Cool Chicks

Yesterday I MC’d a panel discussion at NZ IceFest called ‘Cool Chicks’, all about women in Antarctica. Historically, those two words haven’t gone together very often. In the black and white days at the turn of last century, Antarctica was a place for heroes, or, as Sara Wheeler put it, ‘men with frozen beards trying to see how dead they could get.’ The first women to head south did so in their capacity as wives – wives of whalers, like Ingrid Christensen and Caroline Mikkelsen; and wives of expeditioners, like Edith Ronne and Jenny Darlington who both wintered over with the Ronne Expedition of 1947-8. These days it is science that is the drawcard, with the Antarctic Treaty designating the continent as a place for peace and science. The Soviet IGY team (1957-8) did include female scientists, but for many nations, hostilities remained well into the following decades. In 1965, Admiral Dufek referred to Antarctica as ‘the womanless white continent of peace,’ and the British were the last bastion of such sentiment, only allowing women to winter over in 1996 (compared to the USA in 1974, NZ in 1979 and Australia in 1981).

Today, both men and women help run national Antarctic Programmes, do science in Antarctica and regularly head south, both to conduct experiments and to tell our stories about the place. Enter Dr Jesse Blackadder (author, speaking about the history of women in Antarctica and how their stories have been told), Dr Carol Smith (soil scientist, talking about what it is like to work in the Antarctic field in the modern day) and Michelle Rogan-Finnemore (Executive Director of COMNAP, talking about what it was like to live at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station for 14 months). None of my three panellists had beards, and all were present in full colour, bursting with tales of the South.

First up, here’s how the panel was advertised…

 ‘…as the minority they still face some very unique challenges…’

I took this as my starting point when we met prior to the panel, asking what some of those unique challenges might be. The consensus? That today, Antarctica is a workplace like any other, where both men and women who are very good at what they do carry on and do what they do. That was encouraging to hear, because my 2011 literature review would have had me believe otherwise not all that long ago.

It was also great because it opened the discussion up to experiences of Antarctica, not just women’s experiences of Antarctica. That might sound like an odd thing to say when I had three women presenting, but my point is that their stories were all very different: Living at a station year round, working in a field camp, and travelling south for research on a book as the Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow led to three very different versions of Antarctica. Or four, if you count the imagined version that each person constructs for themselves long before actually setting foot on the ice.

Michelle always wanted to be an astronaut and ended up in Antarctica because of the abundance of meteorites that are to be found there, but both Jesse and Carol talked about the tales of Heroic Era explorers influencing their interest in and imagined version of Antarctica. That really piqued my interest. My question to the panel was this: How did your imagined version of Antarctica compare to the reality when you arrived? For me, this is a really important question because I look at texts, and those texts prompt the imagined versions of place which, for the majority of people who will never go to Antarctica, remain more real that any experience of snow and ice. For Jesse, that imagined version was indeed very real, and she spoke of a process of grieving, of letting go of that constructed landscape in which she had spent many hours as she came into contact with the ice itself. Carol experienced a similar jolt, which reminded me of my aural experience of the ice (Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is not a soundtrack traditionally associated with The Great Ice Barrier…)

The space that exists between the imagined place and the real place, and ways that space has been bridged, is a topic that I think deserves further thought, so I’ve thrown the question out wide to my polar contacts overnight. Some of their responses are below. (Incidently, they are all women who’ve replied so far… it turns out I know quite a few ‘Cool Chicks’!)

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