Review: The Girl Explorers by Jayne E. Zanglein

Title: The Girl Explorers

Author: Jayne E. Zanglein

Published: 2nd March 2021, Sourcebooks

Status: Read March 2021 courtesy Sourcebooks/Netgalley

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My Thoughts:

While The Girl Explorers by Jayne E. Zanglein was not exactly what I was expecting, I found it ultimately to be a fascinating and inspiring book, highlighting some of the intelligent, daring and determined women who rebelled against expectations and paved the way for women to participate in what were traditionally male pursuits.

“Fifty percent of the world population is female, but only .05 percent of recorded history relates to women.”

The Society of Woman Geographers was founded in 1925 after the exclusively male Explorers Club refused to lift its ban on women members, condescendingly dismissing their ‘suitability’ for exploration, and their many achievements. Founded by Blair Bebee/Niles, a travel writer and novelist; Marguerite Harrison, a widowed single mother and a journalist who became US spy in Russia just after WW1; Gertrude Mathews Shelby, an economic geographer; and Gertrude Emerson, an expert on Asia and editor of Asia Magazine, membership was extended to women whose “distinctive work has added to the world’s store of knowledge concerning countries on which they specialized.”

Settling on the term “geographers” instead of explorers because it was flexible enough to encompass explorers, scientists, anthropologists, ethnographers, writers, mountain climbers, and even ethnographic artists and musicians, the stated aims of the Society were, “…building personal relationships among members, archiving the work of its membership in the society’s collections, and celebrating the achievements of women.”

“With the passage of time—as so often happens with women’s careers—the names and contributions of these explorers tended to sink from sight, their achievements questioned or minimized.” – Elizabeth Fagg Olds, newspaper correspondent and former president of Society.

Though the Society accepted ‘corresponding’ members from any country, The Girl Explorers tends to focus on American adventurers. I recognised only a few names, icons such as aviator Amelia Earhart, anthropologist Margaret Mead, former US First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and author, Pearl S. Buck. While I did think that it was a shame that the author wasn’t perhaps as inclusive as she could have been, I was nevertheless still fascinated by what I learned of the many women I’d never heard of.

Of the founding members, I considered the life of Blair Bebee née Rice (later Niles) to be particularly intriguing, in part because her story is the most complete, but also because of the sheer breadth of her achievements. I was also captivated by the intrepid mountaineer, Annie Smith Peck, who in 1895, at the age of 45, became the third woman to ascend the Matterhorn, though the first to do so in knickers (men’s knickerbocker trousers) and without a corset.

Zanglein’s narrative sometimes feels a little scattered and occasionally seems to veer off-topic, however the tone is personable, and what I learned was so interesting, I found I didn’t much mind. I highlighted screeds of information as I was reading that really doesn’t have a place in this review, but that intrigued me.

“Their stories change our history…”

The Society of Woman Geographers still exists today, they maintain a museum and library on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. with a robust membership that continues to meet regularly, and supports women geographers with fellowships and awards. I’m glad to have learnt more about organisation and the amazing women who are part of it.

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