I Survived “Mad, or Wicked, or Both”: Women Seeking the South Pole
It wasn’t just that Antarctica was no place for women—it was expressly a place for men.
First, she found the lump. Just one month after McMurdo Station closed for the winter, Jerri Nielsen discovered it with her fingertips: hard like a marble and rooted beneath her skin a couple inches above her right nipple, an aberration.
Using her training as an emergency room doctor, Nielsen didn’t panic. Instead, she bundled her meddling body in layers of winter tech and waited. Breasts are lumpy, she reasoned, and besides, she had only just begun to fulfill her duty as the sole doctor during the overwinter at the American base at the South Pole. She needed to see what would transpire before sounding the alarm.
In 1998, though Antarctica was already organized with international stations and geodesic domes, anyone who dared visit the hostile continent still bargained with his or her mortality, agreeing tacitly to venture at their own risk. This transaction hadn’t deterred a century’s worth of male explorers, and Nielsen was no different. Aside from being given an emergency root canal during her pre-expedition physical, she was awarded a clean bill of health and sent on her way. She never suspected that she would find and diagnose herself with breast cancer weeks into the job.
There had been no women aboard any of history’s most infamous polar ventures, though it wasn’t for their lack of trying: Three women applied to join Shackleton’s fated 1914 expedition, and many explorers’ wives sailed with them on their trips, though the women never set foot on land. Constrictive Victorian gender roles had had a lasting influence on exploration. A woman’s realm was the home, safe and domestic, and social constructs upheld the notion that places like Antarctica were too hazardous for a woman’s meek constitution. It wasn’t just that Antarctica was no place for women—it was expressly a place for men. The South Pole was one of the last masculine holdovers of the heroic era of exploration.
In 1935, a Norwegian woman named Caroline Mikkelsen, traveling with her husband, went ashore and built a cairn with gathered rocks to mark her existence—the first woman documented to have set foot on Antarctica. She ventured no further inland.
Since then, the population of women at the South Pole has trickled upward, first with female scientists from the Soviet Union in the fifties, followed by American women when Congress lifted the ban on them working at the pole. That was in 1969. By 1974, McMurdo base was being run by an American woman, setting the precedent for more women to follow in her path. By the ’90s, when Jerri Nielsen signed up for her job at the base, women were regulars at the pole, though still outnumbered by men.
An ER doctor based in Ohio, Nielsen had grown tired of hospital bureaucracies imposing arbitrary rules, hindering her ability to help people. Bored in her role, needing a change, she fantasized about what Sally Bowles—of Cabaret , who Nielsen admired for her lack of inhibition—would do. At forty-seven, Nielsen was living at home with her parents after fleeing an abusive marriage, working a job she considered a dead end, when she responded to an ad for an overwinter doctor at the South Pole. If she got the job, Nielsen knew she would have to stay the course through the polar night, when temperatures drop far below zero and the sun doesn’t rise for months. Her decision was hasty, but, to her surprise, after a round of interviews and a crash course in dentistry, she was on a plane headed south.
In her book The Ice and The Inland , writer Brigid Hains asserts that many male explorers saw Antarctica as a place free from society rules as well as a “retreat from the domesticating influence of women.” Nielsen was fleeing, too, but from a man—her husband, who had killed the family dog in front of her and ultimately manipulated her children to gain full custody of them. Above all, she considered herself an escape artist, reflecting in her memoir Ice Bound : “the extreme strangeness of Antarctica, and particularly the South Pole, fostered a sense of separation from the rest of planet.” She had stumbled into her new calling: that of explorer.
Photo by ravas51/flickr
As long as they’ve been adventuring, men have considered Antarctica their playground. The massive ice sheet at the bottom of the globe was fancied a land for conquering by risk-takers willing to upend, and potentially sacrifice, their lives in order to plant a flag at its desolate center.
Before the bases and airfields, the documentary crews and boats of tourists, there was a race in 1911 between British explorer Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian Roald Amundsen to reach to snowy continent first. After the pole itself had been claimed by Amundsen, then came the competition to nationalize it. In order to claim the bottom of the earth, South American countries attempted to bring pregnant women to Antarctica to give birth, with Argentina ultimately succeeding in 1978. The idea was to seal sovereignty over the ice, using women as tools of colonization.
