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Women Breaking Boundaries in the Polar Regions: Explorers and Scientists

8 min read
Photo by Acacia Johnson

"With open-hearted thanks to the women who forged the challenging path to Antarctica before me. You have enabled my life’s dreams to be fulfilled." 
Annie Inglis, Quark Expedition Guide and Marine Biologist

The empowerment of women. Such a beautiful thing.

We need only look to women like Felicity Aston, the extraordinary woman who chronicled her polar journey in "Alone in Antarctica: The First Woman to Ski Solo Across The Southern Ice.”

Aston, an English explorer and scientist, nailed it when she wrote: “It was clear to me that the success of my expedition had not depended on physical strength or dramatic acts of bravery but on the fact that at least some progress – however small – had been made every single day. It had not been about glorious heroism but the humblest of qualities, a quality that perhaps we all too often fail to appreciate for its worth – that of perseverance.”  

But Aston was—and still is—more than an adventurer. Between 2000 and 2003, she was the senior meteorologist at Rothera Research Station on Adelaide Island off the Antarctic Peninsula, where she worked with a team monitoring the climate and the ozone.

As a member of the British Antarctic Survey staff, Aston spent a continuous stretch of three summers and two winters without leaving  Antarctica.

Famous Female Explorers and Polar Scientists

While women like Isabella Bird (the first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society) and Amelia Earhart (the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and founder of the International Organization of Women Pilots) paved the way, perhaps it was the perseverance of an earlier woman scientist in Antarctica that most inspired Aston and others like her.

In 1956, Maria Klenova became the first female scientist to go ashore in Antarctica.  For many decades, female scientists were prohibited from going ashore and were forced to conduct all of their research on the vessel—while their male counterparts and subordinates went ashore.

Klenova exuded patience and persistence in the face of such gender discrimination. In 1956, she became the first female scientist ever to go ashore when she landed on Macquarie Island. Klenova’s contributions were instrumental in creating the first Antarctic atlas. (More on Klenova's scientific work below.)

Not all of the women who paved the way were scientists, however. American journalist Nellie Bly became the first person to travel around the world in less than 80 days as part of a piece for the newspaper The New York World, setting a new world record.

And then there were women like American explorer Jackie Ronne, the first woman to participate as a working member of an Antarctic expedition.  She joined the 1947-48 Antarctic expedition led by her husband, Finn Ronne. She wrote daily news releases for what was known as the Ronne Expedition.

What isn't widely known is that she also conducted tidal and seismographic observations. The Ronne Ice Shelf was originally named the Jackie Ronne Ice Shelf but was subsequently modified to acknowledge both husband and wife.

Setting off on a most extraordinary journey

The perseverance of women in the Polar Regions, including researchers and scientists like Aston, Klenova and Ronne, is one of the things that we will celebrate on International Women’s Day 2023 (Wednesday, March 8), which this year embraces the theme: #EmbraceEquity.

A Quark Expeditions guest is mesmerized at the sight of a blue iceberg in Svalbard, in the heart of Arctic Norway.

Women have been making stride as they continue to break the ice ceiling in the Polar Regions.  At the time of writing, half of Quark Expeditions' Expedition Leaders are women. That also mirrors the gender breakdown of our passengers: In the last several years, women have accounted for approximately 53% of our passengers to Antarctica.

Our expedition staff and crew frequently encounter women traveling solo or, as is often the case, with an all-female group of friends who are breaking personal boundaries together in the Polar Regions.

More Inspirational Women Who've Explored Antarctica

According to Māori oral history (that of the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand), female Explorer Ui-te-rangiora reached Antarctic waters by way of the South Pacific around 650 AD.

Louise Séguin became the first European woman to visit the Antarctic region in 1773, as she sailed on the Roland alongside Yves Joseph de Kerguelen. However, official ship records carry no mention of her name. Séguin's presence on the polar vessel created a stir in male-dominated scientific circles.

Here's a snapshot of other women whose contributions we celebrate on International Women's Day:

Ingrid Christensen, First Woman to Set Foot on the 7th Continent

The first woman to actually set foot on the Antarctic continent was Ingrid Christensen, who landed at Scullin Monolith. She was immediately followed by a group of other female explorers: her daughter, Augusta Sofie Christensen, Lillemor Rachlew, and Solveig Widerøeher. 

Maria Klenova, First Female Geologist Working in Antarctica

Russian and Soviet Marine Geologist Maria Vasilyevna Klenova, mentioned above, also served as a member of the Council for Antarctic Research of the USSR Academy of Sciences. For nearly 30 years she researched and studied the Polar regions.

