Discoveries: The First Women in Antarctica

Posted by: Audiegrl

Forty years ago, a pioneering research team from Ohio State made history as the first U.S. women in Antarctica

Terry Tickhill (light hat) and Eileen McSaveney (red headband) use a hand augur to drill Lake Vanda, Wright Valley, Antarctica, during the 1969-1970 field season. Water collected during this effort was used to date the lake. The green tent in the background was of the same type as the field crew used for housing during their work in Wright Valley. (Credit: Lois Jones)

Terry Tickhill (light hat) and Eileen McSaveney (red headband) use a hand augur to drill Lake Vanda, Wright Valley, Antarctica, during the 1969-1970 field season. Water collected during this effort was used to date the lake. The green tent in the background was of the same type as the field crew used for housing during their work in Wright Valley. (Credit: Lois Jones)

January 11, 2010~~In the spring of 1969, Terry Tickhill Terrell was 19 and an undergraduate chemistry major at Ohio State University, bored with her lab work and restless. She had never traveled more than 250 miles from the Barnesville, Ohio, farm where she grew up.

One day, after reading an article in the school newspaper about a graduate student who had just returned from Antarctica, Terrell decided that that was where she wanted to go.

I couldn’t understand why all this awful lab work was important,” Terrell said. “So I walked into the Polar Studies office and said: ‘I want a job in Antarctica.’ The room fell dead silent. The secretary took pity on me and said: ‘There’s a group of women going this year. Dr. Lois Jones is in her office right now, and I’ll call her.”‘

The secretary was referring to geochemist Lois Jones, the leader of the four-woman Ohio State team scheduled to leave in October for four months in Antarctica. Terrell wanted to be a part of it.

Dr. Jones said, ‘We have everyone we need, but tell me about yourself,”‘ Terrell recalled. “I said, ‘I’m a chemistry major. I grew up on a farm. I am a hard worker.’ She asked if I’d done any camping. I said, ‘I’m an outdoor person, and took outdoor cookery at 4H.’ The next day she called me up and said: ‘One of the ladies is unable to go. I need a cook and field assistant.”‘

In addition to Terrell and Jones–who passed away in 2000–the team also included Kay Lindsay and geologist Eileen McSaveney. McSaveney, the other surviving member of the group, had graduated from the University of Buffalo and came to Ohio State for graduate work in landscape changes and glacial geology.

One day, Lois asked me if I would be interested in going to Antarctica as one of her field assistants,” McSaveney said. “I said yes without any hesitation–many fellow geology grad students were involved in polar work. Also, my fiancé, Mauri, had already been to Antarctica that year. Going to the Antarctic didn’t seem an unusual thing to do.”

At the time, neither woman thought much about the fact that their forthcoming journey would mark the triumphant end to a decade-long struggle. Until then, no one could convince the U.S. Navy to rescind its long-standing policy against transporting women onto the Antarctic continent.

The Navy, which had established McMurdo Station, the main American base in Antarctica, as a military outpost in 1956, had been adamant in its refusal to allow women there. Moreover, the National Science Foundation (NSF), which funded the program, did not challenge the Navy’s position.

The U.S. Navy was in charge of field operations and they regarded Antarctica as a male-only bastion,” McSaveney said. “Eventually they agreed to allow women to go, but specified an all-female field team.”

Now, as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of that pioneering expedition, about a third of Antarctic scientists are women. Hundreds of women have worked in the program, some of them leading research stations and heading major expeditions. More than 50 are working at the South Pole during the 2009-2010 summer season.

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