The Frozen Voices of Women Explorers

In 1937, no less than 1,300 women applied for a single spot on a British Antarctic Survey expedition. Not one was accepted to go. The reasoning went that women would be “deadweight at best, and disarray at worst.” This ghastly phrase inspired the title of a new CBC radio documentary called “Deadweight at best: The Frozen Voices of Women Explorers.” It certainly reflects the dominant view of the Arctic as a male space and a site for hyper-masculine exploits.

Archeologist Latonia Hartery is a member of the famed Explorers Club in New York, a male bastion that did not admit women until 1981. Hartery made the documentary to stretch our perspectives of exploration and to delve into the many perspectives on exploration. She also wanted to make people more aware of women’s accomplishments as explorers; going north on a ship full of men, for instance, was not easy for any woman.

The documentary features a number of women talking about female explorers. Writer Shannon Webb-Campbell introduces the audience to her ancestor, Newfoundland Mi’kmaw midwife Mary Webb, a multi-lingual and skilled outdoorswoman who travelled hundreds of miles on foot or dog sled in her role as a mid-wife. I discuss Hilda Bartlett Dove’s 1930 voyage to Greenland with her uncle, the lauded Captain Robert Abram Bartlett. I also talk about the work of Louise Arner Boyd, an American explorer and researcher who, during World War II, sailed — and clashed terribly — with Bartlett. Roberta Buchanan tells the story of Mina Hubbard who mapped Labrador after her husband died trying a few years before. And there’s more.

With “Deadweight at best,” Latonia Hartery has made a real contribution to women’s history and to exploration history. You can listen to Parts 1 and 2 of the documentary here:

This blog is written by Maura Hanrahan, the author of Unchained Man: The Arctic Life and Times of Captain Robert Abram Bartlett. I’m also a retired Sub-lieutenant (NCS) and a member of the Department of Geography & Environment at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada. You are invited to subscribe to the blog by going to the Contact page, clicking the bars in the top right corner, and then clicking the small blue bar that says “following.” Then you’ll get an entry every couple of weeks or so delivered right to your inbox.