Female explorers receive some overdue credit

Posted: Thursday, April 26, 2001

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- They've lived with cannibals, served as guides for Arctic explorers and searched for Martian meteorites in the Antarctic.

One apprenticed to a witch doctor, another piloted her own plane to Alaska when she was in her 90s. And they're still out there: studying the social structures of African elephants, mapping an underwater cave system in the Bahamas, discovering sulfur-eating microbes in Mexican caves.

Female explorers have been pushing the boundaries of the known world for centuries, risking their lives to add to the store of human knowledge. But most of them, except for such luminaries as Amelia Earhart, Margaret Mead and Dian Fossey, have remained unrecognized, their contributions unheralded.

A few years ago, Milbry Polk, who had begun collecting the oral histories of female explorers, decided to do something about that sorry state of affairs. The Palisades, N.Y., mother of three set out to raise money to establish an award to honor the greatest annual feat of female exploration.

It has been an uphill task.

''Most people were dismissive,'' said Polk, who approached banks, foundations and sportswear companies. ''They said they just went with their husbands or they hadn't done anything special.''

Polk concluded she needed to bring her material to the attention of a wider audience. Women of Discovery, the book she co-authored with designer Mary Tiegreen, will be published in October by Clarkson Potter. CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour contributed the foreword.

The book will showcase the feats of exploration of more than 80 women over the past 1,900 years. And that was only a fraction of the hundreds of biographies Polk collected.

The book is divided into five sections: Early Voyagers, Intrepid Explorers, Scientific Explorers, Artist Explorers, and Explorers on the Edge, which includes aviators, astronauts, mountaineers and other participants in physically risky endeavors.

''We tried to be as broad as we could,'' said Polk. ''We have geologists, writers, filmmakers, poets. The criteria were that they had to have undergone personal risk and recorded their findings in some fashion to share with others.''

Space constraints forced the authors to cut sections on pilgrims and guides. In many societies, religious pilgrimage remains the only travel sanctioned for women.

Polk initially became interested in the lives of female explorers when motherhood stopped her own forays. Among other undertakings, Polk had sailed across the Mediterranean, kayaked in Alaska's Prince William Sound and led a camel expedition retracing the route of Alexander the Great in Egypt.

She had thought she was alone out there as a female explorer. Then she began meeting older women who had undertaken incredible voyages. ''If I'd known I was working in spiritual relationship with other women, it would have been so much easier for me,'' Polk said.

Inspired by their stories, Polk tried to get funding to record their oral histories before it was too late. ''I couldn't believe these fascinating women were forgotten or marginalized,'' she said. ''It was like discovering a treasure. You want to share it with everybody.''

There was little interest. When no one bit on the female explorers' award either, Polk started collecting biographies on her own, often rescuing material before it was lost forever.

''I found that women who were explorers traditionally worked on their own outside university and organizational support, so there was no conduit for their papers. When they died, their papers were just thrown out.''

Once she started looking, potential subjects came at her from all directions. ''We'd be at a dinner party and someone would say, 'That sounds like a crazy aunt of mine.' And it turned out the crazy aunt had done something extraordinary.''

During her research, Polk was astonished to learn that women had been central to the success of many expeditions. ''Many of them are written about as a footnote to history,'' she said. ''But a lot of Arctic explorers couldn't have made it without Eskimo women. They caught their food, made their cloth, showed them the way.''

Malinche, a Mexican woman now vilified in her own country, was forced into service during Hernan Cortes' rampage through the New World. ''She had mastered many languages, quickly learned Spanish and smoothed the way for him,'' she said. ''She became his eyes and ears into the country.''

Polk also found that women often didn't begin their explorations until later in life. Entomologist Evelyn Cheesman was 42 before she was offered the chance to join a South Pacific expedition. In New Guinea, Cheesman decided she would learn more living with local inhabitants than traipsing around with her fellow expedition members. ''They said to her, 'You're crazy, there are headhunters out there.' But she went off anyway and wrote very, very funny books about her time with the tribes,'' said Polk.

Because of societal constraints -- women weren't permitted to join the Explorers Club until 1981, for example -- men and women tended to explore differently. Women were generally more adept at fitting into local cultures.

''Men were supported by mandates: 'Find the source of the river, conquer new territories, find gold,' '' said Polk. ''Whereas women didn't have that pressure. They didn't have hundreds of porters. They learned the language of people, instead of yelling 'boy.'''

Often, they weren't as foolhardy. ''Women,'' said Polk, ''didn't go out and get themselves killed.''

With the book soon to be published, Polk is back to searching for sponsors for a female-explorers award. ''I'm looking for a company that has the vision to see the benefit of using these really positive, exciting women as role models and to see there is so much out there that we don't know and there is so much for all of us still to discover.''

But Polk isn't sure she wants to make female explorers her cause in life. When her three daughters are grown -- the youngest is now 8 -- she plans to return to exploration.

''I just think this is something that people should know about,'' said Polk. ''Anybody can be an explorer. Many of these women had no money and little conventional education. Others have found their paths blocked at nearly every turn by the establishment. But they found a way to follow their dreams.''


(Distributed by The Associated Press)

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