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  • Sarah Bouckoms

50 years of Women at the South Pole

I shouldn't be able to do this. They should be dead. The first men were dead in the 1900's. But no, the first women are alive and kicking.

November 12th will mark the 50th anniversary for 6 women to be the first at the South Pole. In 2011 we will celebrate the 100th anniversary of a man at the South Pole. In honour of this momentous occasion, the Ohio State university’s Byrd Polar Research Centre hosted a symposium of Women Scientists in Antarctica. The even started with a cocktail welcome on Weds the 16th of October, followed by two full days of lectures, a dinner and tour of the Byrd centre including the Rock Repository and Ice Core collection. We heard from the likes of Kelly Falkner the head of the United States Antarctic Programme (USAP), Amy Leventer, a leading micropaleontologist and Jesse Crain a NSF research support manager, who talked about being a mother in Antarctica. During her talk, she posed an interesting question: in Antarctica, is breast milk a food or biohazard? As a mother continued to pump during her 3 week field work season, this was a question logistics needed to handle. While Lois passed away in 2000 some of her best friends were present in the audience. Kay Lindsay also passed away in 2001. We did have the honour of hearing from Eileen McSaveney who travelled all the way from New Zealand for the symposium to give a lecture entitled “the only tent with curtains”. Terry Lee Tickhill Terrell was there and also gave a riveting account of the experiences. In the audience were also early day explorers such as Rosie Askin, Claire Parkinson. It was so amazing to hear from such pioneers, share a meal with them and really understand the leaps and bounds they made. Present were many young students studying at Ohio and various other world wide institutions. It was so empowering to feel that you had this unexpected comradery with strangers. A heart-warming discussion was brought about in a panel by four women who were currently running their own expeditions to Antarctica. The advice they offered will linger with us all.

How did those first women get there? They were led by Lois Jones to the Dry Valleys to conduct a geological survey. They happened to get a plane ride to the South Pole with a journalist who happily documented the first women to stand at the South Pole. Previously, there had been other women in Antarctica. Many that went to the Southern Ocean as wives to their fisherman husbands. Ingrid Christensen was the first to see Antarctica in 1931. Caroline Mikkelsen was the first to land on an Antarctic island in 1935. Jackie Ronne and Jenny Darlington were the first to winter over in Antarctica. And while Ronne was a huge help to her husband in the programming, she was a last minute addition. In 1968, two Argentinian women had participated in an expedition but stayed near the coastal regions. Lois Jones, Eileen McSaveney, Kay Lindsay, and Terry Lee Tickhill, were the first American women to lead a science expedition in Antarctica. They were joined by Pam Young, a New Zealand biologist, and Jean Pearson, a reporter. They were the first women at the South Pole.

While this event was about women, it was not all women. There were quite a number of men in the audience, supporting their wives, current scientists, PhD students and generally interested. This event was inclusive of everyone as these conversations really need to call everyone to the table. I have been to many conferences where there have been ‘women’s group lunches’ or something of the sort, but to see a fully dedicated programme warmed my heart. Even better to see that there were many males in the audience as well. Talking with my male colleges at conferences they said, “oh its limited admission and I didn’t want to take a seat” which is fair enough but both parties need to be called to this table.

During the conference, Eileen spoke. She talked of a movie she saw a decade ago about McMurdo station. There was no mention of women in Antarctica. The film happily displayed images of women as scientists, truck drivers and engineers. It had become so nonchalant that it didn’t need mentioning. Of course there are women in Antarctica.

Now here I am going down to Antarctica on this very day, 50 years later. It is on this very day that I'll be headed to Antarctica for my 3rd time. What shoulders of giants am I standing on that allowed this to happen? I had no idea till I met thim. And they weren't all that tall, well, physically that is. I don’t think it bizarre at all that I am a women, going to Antarctica. It’s a job. And I can do it. Simple as that. But I have a profound sense of respect for the people that have gone before me to make this possible. Meeting the two remaining women of the expedition, and many women to follow on such as Claire Parkinson, Rosie Askin, and so many more made me realize how lucky I am. I have always been grateful for many things in my life but to be on this cusp is quite a privilege. It has only been 50 years. That is such a short time. I am going to Antarctica alongside a group of amazing power house women that I call my friends. In the Spirit of Antarctica!

All the lectures were recorded so learn more about these amazing women here:


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