By Carol Devine, ocean advocate, planetary health researcher and writer
When I arrived in Antarctica to lead a joint environmental cleanup initiative with international volunteers and a Russian research station in 1995, I didn’t think much about the fact that it was young women running the project (my co-leaders were Wendy Trusler and Lena Nikolaeva), nor that it was ‘the first civilian ecological expedition.’ Over three months, we would literally pick up and fill barrels full of garbage. It was the tip of the iceberg of the trash already collecting in the Antarctic, but our goal, too, was to raise awareness that garbage ends up even at the ends of the earth, and we have to get a serious handle on it.
I was sitting in Sergey, the Station Manager’s office when he told me we were the first women in 26 years to stay at the Russian base. “Historically, there’s very few women in Antarctica,” he said. As he spoke, I noticed a map of Antarctica on the wall behind him. I saw Marguerite Bay and thought to myself, “then who was Marguerite?” I vowed to learn more about women’s presence in and contributions to Antarctica. (The Bay was named after the second wife of early 20th century French Antarctic explorer Jean Baptiste Charcot).
Antarctica has many geographic locations and features named for women — left-behind women, mythological women and early exploration patrons such as Queen Maud of Norway. After the mid 20th century mark, women broke through the ‘ice ceiling’ and began to voyage to the Antarctic in their own right.
In my quest to learn their stories, while researching women’s scientific and exploration contributions, I mapped Antarctic female place names – of which there are remarkably many, more than any other continent. In the last half a century, Antarctic places became increasingly named by and after female scientists and explorers who were in situ. As a member of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, I also helped with a “Wikibomb” project to raise the number of Wikipedia profiles of Antarctic women scientists.
Antarctic contributions by all genders are important. I’m noting women’s achievements in the timeline particularly because women were banned from going to this ‘Last Continent’ for at least a century after men ventured there.
The first humans (men) known to sight Antarctica were a sealer and a sea captain, around 1820. Women were forbidden from Antarctic expeditions for reasons ranging from plain discrimination (women can’t handle it) to ridiculous excuses (there are no women’s toilets). The story of Antarctica, just like its map, is a microcosm of the world and the timeline of how women yearned for equal opportunities, and how some good men realized change and supported them, has echoes elsewhere.
This timeline is not so much about ‘firsts’, though many are mentioned. Rather, it marks women’s arrivals and contributions from across disciplines and the world. It’s not exhaustive, but includes the first woman to work in Antarctica, Soviet marine biologist Maria Klenova in 1956, to the names of many women who helped us know this continent, our world and ourselves better.
Today, women make up over one-third of Antarctic personnel — from oceanographers to logistics staff, to visiting artists who go this place tucked at the bottom of our globe, where the icy ecosystem regulates Earth’s temperatures, holds evidence about our past and serves as a crystal ball for our future.
Because of Antarctic scientific discovery and exploration, we now know how much we depend on this environment. We also now understand how fragile it is. Scientists look at ancient ice cores to reveal human and geologic activity, penguin skins and the ozone signal the impacts of our dangerous use of pollutants, and the Southern Ocean is proof that our garbage, including plastic and toxins, reaches even the most remote corners of the globe, harming ecosystems, wildlife and human health. We also know that inclusivity, equality and the involvement of women, young people, and all sectors of society matter. So here’s to firsts, and seconds and so on….
And I note, many women’s Antarctic firsts were probably never recorded. But there’s no going back now.
— Carol Devine
Botanist Jeanne Baret is a member of Louis Antoine de Bougainville's expedition on the ships La Boudeuse and Étoile in 1766–1769, travelling to the sub-Antarctic. She is the first recorded woman to circumnavigate the globe and the first female scientist to the sub-Antarctic region. It is said that to gain passage, she dresses like a man.
Peggy Pegrine, Valerie-Davy and Betty Webster of the U.K. write to explorer Ernest Shackleton appealing to join his Imperial TransAntarctic Expedition. He replies three days later that he "regrets there are no vacancies for the opposite sex on the expedition."
Twenty-five women apply to the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition (BANZARE) and are rejected.
Norwegian Ingrid Christensen and her companion, Mathilde Wegger, are the first recorded women to see Antarctica. They travel aboard the whaling ship Thorshavn, captained by Ingrid’s husband.
Caroline Mikkelson, wife a Norwegian whaling captain, is the first woman recorded to touch foot on Antarctica. Mount Caroline Mikkelson in East Antarctica is named after her.
A British Antarctic Expedition is proposed and 1,300 women apply to join. None are accepted.
That same year, Ingrid Christensen, as well as her daughter, Augusta Sofie Christensen, and two other women, Lillemor Rachlew, and Solveig Widerøeher, land on Antarctic mainland, travelling on a whaling ship.
Jackie Ronne and Jennie Darlington (US) join private Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition (RARE) and overwinter on Stonington Island. Despite protest, they join. Ronne is the expedition's historian and also the first American woman to work in the Antarctic.
