Women Breaking Boundaries in the Polar Regions: Explorers and Scientists


"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

Photo by Acacia Johnson

The empowerment of women. Such a beautiful thing.

We need only look to women like Felicity Aston, 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.  

Perhaps it was the perseverance of an earlier woman scientist in Antarctica that partly paved the way for 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 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.)

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

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.

Women have been making stride as they continue to break the ice ceiling in the Polar Regions.  At the moment, 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 travelling 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 around 650 AD. Louise Séguin became the first Western 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 four 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. In the late 1940s, she turned her sights to the extreme south and in 1956, Maria set out to map uncharted areas of the Antarctic coast, which resulted, 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 African American 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.

This month, I visited Palmer Station, the US Scientific Base on Anvers Island, where I met their impressive Station Manager, Rebecca Shoop. She 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.

Inspirational Women Who've Explored 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 Woman 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. Throughout the 1930s, Boyd explored the rugged, wild east and north coasts 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 on International Women’s Day 2023 (March 8) by using the hashtags #EmbraceEquity and #IWD2023  on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. 

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

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