Her career in marine geology took off in 1925 when she began her research in the Arctic, in the Barents Sea, Novaya Zemlya, Spitsbergen, and Franz Josef Land.

Adelaide Island

In the late 1940s after World War II, she turned her sights to the extreme south and in 1956, Maria set out to map uncharted areas of the Antarctic coast. Her work and in depth knowledge of the area resulted in, as referenced above, the first Antarctic atlas. 

Barbara Hillary, First African American Woman to Reach Both the North Pole and South Pole

New York-born Barbara Hillary was a respected nurse, publisher, adventurer and inspirational speaker. On April 23, 2007, Hillary became the first black woman to reach the North Pole.

On January 6, 2011, at the age of 79, Hillary became the first African American woman on record to set foot at the South Pole. One of the many accolades Hillary received in her lifetime was the "Woman of Courage" award from the National Organization of Women.

Fact: 50% of the Expedition Leaders with Quark Expeditions are women!

Science in Antarctica has provided great insights into some aspects of the natural world, including (but not limited to) the ozone layer and historic concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air. Antarctic science was also the catalyst for one of the most impressive international treaties, The Antarctic Treaty.

Quark Expeditions team member Alison Kirk-Lauritsen recalls visiting Palmer Station, the US Scientific Base on Anvers Island, where she met the impressive Station Manager, Rebecca Shoop, whose accolades include this tribute from her team: 

"Rebecca led with kindness to her team and a passion for science; she clearly has a sharp analytical mind and superior logistics, administrative and communication skills. I was inspired to meet Rebecca and her team of scientists (male and female), and to see the impressive work they are doing in Antarctica to help us understand how to protect and conserve this wilderness and the oceans beyond.”

—Alison Kirk-Lauritsen, Quark Expeditions Leader & Quark Academy Trainer

Ann Chapman, First Female Antarctic Expedition Leader

In 1971, New Zealand Limnologist Ann Chapman lead a three-week biological survey of the frozen lakes in the Taylor Valley, making her the first woman to lead an Antarctic expedition. Lake Chapman, in Antarctica's Ross Sea Dependency, bears her name.

The First Women to Explore the Arctic

At the other end of the planet, across the Arctic’s many islands and the far northern regions of Canada and Russia, Thule and Inuit roamed. Unlike completely uninhabited Antarctica, the inhospitable Arctic somehow supported tenacious Inuit for thousands of years.

Generations of women raised their families, built homes, hunted and charted the migratory paths of Arctic animals long before the first Europeans set their sights on the far north. 

Over the last several hundreds of years, courageous explorers have set out to investigate, document and experience the Arctic's sprawling, wild landscapes. These adventurous women couldn’t resist the Arctic’s allure.

Louise Arner Boyd, First Female Pilot to Fly Over the North Pole

Journalists in the 1920s called her ‘The Girl Who Tamed the Arctic,’ due to her escapades in the far north aboard the Hobby, previously sailed by famed explorer Roald Amundsen.

Her interest began when she was a young woman, and throughout the 1930s, Boyd explored the rugged, wild north and east coast of Greenland, studying their fascinating culture and wildlife along the way. Though her accomplishments and accolades were many, Louise is perhaps best known as the first woman to fly over the North Pole—a feat she achieved in 1955.

Fact: In 1956, Maria Klenova became the first woman scientist 
to go ashore in Antarctica

"The communities of women aboard our ships are full of remarkable, diverse, inspiring role-models of all ages and backgrounds. Being part of this community, united by our love for the Polar Regions and by working in the field, I feel at home with who I am and what I do—and wholly equal with our male colleagues, as well, who must not go unmentioned for their boundless support and camaraderie."

—Acacia Johnson, Quark Expeditions Guide and Photographer

Celebrate International Women’s Day 2023

You can make your voice heard around the world on International Women’s Day 2023 (March 8) by using the hashtags #EmbraceEquity and #IWD2023  on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. 

Celebrate the Major Contributions of Female Explorers and Retrace Their Polar Journeys

If you'd like to learn more about the modern history of women scientists and adventurers in the Polar Regions who changed the world, listen to our special Polar Learning Channel segment,  "Women in Antarctica" webinar recording hosted by Polar Expedition guide and Historian Justine Ryan.

You don't have to sail the world solo or take a flying lesson to explore the world like these incredible women. Follow in the footsteps of these inspirational female explorers on our Falklands, South Georgia, and Antarctica: Explorers and Kings expedition or take a trip to the North Pole, considered by some to be a holy land of Arctic exploration!

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