‘Because she is a woman, the girl knows that the sea and the Poles, a thousand adventures, a thousand joys are forbidden to her: she is born on the wrong side.’ Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (1949)
When the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir wrote the words above, she was not exaggerating: for almost two hundred years, few women explorers or scientists were permitted to travel to Antarctica. In the 1960s the Commander of the U.S. Naval Support Force in Antarctica described it as ‘the womanless white continent of peace’. In 1974 the American biologist Mary Alice McWhinnie was the first woman to serve as chief scientist at an Antarctic research station, and it was not until 1983 that a British woman, Janet Thomson, joined the British Antarctic Survey.
Just over ten years later, the English writer and traveller Sara Wheeler was accepted by the U.S. National Science Foundation as its first female writer-in-residence at the South Pole. She spent seven months in Antarctica, and wrote about her experiences in her book, Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica (1997), which became a bestseller and is still in print; a suitable riposte to the man who told her, ‘I have waited years for a good book about the Antarctic. Yours is not it.’
In her new book, Glowing Still: A Women’s Life on the Road (Little, Brown 2023) Wheeler recalls how unwelcome she occasionally felt in Antarctica and other places: ‘misogyny stalks the female traveller’s world’, she writes. But as well as shining a light on how women travellers can still feel ‘born on the wrong side’ at times, Glowing Still is a fresh and funny account of a writing life that’s very enjoyable to read. My review is in this week’s TLS.
Ann Kennedy Smith 12 March 2023