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Long time coming

Women fully integrated into USAP over last 40 years


Ernest Shackleton placed perhaps the most famous job wanted ad in history for his 1914 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, which later earned him so much acclaim for the hardships encountered and overcome.

The advert read: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.” 

More than 50 years later, when the Antarctic Age of Exploration slipped into the Age of Scientific Discovery, the job ads for forklift drivers or even administrative clerks may not have dripped with such machismo. But there was no less swagger to the attitude that still dominated on the continent when the first female scientists arrived in 1969.

It wasn’t too long after the ranks of researchers opened up to women that they started to fill support roles — first in the U.S. Navy and then increasingly among the civilian workforce that eventually took over most jobs today from the military.

Elena Marty was one of two female employees hired by civilian contractor Holmes and Narver Inc. for the 1974-75 austral summer season. It was the Antarctic equivalent of NASA sending the first U.S. woman into space.

“In that day, there was still a very big ceiling to break through. The fact that they were ‘allowing’ women to go to the Ice was huge. We were an anomaly and a commodity down there,” says Marty, now retired in Long Beach, Calif., with her husband Jerry, who was also an H&N employee at the time. (Jerry Marty later worked in the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs on the construction of the third and current research station at South Pole.)

“That was a tough time for women who wanted to show they could do more than just file and type and take dictation,” she recalls. “I looked at this as an opportunity to explore more of what I could do in a remote location besides just being there. I was able to learn a lot there, as well as make contributions.”

Hired in an administrative role at McMurdo Station, Marty (like co-worker and fellow ceiling-crasher Jan Boyd) ended up working a variety of jobs. During a weeklong stint at the world’s southernmost research station, Marty even drove a forklift, helping haul away a broken Navy airplane that had crashed a couple years earlier at South Pole. Maybe 12 women, mostly scientists, were on the entire continent at that time.

“They really didn’t put out an ad for women to work at the South Pole,” Marty notes.

Half-a-dozen years later, in 1981, the ratio of men to women working in the U.S. Antarctic Program was slowly inching up. Ann Peoples estimates it was maybe 10 men for every woman.

“It was a little rougher around the edges than it became later, say in the late 80s and early 90s,” recounts Peoples, who worked for the U.S. Antarctic Program for 14 consecutive seasons. She started as a shuttle driver and left in 1995 as the first woman to head one of the USAP’s three permanent research facilities at Palmer Station.

Even into the 1980s, pinup posters of Raquel Welch hung on work center walls. Jobs for women were generally limited to driving shuttle buses, shuffling paperwork or pushing a mop as a janitor. Only a few women worked in the trades.

“Since women weren’t viewed as being as strong, skilled, or competent for the entire range of job opportunities, that meant that the number of positions available to women before the late 80s were just so limited,” says Pam Hill, whom Peoples hired in 1985.

No woman served in a significant leadership role until 1986, when Peoples took over management of the Berg Field Center (BFC), which outfits science parties and helps coordinate outdoor fieldwork.

That was a big deal, Peoples explains, as some folks balked at the idea of a woman running a department charged with search and rescue responsibilities. She must have done a pretty good job in the end — women have generally run the BFC for more than 20 years now.

Peoples continued to push the ceiling that Marty butted against in the 1970s, opening doors for others to follow. In 1990, she became the first woman to hold the position of logistics manager. Ironically, she couldn’t get a grunt-level job in the department years before because of concerns that a woman couldn’t handle 50-pound loads.

The next year, she became the first woman to lead one of the three USAP research facilities, serving as station manager at Palmer for four seasons. Today, she heads her own consulting firm.

“In 1981, women on the Ice were still a novelty. By the time I left in 1995, having women on the Ice was normal,” Peoples says. “No one thought too much about it; women routinely contributed to USAP in all aspects of science and support. That change was a good thing. To be part of that change was an adventure and a privilege.”

When was the tipping point? It’s hard to say. But maybe it was the 1993-94 season. Peoples was once again station manager at Palmer. Janet Phillips headed South Pole Station for a year. And Karen Schwall ran McMurdo Station. Three station managers, three women. There were only seven women in the U.S. Senate in 1993. (Today there are 17 out of 100 senators.)

In an article written for Women’s History Month and later reprinted on Bill Spindler’s South Pole Station Web site, Phillips reflected on that extraordinary time:

“Something made me want to share our little moment in history with people … to let people know that things like this can happen ... to encourage young women, and those young at heart, to strive for what they want, because it can happen. The convergence of women managing the stations at the same time was very brief, a few weeks or so. But the way we look at it, it was a first, a moment to be noticed, a moment to be repeated.”

All those Antarctic “firsts” are nice, Peoples concedes, but the legacy of bringing more women into the program is what’s really special to her today.

“When I think of the Antarctic, I think of the number of women I worked with, many of whom I hired, that are still in polar programs,” she says. “Helping to open the door for hard-working, competent women who have made a successful career in polar programs holds more satisfaction than all the various ‘firsts.’”

Currently field support coordinator at McMurdo Station for her 20th season on the Ice, Hill is one of the many Antarctic alumni from those days. And she is one of a couple hundred women filling any number of jobs today. Yes, women still drive shuttles, but they also manage research labs and rappel down ice cliffs.

“I look at McMurdo now compared to 25 years ago, and think that it’s pretty close to normal living in any small community stateside,” Hill says. “I wouldn’t say that it’s a big deal being a woman in Antarctica, as much as it’s just a big deal for anybody to be here. It’s an opportunity no matter what gender you are.”

Marty says she embraces the notion that she was a pioneer.

“I kind of went down there with the old Women’s Lib fervor, though not necessarily the bra-burning, card-carrying kind, but certainly to the point that I thought, ‘This isn’t so hard. I can drive a truck. I can do almost everything you guys can do,’” she says.

“I expected women to play more of a prominent role. It bothered me that it took so long.”

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs