Women in Antarctica face assault and harassment – and a legacy of exclusion and mistreatment

A federal report, in the words of its key finding, states that “sexual assault, sexual harassment and stalking are problems in the US Antarctic Program community” — and that efforts are “dedicated to prevention.” [are] almost absent” – caused a sensation worldwide. But as a historian of Antarctic science, I didn’t find that surprising at all.

The report, released in August 2022 by the National Science Foundation, which governs the United States Antarctic Program, found that many scientists and workers believe human resources staff “fire, belittle, shame, and blame victims who engage in sexual… Report harassment and sexual assault. A report with similar findings on its national program was released by the Australian Antarctic Division in late September 2022.

The fields of Antarctic science and exploration have long excluded women from the region entirely and still have a strong culture centered on masculinity and chauvinism.

Two women and a dog
Jennie Darlington, left, with Edith “Jackie” Ronne, the first two women to take part in an Antarctic expedition in 1947.
Polar Journal

An early opportunity

The first Antarctic expedition to include women was the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition in 1947-1948, a US-based expedition funded by government and private sources and led by US Navy Captain Finn Ronne . His wife Edith “Jackie” Ronne accompanied her husband, as did Jennie Darlington, the wife of one of the pilots, Harry Darlington.

Her involvement was groundbreaking. But their presence was also perceived by many in the polar community as contributing to tensions between the young and inexperienced men “that hardened into the form of accusations, innuendos and disagreements. … Tension and turmoil should take precedence over pioneering,” wrote one historian.

Jackie Ronne has returned to Antarctica several times. But at the end of that first expedition, Jennie Darlington asserted that “women don’t belong in Antarctica” because of the harsh conditions that could result in a person needing help or even rescue. She wrote: “Men should not be placed in a position to compromise his own safety for another, less physical man.”

Darlington also reflected on the emotional toll she was taking. Many men, including her husband, believed that “Antarctica symbolizes a haven, a place of high ideals, and that men find inner peace only in a purely masculine atmosphere in a primitive environment.” to be as inconspicuous as possible to the group. I felt that all female instincts should be sublimated. … I was determined not to act like a woman in a man’s world.”

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She also commented on the psychological difficulties faced by both women: “It was a tenuous balance where we, as women, bore the primary responsibility for men’s behavior towards us. … Any attention drawn to me, any gesture or suggestion that I expected certain courtesies, any display of dominance or pretense would have been resented.”

Four women in parkas
The first four women to do research under the US Antarctic program in 1969 were (from left) Kay Lindsay, Terry Tickhill, Lois Jones and Eileen McSaveney.
Eileen McSaveney on Antarctic Sun

Except women

The global scientific effort called the International Geophysical Year in 1957-1958 changed the nature of Antarctic exploration from relatively small, short-term expeditions to establishing permanent bases on the continent. However, as different countries shaped their respective Antarctic programs, many insisted that women should not be included.

US Navy Admiral George Dufek, the head of US programs in Antarctica, declared in 1957 that “women will not be admitted to Antarctica until we can provide one woman for every man,” implying that there was no need for women in of Antarctica except as sexual partners for men.

Vivian Fuchs, Director of the British Antarctic Survey from 1958 to 1973, took a similar position in the 1950s and was still stating as late as 1982: “If one day women are included in the basic supplement there will certainly be problems [and] lead to the collapse of the sense of unity that is so important for the group.”

The first women to officially participate in fieldwork in the United States were those on the expedition led by geochemist Lois Jones in 1969. Jones was only allowed to visit Antarctica by the National Science Foundation if she could form an all-women expedition.

Her team of four were among the first six women to visit the South Pole in a publicity stunt orchestrated by the US Navy that saw the women dubbed “powder puff researchers” by the media.

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A senior New Zealand geologist who asked Jones for help with her initial application later appeared to regret it. He wrote a sexist escret, declaring: “The floodgates opened and every feminist worldwide screamed sexism, racism, etc. if they were denied an expensive three-month trip to Antarctica. It is an age-old desire of unmarried women to be where the boys are, and for many I have met that has undoubtedly been the prevailing urge.”

Six women in heavy parkas are standing in front of a large striped pole with a mirror ball on it.
From left: the first six women to visit the South Pole in 1969: Pam Young, Jean Pearson, Terry Tickhill, Lois Jones, Eileen McSaveney and Kay Lindsay.
US Navy through the National Science Foundation

Obstacles abound

Irene Penden, the first woman to work inside Antarctica, went to study the movement of very low frequency waves in 1970. But it wasn’t easy. She later wrote: “For whatever reason, probably because there had been so much back-and-forth and resentment against the first women who went there, a mythology was created about the women who went to the shore — that they had been a problem. I heard that their presence was a problem and that they weren’t productive because they hadn’t published anything yet.” However, it had only been a few months since this first group of women had completed their research season, and generally it lasted more than one Year until field data is converted into scientific articles.

Additionally, the US Navy, which controlled transport to, from, and within Antarctica, argued that commuting should be banned because of the lack of women’s toilets on board ships and in Antarctica in general. It’s a grievance repeated throughout the period of women’s integration into Antarctica’s national programs through the 1990s, as well as in other fields such as the military and space.

While most principal investigators didn’t have to write a proposal for a voyage to Antarctica to put pressure on the Navy, the National Science Foundation required that they write a specific proposal for a short-term voyage, have it peer-reviewed, and have it approved internally . After “I went through this whole rigamarole … they kept dragging their feet,” she wrote. So Penden arranged for relevant people in the National Science Foundation and the Navy to be briefed on her work so that Navy leadership “could see how utterly scientific and professional I was [and] would realize that I wasn’t an adventuress just trying to get to where all the men were, which was the sort of thing they were saying.

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The admiral in question did not come to the meeting. However, he later gave her permission for her journey if she could find a woman to accompany her. Instead of finding another scientist, Penden was accompanied by a New Zealand mountaineer, Julia Vickers. On the ice, Penden was warned by the station manager, “If you fail, there will be no other woman on the Antarctic continent for a generation.”

hostility builds

A key result of the practice of excluding women and treating them as outsiders was that explicitly misogynistic behavior became commonplace in Antarctica.

While women began being part of the United States’ research program in 1969, it wasn’t until 1996 that the British Antarctic Survey was fully integrated, allowing women to finally winter at their remote Halley Station. In the bases and expeditions of both nations, but also of other countries, Antarctica remained constructed as a decidedly male place.

Pornographic material has been publicly consumed and even created. The walls were often decorated with pictures of naked or scantily clad women. The carpenter’s hut at Australia’s Mawson Station famously contained the “Sistine Ceiling,” with sections of over 90 Playboy models plastered on the ceiling and walls.

This stayed with Mawson until 2005, 20 years after women were allowed to work on the station. That year it was destroyed by an unidentified person, to the disappointment of some who felt the destroyer “had taken the right to play heritage vandalism or vice policing for everyone”.

Today, the notion persists that Antarctica is a region dominated by adventurous hero-scientists. The stereotypical image of a man with an ice-encrusted beard remains the most emblematic face of an Antarctic explorer. And this view of Antarctica as a place for men continues to create barriers to women’s participation both on stations and in remote field work.

Indeed, Antarctic science remains heavily male-dominated, which in the early days of the #MeToo movement in 2017 revealed many disturbing allegations about the dangers women continued to face, including sexual harassment and even sexual assault. While this latest National Science Foundation report may contain many shocking and revealing elements, none of it comes as a surprise to women who have either worked in Antarctica or attempted to work in Antarctica.

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