Maria Klenova, marine geologist, is the first woman to work on an Antarctic scientific expedition from the USSR. She helped create the first Soviet Antarctic atlas.
Dr. Aithne Rowse joins SANAE IV, the South African National Antarctic Expedition, and is the first South African woman to overwinter in Antarctica.
Artist Nel Law is the first Australian woman to land on Antarctica, visiting Mawson station.
The US Congress lifts the ban on American women working in Antarctica. Lois Jones a geochemist from Ohio State University leads first all-female Antarctic expedition. They work in the Dry Valleys and are also the first women to reach the South Pole. With Jones is geologist Eileen McSaveney, biologist Kay Lindsay, Terry Lee Tickhill, a chemistry major, New Zealander biologist Pam Young and Jean Pearson, a reporter for the Detroit Free Press.
New Zealand limnologist Ann Chapman, the first woman to lead a Kiwi Antarctic expedition, does biological surveying of frozen lakes.
Mary Alice McWhinnie, biologist and authority on krill, is the chief scientist at US's McMurdo Station, the first American woman serving in that capacity.
Aditi Pant, oceanographer, is the first Indian woman to visit Antarctica.
Li Huamei, geologist with the New Zealand Antarctic Division, is the first Chinese woman to work in the Antarctic.
Spanish oceanographer, biologist and writer, Josefina Castellví, coordinates and participates in her country's expedition to Antarctica in 1984. She was lead oceanographer at Juan Carlos I Antarctic Base on Livingston Island.
1986 – 1987
Susan Solomon, an atmospheric scientist at NOAA Earth System Research Laboratory, pioneers research in the field of Antarctic ozone loss. Her work forms the basis of the U.N. Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to protect the ozone layer by regulating damaging chemicals.
American Lisa Densmore is the first woman to summit Mount Vinson.
First all-female over-wintering group spends several sunless months at Georg von Neumayer, East German station, with leader Dr. Monika Puskeppeleit, a physician and scientific researcher in polar medicine.
Oceanographer In-Young Ahn is the first female leader of King Sejong Station and the first South Korean woman to Antarctica.
Marine biologist Veronica Vallejos-Marchant visits Antarctica. She later is Head of the Projects and Environment Department at the Chilean Antarctic Institute, and a member of the Committee for Environmental Protection.
Mountaineer and writer Laurence de la Ferrière is the first French woman to cross the Antarctic solo. She covers the distance from the Weddell Sea to the Amundsen-Scott base at temperatures around -40C (- 40F), while dragging a 150 kg (310 lb) sledge.
Anne Noble, New Zealand photographer, visits the Antarctic and produces Antarctica Iceblink and Antarctica Whiteout, challenging perceptions of the continent as ‘untouched’.
Lynne Cox, American long-distance swimmer, swims more than mile in Antarctic waters.
British marine biologist Kirsty Brown is killed by a leopard seal while she carries out research snorkeling in the bay close to the U.K.’s Rothera research station.
German meteorologist and leading polar researcher Cornelia Lüdecke founds the Expert Group on History of Antarctic Research within the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.
Namira Salim, explorer and artist, is the first Pakistani to have reached the South Pole.
Explorer and first African-American woman to reach the South Pole (and North Pole in 2007) is adventurer Barbara Hillary.
UK’s Felicity Ashton, explorer and meteorologist, is the first person to ski alone across Antarctica, using only her own muscle power. She is also the first woman to cross Antarctica alone.
Paleoclimatologist Professor Dame Jane Francis becomes head of British Antarctic Survey.
Taikara Peek, graduate student at the Center for Space Science and Engineering Research, Virginia Tech, is part of research team that discovers new evidence about how the Earth's magnetic field interacts with solar wind. Their findings could have significant effects on our understanding of space weather.
American Glaciologist Erin Pettit co-leads one of several multi-year projects in a new international collaboration to use ocean data to help predict the fate of the unstable Thwaites glacier in Antarctica. She looks at how the ocean below the glacier and the atmosphere above it affect the ice. Erin is Associate Professor of Geology and Geophysics at Oregon State University and former Associate Professor of Geophysics and Glaciology at University of Fairbanks, Alaska. She’s also a National Geographic Emerging Explorer and has worked on many Antarctica’s ice shelves.
Humanitarian, writer, researcher, explorer & glacier admirer
Carol led the first civilian cleanup expedition to Antarctica with the Russian Antarctic Expedition in 1995-1996. She then went north, joining Cleanup Svalbard in 2015 and brought home samples of marine debris collected on Norway’s remote Arctic shores. They are exhibited in the Canada Science and Technology Museum. Carol currently works on climate change and health. She swam for the first time in Antarctica in 2018.
Sources: Scott Polar Research Institute, Everpedia, Wikipedia, Karen Tupek, US Navy, National Science Foundation, NOAA, Seven Summits Women Team/Shailee Basnet, Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research “Antarctic Women Wikibomb”, National Science Foundation