The year 1969 was monumental. It is remembered in popular culture for the Moon landing, the Stonewall riots, and Woodstock. But it also marked an important breakthrough for diversity within the scientific community. Fifty years ago, four women made history as the first all-female team to conduct research in Antarctica and to venture to the South Pole. In doing so, these brave pioneers set an example for women in polar science and beyond for years to come.
Prior to the 1969 expedition, women, especially women in scientific roles, were virtually nonexistent in Antarctica. The first women to visit arrived there in part as a by-product of marriage. These women included Caroline Mikkelsen, the first woman to reach Antarctica, who accompanied her husband on his 1935 expedition, and Edith Ronne and Jennie Darlington, who also accompanied their husbands on their polar exploration in 1947. Other early female visitors included marine geologist Maria Klenova in 1956, the first woman scientist to visit Antarctica, and Christine Muller-Schwarze, who visited in early 1969 to study penguins. While Muller-Schwarze was in Antarctica, another milestone expedition was being planned.
Rising Stars in Polar Research
In mid-1969, Colin Bull, director of the Institute of Polar Studies (now the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center) at Ohio State University in Columbus, was pulling together a team of strong women scientists for an Antarctic expedition. At its forefront was Dr. Lois Jones, a geochemist at Ohio State whose research focused on studying strontium isotopes to determine the origin of salts in Antarctic lakes and soils and better understand the geologic history of the continental basin [Lewandowski, 2018].
Until 1969, Jones had relied on samples collected and brought home by other scientists because of the strict gender ban imposed by the U.S. Navy, which oversaw U.S. research expeditions in Antarctica at the time and prevented women from visiting the continent for fieldwork [Lewandowski, 2018]. But she was interested in expanding her research to a new location, Antarctica’s Dry Valleys, which meant conducting her own fieldwork and collecting her own samples. With Bull’s support, she submitted a research proposal to the National Science Foundation (NSF). NSF approved the proposal, and the Navy reluctantly allowed the all-woman research team to visit Antarctica [Rejcek, 2009].
The rest of the Ohio State team fell into place with Jones at the helm. It included Eileen McSaveney, a geology graduate student; Kay Lindsay, an entomologist who had an interest in the mites and springtails of Antarctica and whose husband had previous experience with Antarctic research; and Terry Tickhill Terrell, a chemistry undergraduate who lacked a background in geology but was skilled with machinery and who, in Jones’s estimation, was gritty enough for arduous Antarctic work. Although the research team received overwhelming support from the public and the scientific community, there was also skepticism.
Rather than focusing on the research that the team was pursuing, for example, some reporters asked superficial questions of the researchers, such as “Will you wear lipstick while you work?” [Rejcek, 2009]. New York Times journalist Walter Sullivan even declared the expedition to be “an incursion of females” into “the largest male sanctuary remaining on this planet” [Carey et al., 2016]. Other groups, including the Navy, expressed concern about whether the women would successfully complete the expedition.
This skepticism only fueled the team’s determination to succeed.
In November 1969, Jones and her colleagues arrived in Antarctica to begin their work. To prove that women could successfully conduct research in Antarctica, the team asked for help from support staff as infrequently as possible during their 4-month-long stay, requesting supplies only when absolutely necessary.
The expedition experienced tremendous successes, both scientific and otherwise. Jones and a colleague, using samples the team had collected, revealed insights into the sources and implications of strontium isotopes in Taylor Valley [Jones and Faure, 1978]. McSaveney gathered additional geologic samples as part of her graduate studies, and Lindsay collected springtails and mites for her research. Accompanying the Navy to the South Pole, the four researchers, alongside two other women (New Zealand biologist Pam Young and Detroit Free Press journalist Jean Pearson), also became the first women to ever visit the South Pole.
Breaking the Ice
The trip and its success had historic implications, although not everyone immediately embraced the idea of women on polar research expeditions. For example, the British Antarctic Survey continued to bar women from participating in Antarctic expeditions until 1987, when glaciologist Elizabeth Morris finally joined a field team [Carey et al., 2016]. Despite such stances, the 1969 expedition broke a barrier and contributed more broadly to the growing momentum of women in science.
