In 1895, seven men from the Norwegian whaling ship Antarctica made the first substantiated landing on the Antarctic continent. But it was four long decades before a woman could claim the same.
Antarctica, with its extreme temperatures and barren deserts, was for many years considered the perfect a battlefield for men seeking to prove their mettle. Having a woman there, according to popular belief, would simply cause distraction and “sexual problems.”
Yet, in the decades since a woman first set foot on the distant ice, these polar explorers have navigated tough political barriers to shift gender dynamics and stake their claim in Antarctic history. Today they are civilian 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, women who ventured 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 Clarius Mikkelsen, captain of the Norwegian whaling ship TorshavnCaroline helped row the boat that carried her husband and seven other sailors to shore – and even helped raise the Norwegian flag there.
Other Women Polar Explorers
More than a decade later, Edith “Jackie” Rohne 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.
Ron was joined by Jenny Darlington, a woman also married to a member of Ron’s Antarctic research expedition. Darlington later published a book about their wintering, titled My Antarctic honeymoonin which she admitted that “all things considered, I don’t think women belong in Antarctica.”
Fortunately, her complaint failed to deter the women who later ventured to the mainland in droves.
The first female scientist in Antarctica
In 1956, the famous marine geologist Maria Klenova from 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 without success, Klenova finally joined the First Soviet Antarctic Expedition, an expedition that aimed to establish Mirny Station on the east coast of the continent.
The mother of marine biology
Now known as the mother of marine geology, Klenova’s work during this time included oceanographic measurements of the geology of the Antarctic seafloor. In addition, by mapping unexplored areas of the continent’s coastline, she contributed greatly to the first-ever Antarctic Atlas, a four-volume work published by the Soviet Union a decade later.
Today, a variety of geographic features bear the scientist’s name: the 7,546-foot Mount Klenova in Antarctica’s Sentinel Mountain Range, Klenova Valley near the North Pole, and even Klenova Crater on our neighboring planet Venus.
Of course, despite the initial resistance she encountered, the fact that Russian women had long served on whaling ships in the Antarctic Circle definitely worked in Klenova’s favor. For American women, the road to the region was more difficult.
Polarizing gender politics
The US Navy established McMurdo Station, the main US Antarctic base, as a military post in 1956. However, 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 established in 1950 and today coordinating almost all American scientific research in Antarctica—would not allow women scientists to work there. This meant that any land-based samples or data were first collected by a man and then shared with women working at sea.
All that changed in 1969, thanks in large part to the famous women’s rights movement in the US in the 1960s and 1970s. 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 Mueller-Schwarze, a psychologist at Utah State University, became the first woman to work with the US Antarctic Research Program. Together with her husband, she studied 50 different tombs in an attempt to better understand the behavior of the penguins.
US Women at the South Pole
That same year, the US Antarctic Exploration Program saw another first: an all-female team of scientists led by an Ohio State University geochemist named Lois Jones. The four-person research team is studying chemical weathering in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, one of the few ice-free zones of Antarctica.
The Jones team
Jones and her colleagues collected and hauled rocks back to their camp, then ran chemical analyzes that revealed the geochemical and mineral characteristics of the region’s ice-covered lakes.
Despite its slow reluctance to allow women in Antarctica, the US Navy even sponsored a media event that included Jones’ team. On November 12, 1969, the four women — plus Pam Young, a biologist who does research with New Zealand’s Antarctic program, and Jean Pearson, a science writer for the Detroit Free Press — flew to the South Pole Station.
All six women held hands 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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In 1993, American polar explorer Ann Bancroft led the first solo woman 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 the South and North Poles.
Bancroft was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1995, though she didn’t linger; in 2001, she and Norwegian polar explorer Liv Arnesen became the first women to ski across Antarctica. The 1700 mile trip took 94 days.
Of course, female pioneers are far from giving up and new “firsts” are still being recorded. In January last year, the 32-year-old British Indian Army officer Preet Chandy became the first recorded woman of color to reach the South Pole entirely alone and unsupported.
She did this in just 40 days, no doubt inspiring a whole new generation of Antarctic explorers.
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