Women and Minorities in Antarctica

Accounts from under-represented groups and their relationships with Antarctica are still rarely acknowledged in stories about the continent’s human history[1]. Instead, there is a continued focus on the heroic era with mainly European male explorers.

Whilst still critically important, literature is filled with their accounts, and therefore this page will focus on the encounters from under-represented groups, and how they have all played a part in the discovery of Antarctica, and have helped make it the place it is today.

You can explore the history of Antarctica more in our interactive StoryMap.

The Māori discovery of Antarctica

Māori carvings at the New Zealand’s Scott Base in Antarctica. Antarctica New Zealand.

Recently, Weihi et al. (2021) [1] attempted to uncover more about these important, yet invisible groups and their links to Antarctica. They collated evidence from grey literature and oral histories to highlight the Māori presence.

Their findings suggested that the Māori people may have been the first group to discover Antarctica’s waters. This could have been as early as the seventh century. 

The Kāhui Māori (Māori advisory group) are now working with New Zealand’s Antarctic teams to help spread more information on early Polynesian and Māori exploration to the Antarctic Region. Their work is also going to help support more Māori communities, including Māori researchers [2].

Men weren’t the only ones exploring Antarctica

Louise Seguin: 1773

In 1773, the same year as Captain Cook voyaged to the Antarctic Circle, was the first record of a western woman to cross into the sub-Antarctic region [3]. Her name was Louise Seguin, and she travelled with her husband Captain Yves Joseph de Kerguelen.

Women were not allowed to join on these voyages, and her husband was later court-martialled for bringing her. Following this event, women made infrequent appearances with their husbands on voyages, however were rarely acknowledged due to the sociopolitical timings of these events [3].  She must have been a very brave lady to contravene society’s expectations at this time.

Abby Jane Morrell: 1833

Abby Jane Morrell was one of the first woman in Antarctica
Abby Jane Morrell. One of the first women in the Discovery of Antarctica

Abby Jane Morrell set sail on the Schooner Antarctic with her husband Benjamin Morell in 1833. What is significant about Abby’s journey to the sub-Antarctic region was that she had a written account of her trip. These included stories about meeting native communities, deaths on board the ship and the wildlife they had encountered [4].

This was the first written account of a woman within the sub-Antarctic region. Her husband also journaled through the trip and for many years his overshadowed of that written by Abby [3]. 

Ingrid Christensen: 1931

In 1931, Ingrid Christensen became the first woman to lay eyes on Antarctica alongside her companion – Mathilde Wegger [5]. She visited Antarctica four times on the Thorshavn and was involved in resupplying the other fleet of ships, including her husbands. Ingrid’s story does not stop there.

Several years later in 1937 Ingrid became the first woman to see Antarctica by air, and later that year brought her daughter, Sofie (18) to Antarctica. However Ingrid was not the first woman to step foot onto Antarctica.

The loss of masculinity?

Caroline Mikkelsen was the first woman to set foot onto Antarctica during the discovery of Antarctica
Caroline Mikkelsen was the first woman to set foot onto Antarctica. GCT

According to historic newspaper articles, the first step onto the Antarctic continent by a woman meant that Antarctica lost its title of being the ‘world’s last stronghold of masculinity’ [6].

This article was written about Caroline Mikkelsen who in 1935 was the first woman to make land on Antarctica [3,6]. This was over 100 years since the first man.

Caroline’s adventure to Antarctica was kept under wraps for some time following her trip, even after her husband’s death [6].

History is made by George Washington Gibbs Jr.

George Washington Gibbs Jr
George Washington Gibbs Jr.

1940 was the first known year that an African-American male visited Antarctica. George Washington Gibbs Jr. set sail on the Admiral Richard Byrd’s voyage after being chosen from hundreds of applicants to join an expedition to Antarctica.

George Washington Gibbs Jr. was hired as a mess attendant and also trained as a cook. Accounts taken from his journal explained that he was often treated badly by officers on board the boat, but spoke highly of the Captain, who welcomed him as the first African-American to set foot on Antarctica [7,8].  

Through his work in Antarctica, as well as later service to the American forces during World War II, he was awarded a series of medals, and also was promoted to Chief Petty Officer [8].

The first women to overwinter in Antarctica: 1946-1948

Between 1946 and 1948, American women Jackie Ronne and Jennie Darlington were the first women to over-winter in Antarctica, and spend a full year in Antarctica [2]. They helped other members of their team establish a US research station on Stonington Island.

Similarly to every other account we have spoken about on this page, both Jackie and Jennie faced criticism from their male team members. These same team members also signed petitions to refuse Jackie’s and Jennie’s entry to Antarctica [3]. 

A Progression to more women in Antarctica

It was only in 1969 that the US Navy lifted its ban on transporting women to Antarctica. Following this, the National Science Foundation (NSF) finally allowed women to work on scientific expeditions organised by them. Prior to this, women would have to use different funding options to conduct science in Antarctica and typically because of these constraints, they would not normally be hired over men.

After the lifting of these bans, Antarctica saw a gradual increase in the number of women who worked in Antarctica. Elena Marty and Jan Boyd in 1974 became the first woman to be given administrative roles.