After the Jones expedition, the U.S. Navy officially began accepting women at McMurdo Station, the country’s largest Antarctic outpost, and more women flew in to conduct research on the frozen continent, setting additional records along the way. In 1970, Irene Peden, an engineering professor at the University of Washington, became the first woman to conduct research in Antarctica’s interior. She later spent an entire winter at the South Pole in 1979, becoming the first woman ever to do so. In 1974, physiologist Mary Alice McWhinnie became the first woman to head McMurdo Station and one of the first two, along with Mary Odile Cahoon, to spend the winter there. And in 1999, physician Jerri Nielsen became famous for her quick action after finding a lump in her breast while overwintering at the South Pole. With no other medical staff present and with no chance of a quick departure, she performed a biopsy on herself using ice and local anesthesia; then, after doctors remotely diagnosed her with breast cancer, she self-administered chemotherapy—delivered via a midwinter airdrop—until she was evacuated several months later.
The contributions of women in research publications also grew. For example, the number of women authoring research articles in the Journal of Glaciology and Annals of Glaciology increased from 10 in 1979 to 55 in 1990 [Carey et al., 2016].
Aside from the increasing presence of women in Antarctica, steps have been taken to improve gender parity across the sciences. Committees are in place to assess and encourage gender diversity in academia generally and across many disciplines, including physics, chemistry, medicine, and geoscience. Today, women account for roughly one third of all scientists visiting Antarctica and, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s Institute for Statistics, 28.4% of the world’s researchers. And women lead multimillion-dollar expeditions and projects, participate in every scientific discipline, and serve in key leadership roles around the world.
Cause for Celebration
The revolutionary researchers from the 1969 expedition have reflected fondly on their Antarctic experience and have remarked on the progress of women in science. In a 2009 article by Peter Rejcek marking the 40th anniversary of the mission, Terrell recalled the heartbreak of leaving such a beautiful and stimulating environment, and McSaveney said she holds on to memories of the expedition by staying up to date on research and discoveries related to Antarctica. McSaveney also recalled having seen a documentary in the mid-2000s that showed scientists at McMurdo Station: “It was obviously so commonplace to have women working there that no particular mention of it was made in the commentary.…That told me that things are now as they should be,” she said.
Sadly, both Jones and Lindsay have passed away, in 2000 and 2001, respectively. Their legacies live on, however. After her death, Jones’s estate donated 18,275 slides containing images from her personal life, travel, and research to the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center. These slides are now stored within Ohio State’s Polar Archives. In addition, Jones donated funds toward research studying both geology and cancer through two generous endowments, the Lois M. Jones Fellowship Fund in Geological Sciences and the Lois M. Jones Endowment for Cancer Research Fellowships.
This October, the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center will host a symposium in Columbus, Ohio, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the groundbreaking expedition. Members of the public, researchers, faculty, and students are invited to celebrate the achievements of the women who made it happen and to discuss current challenges and hopes for women in science, research, discovery, and leadership. Topics will include polar research, fieldwork, and assessing gender parity in the U.S. Antarctic Program. Terry Tickhill Terrell and Eileen McSaveney will be in attendance to share their experiences. Looking toward the future, this symposium will introduce tools for engagement, share experiences and successes of women in science, and discuss changes being made across the globe to include women in all disciplines within and outside of science.
Women have come a long way since the early years of Antarctic exploration.
Although inclusion of women in scientific fields has increased, challenges still arise, and women are still breaking down barriers that have been in place since long before the 1969 expedition. Broadly, women experience workplace discrimination in terms of unequal pay and harassment, and female researchers and workers in Antarctica face gender stereotypes, sexual harassment, and outright discrimination. In academia, women in higher education and research experience a “leaky pipe” scenario, with the proportion of women involved in undergraduate, graduate, and postdoctoral research and education declining at each successively more advanced level.
But the news isn’t all bad. In the past decade, workplace diversity has improved, and zero-tolerance policies have increasingly been introduced to combat workplace harassment and gender inequality. In January 2017, more than 3 million women and men marched on all seven continents in solidarity with the Women’s March on Washington. The “Me Too” movement, which began in 2006 to protect victims of sexual violence, became a viral sensation in October 2017 when celebrities brought workplace harassment into the light with their personal stories. In 2018, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine released a consensus study report about the climate, culture, and consequences of workplace harassment against women. In 2019, AGU launched its Ethics and Equality Initiative, which targets harassment in the science, technology, engineering, and medicine (STEM) fields. These developments indicate that empowerment and teamwork are two key components of creating change and pushing diversity in professional and academic environments.
As women’s involvement in science and other industries becomes more commonplace, it is important to remember the fearless individuals who forged paths and set examples for women today. Remembering and celebrating victories for women in science, identifying areas where further inclusion is needed, and looking forward to a brighter future all are reasons why a 50th-anniversary celebration of the 1969 expedition is right around the corner. We hope to see you there!
I acknowledge those who contributed to this article, including Jason Cervenec, Michele Cook, Kira Harris, Laura Kissel, Kasey Krok, and Stacy Porter.