley regional AAG division. She also secured a small research grant from the Association for survey research that would go beyond compilation of simple numbers of women in the discipline and would afford insights into themes such as professional training, employment status (full- or part-time), age, marital status, salary, career interruptions, and career support. Parallel surveys were distributed to women and men. The study was prompted by her own experiences and by conversations with Eileen Schell, a geographer in business, as they began to see commonalities in women’s experiences and wonder about the discipline as a whole. The findings of the surveys (Berman 1977a) included a wide spectrum of inequalities identified by both groups, some shared across gender lines (such as single men and women reporting offers with fewer “perks” than offers made to married men), but women reported more difficulties in getting financial aid than men. Women noted having their seriousness questioned and being discouraged from continuing their studies, given the economic climate of the day and the position of women in higher education. They wrote of their disadvantages and dilemmas as faculty: salary differentials despite experience, and slower advancement, yet a sense of responsibility to serve as role models and a reluctance to make waves. Berman saw the study as presenting facts, but did not presume to reveal all causes or to present solutions herself. Rather, she called for effort by all geographers: “We must try to change attitudes of those who either cannot or will not see that the long history of inequalities and inequities accorded women continues to manifest itself in economic discrimination which ultimately become counter productive.…If geographers will operate on the assumption that ability and equity are what count, we shall all be beneficiaries” (pp. 75-76). The article provoked several responses, among them one that claimed that sex-based biological differences in spatial abilities accounted for women’s position in the discipline, to which she wrote a spirited and careful reply (Berman 1977b).

At Salem State, she joined with colleagues in a Women’s Caucus to file legal action against documented salary discrimination, a long drawn-out but ultimately successful process that resulted in an out-of-court settlement in 1988. Millie recognized it as “a moral victory because the college recognized the…discrepancy” but she noted that they did “not acknowledge the fact that there was salary discrimination. Rather it settled to ‘avoid any further inconvenience’ ” (Dow 1989).

Another important strand of Millie’s work in this decade was her attention to the lives of overlooked women geographers. A biographical study of Millicent Todd Bingham was inspired by the earlier piece on Semple and was again facilitated by archival materials supplied by Bill Koelsch. Berman learned that Bingham had the unusual distinction of being a woman recipient of the Ph.D. in geography at Radcliffe/Harvard (1923). The article explored how the personal and professional came together for Bingham, reflecting her early encouragement in a well-connected academic and literary family, her travels, her French language skills, and the contacts she had with Semple and French geographer Raoul Blanchard. A critique of a book she had written on Peru had prompted Bingham to want to be more scientific, and her return for graduate study culminated in her earning the doctorate at age 43. Bingham published significantly with French geographers and was nominated for AAG membership by William Morris Davis, but she was turned down on the grounds that her work had been in linguistics rather than geography. She later established a substantial reputation as a literary scholar, editing and interpreting work of Emily Dickinson, again building on family connections (Berman 1980, 1987).

Less-elite women are recognized in Berman’s history of Salem State (1988). As a review of the overall history of geography at the institution, it is especially useful for tracing the development of the discipline in a normal school/teachers college and of the significant and overlooked roles of early women faculty in such institutions. It draws attention to the long careers of Verna Flanders and Amy Ware and points out the gender transitions during Berman’s own appointments. The work is a pioneering effort, as few if any such histories had been published on geography departments at former normal schools.

Perhaps more than any other mentor of her generation, Millie was a professional and personal friend to a wide range of women in the discipline. She genuinely admired the work they were doing and watched carefully the younger women starting their careers. Older male colleagues might have passed young women in the hallways of AAG venues without recognition, but Millie was ready to greet them, have coffee (or better yet some chocolate or ice cream), meet for lunch, go to a concert, or plan an outing. She could mix social and professional conversation and give a sense of worth to colleagues without a hint of superiority on her part. She might be twenty or thirty or even forty years older, but no matter; she had friends of all ages.

With her connections to women throughout the discipline, Millie collaborated with Wes and Nancy Dow by playing a role in editing a substantial collage of interviews (Dow 1991) as part of their Geographers on Film (GOF) series. She also served as interviewer for two women geographers and participated as subject or presenter in seven other GOF productions.3

Heritage and Places

Mildred Berman’s other research was influenced by her Jewish identity and by her keen interest in her local community, especially its maritime heritage. Her doctoral dissertation research took her back to Israel. Addressing a contemporary urban theme, the role of Beersheba as a regional capital and service center for the Negev, the study demonstrates her commitment to examining historical roots of places, and she devotes considerable attention to Bedouin cultural history (Berman 1965). The research experience also fostered in her a love for the desert, its hard but captivating environment with the sudden beauties of nature in spring. She published reviews of some ten books on Israel in the Annals of the AAG and Geographical Review, a number of them works by Israeli geographers. Her other main project relating partly to Israel and partly to Jewish communities elsewhere is a study of the development and shifting locations and economics of the diamond-cutting industry which again reveals a strong historical and cultural sensitivity (Berman 1971).

In later years, Millie turned her attentions closer to home, partly (at first) reflecting responsibilities to her mother, partly the availability of resources, and partly the heavy teaching commitments on campus and the ongoing court action. Over time, especially after moving her residence to Salem, she took up local historical geography, working especially with the maritime heritage (Berman 1977c, 1981, 1983, 1996) but also interpreting local places for audiences beyond academia (Berman 1986, 1989). These local ties also served Millie well in her teaching, as she aimed to give students a sense of place and landscape, taking them to the excellent local Peabody Museum of Maritime History, for example, as a way of experiencing the local and its connections to wider worlds.

