Rebecca Priestley having a read on the ice of Antarctica in 2014 (Photo: Cliff Atkins)

Celebrating the amazing women of Antarctica

Women have made a massive impact on scientific research in Antarctica, but they don’t get remotely the recognition they deserve. Science-celebrator Steph Green wants to do something about that. 

Antarctica, the edge of the world – a seemingly endless expanse of glacial and sea ice, with no indigenous human population and an inhospitable climate. If there was any part of the world untouched by the patriarchy, surely this would be it?

Not so. Despite oral history from Oceania indicating female explorers visited the region, women have often been excluded from Antarctic exploration and scientific discovery. When Ernest Shackleton advertised for fellow adventurers in 1914, three women applied to join him, but they were not included. In 1937, 1300 women applied to join a British Antarctic Expedition. How many went to the frozen continent? Not a one.

The US Navy, who conducted many exploratory expeditions, even went so far as to outright ban women from setting foot on the frozen continent, claiming the sanitation facilities were too primitive for female sensibilities. Admiral George Dufek wrote in 1956 that women in Antarctica would, “wreck men’s illusions of being heroes and frontiersmen.” This ban wasn’t lifted until 1969.

Nowadays, things on the frozen continent are different. Efforts by the scientific community across the world have improved numbers of women entering the sciences and applying for research opportunities. In 2016, nearly a third of all researchers at the South Pole were women.

New Zealand has played an important role in improving gender diversity on the ice. Because of our proximity to Antarctica and our joint logistics pool with the US, we’ve had a key voice in policy and communication with the public.

Italian biologists Simonetta Corsolini and Silvia Olmastroni with Emperor penguins near the Italian Mario Zucchelli permanent research station at Terra Nova Bay, in the Ross Sea, Antarctica. (Photo by Vittoriano Rastelli/Corbis via Getty Images)

Many of our top female scientists – including Victoria’s Dr. Nancy Bertler – are on the forefront of climate research, trying to get the message across that when it comes to climate change, Antarctica is the canary in the mine. Three kiwi scientists are among the 80 women selected for the Homeward Bound expedition that develops leadership capabilities to bring diversity to significant global issues in STEM. In 2017, Scott Base announced they’d honour three pioneering Antarctic adventuresses by putting their names to three new laboratories.

While a true list of women contributing to our understanding of Antarctica would fill several books, have a look at some of the remarkable heroines who’ve defied nature and the patriarchy to make their mark on the ice.

Edith “Jackie” Ronne

Many of Antarctica’s pioneering women have been lost to the history books, their deeds overshadowed by their explorer husbands. Edith “Jackie” Ronne was one of the first woman to explore Antarctica. In 1947, aged just 28 years old, Ronne followed her husband, the explorer Finn Ronne, on his Antarctic expedition. She faced many challenges – including the harsh winter season – and wrote extensively about her adventures.

Ronne’s history degree from George Washington University gave her a love for writing. She poured her talents into her chronicles, which were published by the North American Newspaper Alliance and the New York Times. She is often remembered as “Antarctica’s First Lady.”

Edith Ronne, right, with Canadian Jennie Darlington, during the RARE expedition, 1947. The two were the first women ever to overwinter in Antarctica. (photographer unknown)

Maria V Klenova

Maria was the first female scientist to work in the Antarctic region, as part of the First Soviet Antarctic Expedition 1955-57. She worked mainly from the icebreaker ships Ob and Lena. She was not allowed to go ashore, and had to rely on reports and field data brought back by male colleagues. Between her seasons, she worked at a Russian base on the Queen Mary Coast of Antarctica, and was also the first woman ever to step on the ice on Macquarie Island. Her work contributed to the first ever Antarctic atlas, Klenova Peak in Antarctica is named in her honour.

Lois Jones

After the US Navy lifted their ban on sending women to Antarctica, they put together an all-female expedition led by geochemist Lois Jones, who would become one of the first women to reach the South Pole. These pioneering women were not allowed to live on McMurdo station with the men. Despite this, the Navy paraded them around as a publicity stunt, referring to them as the “powderpuff explorers.”

Jones’ work is fascinating. Her team conducted surveys and collected specimens in the McMurdo Dry Valleys – an area of Antarctica that doesn’t have any ice.

Mary Odile Cahoon

Mary was a biologist and Benedictine nun who conducted research in Antarctica alongside Mary Alice McWhinnie. Her congregation collected funds to help pay for her trip, and she reported that most of her friends and family were excited to see her go, with the exception of her mother, “who was very worried.”

Together, the pair became some of the first female scientists to overwinter in Antarctica with 128 men.

Pamela Young

Pamela Young was the first New Zealand women to work in Antarctica and one of the first six women to set foot at the South Pole in November 1969, Young was a field assistant to her husband, biologist Euan Young, at Cape Bird, counting penguins and observing their behaviour. She wrote derisively of her visit to the Pole, which was a publicity stunt following the lifting of bans on women working on the frozen continent, saying, “I simply couldn’t think of the spot as that solemn goal to which Scott and Amundsen had toiled. Indeed, it seemed just the sort of Pole that Pooh and Piglet might have set out to find and it fitted perfectly into the circus like atmosphere of our own visit.”

A series of Antarctic peaks east of Mount Coley are named after Young, and a laboratory in Scott Base also bears her name.

Pamela Young, the first woman to join a NZ Antarctic programme, arrives at Scott Base in 1969 (photo: antarctica.govt.nz)

Thelma Rodgers

In 1979 Thelma Rodgers made history as the first New Zealand women scientist to winter over in Antarctica. Her achievement is remarkable, considering only a decade earlier men believed the climate was too harsh for women. Rodgers shared New Zealand’s Scott Base station with ten other men, and worked as a science technician overseeing experiments that lasted throughout the winter. She was honoured in 2017 by having a laboratory in the newly refurbished Hilary Field Centre at Scott Base named after her.

Felicity Ashton

In 2012, British explorer and adventurer Felicity Ashton became the first woman to cross Antarctica solo. She made the trek across the frozen continent in 59 days. Ashton is an experienced explorer whose other conquests included an expedition to the South Pole, a race across Arctic Canada, and traversing the inland ice of Greenland. Crevasse fields; whiteouts; sharp-edged grooves and ridges; temperatures below -40 C and hurricane-speed winds – Ashton dealt with them all, but stated that the biggest challenge was doing it by herself. “That level of aloneness was instantly frightening. Just the weight of the amount of time on my own.”

Rebecca Priestley

As an academic, Priestley’s work focuses on science communication and creative science writing – bringing what many would consider “dry” topics to life for the rest of the world to engage with. One of her main areas of interest is Antarctica and the history of science and exploration. She visited Antarctica in 2011 and 2014, to write articles and film a series of video lectures for Antarctica Online about the science and culture of the icy continent. Her anthology on Antarctic science, Dispatches from Continent Seven, captures not just the importance of the work being done, but the wonder of discovery.

There are many more adventurous women who’ve made their mark on the frozen continent, and many who continue to work in Antarctica today uncovering the true story of climate change. By engaging with their stories and supporting efforts to keep Antarctica a frontier of diversity, we ensure that there will be many more heroines of the ice.


The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

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