Dr Michele Eileen Raney in 1978-9 was the first American woman physician work all year round in the South Pole [3]. After more progressive years, women were gradually able to take up higher roles such as station leaders and aviation leaders.

More recent events in Antarctica

First Black woman to reach the South Pole

The first black woman in Antarctica
Barbara Hillary. BlackPast

‘Antarctic firsts’ are still happening today. As more and more people are visiting Antarctica it gives the opportunity for more milestone events to occur. For example, Barbara Hillary who was the first African-American woman to reach the South Pole in 2011, she was 79 at the time of her arrival. Barbara is also known as the first African-American who reached both Poles.

2012 International Women’s Day

Professor Dame Jane Francis
Professor Dame Jane Francis

On the 2012 International Women’s Day, Antarctica saw ore than 50 women celebrating. They made up 70% of the International Antarctic Expedition.

A recent key milestone event was Professor Dame Jane Francis becoming the first female director of the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) in 2013.

Antarctic Pride

The first ever Antarctic Pride event was held in 2018 and it was celebrated at the US McMurdo Station.

Preparations began in early April before Antarctica faced 24 hours of darkness during their winter. Since this initial event, each year the celebrations have gotten bigger and bigger. In 2019, a flag was brought to the top of one of South Georgia’s Mountains.

Dr Kat Ganly was working within the Antarctic region from 2019-2020 and experienced the two pride events, both South Georgia’s first Pride in 2019, and the inaugural Polar Pride celebration in 2020. She has written a reflection which can be found here.

Pride flag in South Georgia. Photos taken by Jerry Gilham.

Looking Forward

There is no doubt that there are many more encounters from other under-represented groups who have been part of the discovery of Antarctica and have not been included within this page, or even discovered yet. However, bringing to light their accounts will not only help historians better understand the migrations to the southernmost continent, but it will also emphasise Antarctica’s deep cultural roots, which should be shared and talked about.

This page has highlighted predominantly women’s stories and their trips to Antarctica or its surrounding waters, but have only touched the surface on other under-represented groups such as those in the BAME or LGBTQ+ communities. Information for these different groups are not as readily available as those of women, so we are calling for anyone to contribute by commenting different resources where we can find more information about these groups in Antarctica to help spread their stories!

We have highlighted the gradual progression to more inclusion of under-represented groups, however there is a lot more that can still be done.

For more information and resources about ethnic minority groups within the polar science community, check out the Polar Impact website.

References

[1] Wehi, P.M., Scott, N.J.., Beckwith, J., Rodgers, R.P., Gillies, T., Uitregt, V.V., and Watene, K. (2021) A short scan of Māori journeys to Antarctica. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand. DOI: 10.1080/03036758.2021.1917633

[2] Antarctic New Zealand (2020). ‘Kāhui Māori to protect and guide Antarctic as well as climate adaptation research’. Available at: https://www.antarcticanz.govt.nz/media/news/kāhui-māori-to-protect-and-guide-antarctic-as-well-as-climate-adaptation-research. (Last accessed 24th September 2021).

[3] Hulbe, C., Wang, W., and Ommanney, S. (2010) Women in glaciology, a historical perspective. Journal of Glaciology. 65(200). pp. 944-964.

[4] Duneer, A.J. (2010) Voyaging Captains’ wives: Feminine Asethetics and the uses of Domesticity in the Travel Narratives of Abby Jane Morrell and Mary Wallis. Journal of the American Renaissance. 56(2). 192-230.

[5] Blackadder, J. (2015) Frozen Voices: Women, Silence and Antarctica. In Hince, Bernadette; Summerson, Rupert; Wiesel, Arnan (eds.). Antarctica: Music, Sounds, and Cultural Connections. Canberra: ANU Press.

[6] 5. Joanne, P. (2018) First Women in Antarctica. Available at: https://medium.com/@BLBookReviews/first-women-to-antarctica-cc80060650fb (last accessed 19th September 2021).

[7] Rejcek, P (2010) Making History. Available at: https://antarcticsun.usap.gov/features/2268). (Last accessed 19th September 2021).

[8] Stein, G.M. (2010) The first African-African in Antarctica: George W. Gibbs Jr. Polar Record, 46(3). 281-282. doi:10.1017/S0032247409990507

2 thoughts on “Women and Minorities in Antarctica

  1. The Antarctic Circle (AC) is a part of Earths trilogy of unexplained, unexplored & unattainable places! The ocean blue & firmament are the other two! Sadly, several governments have put restrictions on the AC & no person(s), nor other countries can explore these outer regions! Extra territory was what Admiral Byrd exclaimed, stating an area the size of America was lush with green vegetation & temperate in climate! What is being hidden from the world?

    • Hi Brad,

      I would agree with you to an extent. Several places within the Antarctic continent is not accessible but with up to date satellite data and the ever increasing technology to allow people to visit it is becoming a place which scientists know relatively well. This was not the point of this article however, this was to highlight the wealth of information about women and minorities whose stories are not shouted about as such their white male counterparts are.

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