Around the time of her retirement in 1994, Millie engaged in her own maritime adventures as well. Interested in the geography of food and diet, she had become involved in a group of “foodies” and traveled to at least two food-related international events. And, throughout the 1990s, she served regularly as an on-board lecturer for the American Geographical Society’s cruise program. This is a challenging task, speaking to audiences of widely different experiences, and repeat assignments are a clear indication that the lecturer is well informed, an engaging presenter, and congenial. Millie undertook ten assignments between 1992 and 1999, mostly in the Mediterranean and dealing with ancient civilizations. Her tours included Italy, Greece, the Red Sea, and waterways of France and of Europe more generally. An avid photographer, Millie produced a photo essay (1994) on “The Infinite Variety of the Mediterranean.” Interestingly enough, despite progress in equal opportunity, married lecturers in the cruise program could bring a spouse, but Millie was not afforded the opportunity to bring a travel companion.

Service and Citizenship

Throughout her career, Millie made sustained and valued service contributions to her institution, the discipline, her community, and the state. These reflected her sense of responsibility and commitment as well as her talents but also served as a way to enlarge her personal satisfactions beyond those that her experiences in departmental work offered. Feeling the need for rejuvenation in 1979, she returned to Clark where she read and audited courses, spent time with old friends, made new friends with graduate and undergraduate students as well as newer faculty, and undertook some writing. On returning to Salem, at the prompting of Eileen Schell, a geographer friend from BU days who was now the Massachusetts Secretary for Consumer Affairs, Millie took up an appointment as Public Member of the Massachusetts Consumer Council, serving from 1979-1981, part of that time as Chairperson. In this capacity she did research on energy conservation and wrote on daylight savings time. Her commitment to women’s issues was reflected in state service on the Governor’s Commission on the Status of Women: Education Task Force (1971-1974); as President of the Council for Women in Massachusetts Public Higher Education (1974-1975); in a gubernatorial appointment to the Governor’s Advisory Committee on Women’s Issues (1982-1987); and as a member of the Steering Committee of the North Shore Women’s Coalition (1988-1995). Her engagement with local culture and community was expressed in her board membership of Historic Salem (Inc) (1986-1988) and membership on the Salem Town Committee (1988-1992). Within geography, she made sustained contributions to the New England-St. Lawrence Valley Geographical Society, beginning with a term as Secretary in 1957-1958 and continuing through such tasks as organizing meetings, serving on the nominating committee, and serving as Regional AAG Councilor (1992-1995).

Concluding Comments

Any remembrance of Millie would be incomplete without a comment on her good humor and her wide-ranging friendships. Her sense of humor was infectious and spontaneous. To give an example, she once told a colleague friend after a hectic day of moving to her house in Salem that she had not starved, she had eaten part of her chocolate tennis racket. The source of the repast was a friend who found it perfect recognition of two of Millie’s great recreational loves—tennis (as player as well as observer) and chocolate. Her friends ranged from the high and mighty to the humble; they included both men and women, straight and gay, and married and single as well as young and old. She once formed a motley group—a married couple, a single man, another single woman, and herself—not all geographers, to go on vacation in Jamaica over winter break. She was the only one who knew the others, but the outcome was a delightful time for all, filled with laughter and fun as well as a little cultural and physical geography.

A group of Millie’s women geography friends, with great sadness but pride in her accomplishments and recognition of her support and friendship, accepted the posthumous award of Honors for Distinguished Service to Mildred Berman in 2001. The citation ended: “For her brilliant career at a small state college, her strong presence in the AAG at the regional level, her lifetime of commitment to continuing inquiry and improving the communities of which she was a part, and her host of activities enhancing the status of women in higher education, the AAG awards Honors for Distinguished Service to Mildred Berman …” (AAG 2001). She did not live to hear the outcome of the award process, but the news that she had been nominated for the award was an uplifting close to her professional life.

Her contributions continue through her bequest to Clark University. It supports women graduate students in geography.


1. Janice Monk interviewed Mildred Berman at her home in Salem, Massachusetts, in August 1991. This memorial blends that interview with overlapping material in her published reflections (Berman 1984) and other articles and with material in a filmed interview in the Geographers on Film series (Dow 1989). We appreciate the assistance of Mona Domosh, Wes Dow, and Bill Koelsch in reviewing the manuscript and providing suggestions for revisions and additions.  2. In her childhood, boys but not girls were sent to Hebrew school. After initial Hebrew instruction in Israel, Millie took advanced Hebrew courses at Hebrew College, Brookline, Massachusetts (1988-1994).   3. Geographers on Film is housed at Michigan State University. See∼mwd/ and

  • 1. Dow, Maynard Weston. (1989) Interview: Mildred Berman, Salem MA (37 minutes). Geographers on film M. W. Dow , Interviewer
  • 2. Dow Maynard Weston. 1991. Women geographers on film I (1986-1991), Survival in the male-dominated academe, Alice T. M. Rechlin, National Geographic Society; Clarissa T. Kimber, Texas A&M University; Mildred Berman, Salem State College; Susan Hanson, Clark University; Barbara Borowiecki, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee; Janice J. Monk, University of Arizona (29 minutes). See: for online viewing (last accessed July 2006)
  • 3. Monk, Janice. (1998) The women were always welcome at Clark. Economic Geography pp. 14-30.

    Monk, Janice and Judy M. Olson, “Mildred Berman, 1926-2000.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 97, no. 3 (2007): 635-640