The First Women in Antarctica

Posted on Categories Discover Magazine

In 1895, seven men from the Norwegian whaling ship Antarctic made the first substantiated landing on the Antarctic continent. But four long decades passed before a woman could claim the same.

Antarctica, with its extreme temperatures and barren wastelands, was viewed for many years as the perfect battleground for men seeking to prove their mettle. Having a woman there, according to popular belief, would merely invite distraction and “sexual problems.”

And yet, in the decades since a woman did first set foot on the far-flung ice, these polar explorers have waded through hefty political barriers to shift the gender dynamics and stake their claim in Antarctica’s history. Today, they are civil contractors, base commanders, medical officers, chief scientists and more.

Here’s how we got there.

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Who Was the First Woman To Set Foot on Antarctica?

In the beginning, the women venturing to Antarctica often did so because their explorer husbands offered them the opportunity.

In February 1935, Caroline Mikkelsen became the first recorded woman to set foot on an Antarctic island. As the wife of Klarius Mikkelsen, captain of the Norwegian whaling vessel Thorshavn, Caroline helped row the boat that carried her husband and seven other sailors to shore — and even helped hoist the Norwegian flag there.

Other Female Polar Explorers

More than a decade later, Edith “Jackie” Ronne became the first woman to actually explore the region. During the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition — led by her husband, Finn Ronne, between 1946 and 1948 — she spent more than a year on the continent.

Ronne was joined by Jennie Darlington, a woman also married to a Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition member. Darlington later published a book about their overwintering experience entitled My Antarctic Honeymoon, in which she admitted that “taking everything into consideration, I do not think women belong in Antarctica.”

Fortunately, her lament did little to deter the women who later ventured to the continent in droves.

First Female Scientist in Antarctica

In 1956, renowned marine geologist Maria Klenova of the Soviet Union became the first woman to conduct scientific work in Antarctica at the age of 57. After years of sending her research proposals to various captains with no luck, Klenova finally joined the First Soviet Antarctic Expedition — an expedition that aimed to establish Mirny Station on the continent’s eastern coast.

The Mother of Marine Biology

Now known as the mother of marine geology, Klenova’s work during this time included oceanographic measurements of Antarctica’s seabed geology. Additionally, by mapping uncharted areas of the continent’s coastline, she contributed much to the first-ever Antarctic atlas, a four-volume work published by the Soviet Union a decade later.

Today, various geographical features bear the scientist’s name: the 7,546-foot-tall Klenova Peak in Antarctica’s Sentinel mountain range, the Klenova Valley near the North Pole and even the Klenova Crater on our neighboring planet Venus.

Of course, despite the initial resistance she faced, the fact that Russian women had long served on whaling vessels in the Antarctic Circle certainly worked in Klenova’s favor. For American women, the road to the region was rockier.

Polarizing Gender Politics

The U.S. Navy established McMurdo Station, America’s main Antarctic base, as a military outpost in 1956. Still, the Navy refused to transport women there.

Even if women could find another way to the continent, the National Science Foundation (NSF) — an independent federal agency that was established in 1950 and today coordinates almost all U.S. scientific research in Antarctica — wouldn’t allow female scientists to work there. That meant any land-based samples or data were first collected by a man and then shared with women working offshore.

Christine Muller-Schwarze

That all changed in 1969, thanks largely to the prominent women’s rights movement taking place in the U.S. during the 1960s and ’70s. Just before the turn of the decade, the Navy lifted its ban and the NSF began inviting female scientists to submit research proposals.

Around the same time, Christine Muller-Schwarze, a psychologist from Utah State University, became the first woman to work with the U.S. Antarctic Research Program. Along with her husband, she surveyed 50 different rookeries in an attempt to better understand penguin behavior.

U.S. Women at the South Pole

That same year, the U.S. Antarctic Research Program saw another first: an all-women team of scientists, led by an Ohio State University geochemist by the name of Lois Jones. The four-person research group studied chemical weathering in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, one of the few ice-free areas of Antarctica.

Jones Team

Jones and her colleagues collected and hauled rocks back to their camp, then ran chemical analyses that revealed the geochemical and mineral characteristics of the region’s ice-covered lakes.

Despite its slow reluctance to allow women in Antarctica, the U.S. Navy even sponsored a media event that included Jones’ team. On Nov. 12, 1969, the four women — plus Pam Young, a biologist doing research with the New Zealand Antarctic program, and Jean Pearson, a science writer for the Detroit Free Press — flew to the South Pole station.

All six women grasped one another’s arms and stepped off the plane’s cargo ramp at the same time, together becoming the first women to set foot on the South Pole. But they wouldn’t be the last.

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Ann Bancroft

In 1993, American polar explorer Ann Bancroft, led the first all-women expedition to the South Pole — no planes allowed. In doing so, she became not only the first woman to reach the location on skis, but also the first woman to reach both the South and North Poles.

Bancroft was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1995, though she didn’t slow down; in 2001, she and Norwegian polar explorer Liv Arnesen became the first women to ski across Antarctica. The 1,700-mile journey took 94 days to complete.

Of course, pioneering women are far from calling it quits and new ‘firsts’ are still being recorded. In January of last year, the 32-year-old British-Indian Army officer Preet Chandi became the first woman of color on record to reach the South Pole entirely solo and unsupported. 

She did so in just 40 days, no doubt inspiring a whole new generation of Antarctic explorers.

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