Some men fancied Antarctica a mistress, a tempting womanly body, equal parts inviting and disturbing, seductive and pure. Scott worried the continent would be spoiled by the terrible Shackleton, writing in his journal that prior to Shackleton’s arrival it was “hitherto so clean and wholesome.” Before these men conceived of the ice as female, the Bible did, too. Shackleton carried with him a torn-out page with this passage from Job:
Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of heaven, who has gendered it? The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep is frozen.
In addition to discussing Hains’s work in her paper “Placing Women in the Antarctic Literary Landscape,” Elizabeth Leane, an academic who studies polar literature among other arctic topics, points out, the continent was imagined as “an aloof, virginal woman to be won through chivalrous deeds.” In early twentieth-century narratives, the land, though conceived as pure, is also dangerous; Leane writes that in many texts from the period it “resembles nothing so much as a monstrous feminine body that threatens to engulf the unwary male explorer.” A siren: innocent but seductive, ready to lure and then swallow.
In 1982, Ursula K. Le Guin reimagined women’s role in exploring Antarctica in her short story “Sur.” In the story, published in The New Yorker , a group of South American women are the first explorers to make it to the South Pole, in 1909. The women must lie to their husbands to go, some saying they’re visiting a Bolivian convent and others making up a trip to Paris for the winter, all the while having chartered a boat using money from an anonymous donor—presumably a woman—to fund the adventure. Surviving off pemmican, pisco, and Veuve Clicquot, the women learn from the mistakes men had made before them (many having perished), and hardly make any. At one point, encountering Scott’s abandoned shack, they contemplate what to do with it: “Teresa proposed that we use the hut as our camp. Zoe counterproposed that we set fire to it.”
But theirs is expedition for the sake of witness—“the desire was pure as the polar snows: to go, to see—no more, no less”—not of conquest, like the men who came before them. Though they rename the mountains and valleys they find after women heroes, they do so with a grain of salt: “We gave names to these peaks, not very seriously, since we did not expect our discoveries to come to the attention of geographers,” the narrator explains. When they reach the South Pole, they do nothing and leave no mark of their expedition. The narrator and leader of the trip explains her logic after the fact: “I was glad even then, that we had left no sign there, for some man longing to be first might come some day, and find it, and know then what a fool he had been, and break his heart.”
In the end of “Sur,” it’s revealed one of the women has been pregnant all along. The women have no choice but to deliver the baby—a girl—on the ice, in an echo of the endeavoring countries that tried to nationalize Antarctica by shipping pregnant women there. With the successful birth of the child, Le Guin proposes that the female body, something that precluded women from being hired on expeditions in the first place, is not at all a hurdle for adventurous women.
Photo by Liam Quinn/flickr
Despite the gruesome realities of surviving at the pole—from skin so dry it cracked into fissures that never healed to memory loss from sensory deprivation—Jerri Nielsen, like the explorers before her, was infatuated with the place. In an email to her parents, she described her new home as “strange and beautiful.”
Just weeks after the last planes had left for the winter and the skeleton crew of forty-one people were hunkering down for the polar night, Nielsen found that lump in her breast. As the only doctor at the camp, she told nobody. She did not want to overreact to something that could just be nothing. Two months passed, and the lump had not only not gone away, but pain had spread to her armpit. She knew she was in trouble, but when she spoke up to her supervisors in Denver, she was met with paternalistic nonchalance, her lump dismissed as a non-emergency. Using spotty internet (even worse at the South Pole than elsewhere in the 1990s), Nielsen connected with a female breast cancer specialist in Indiana who talked her through the process of performing a biopsy on herself. She assembled a two-person surgical team: herself, and a welder who had once taken an EMS course. When the time came, she numbed the location of the tumor with an ice cube and dove in. In a picture taking during the procedure, Nielsen is lying on her back, chin crumpled to her neck, looking down her nose at her breast. She’s wearing surgical gloves and a shower cap and appears to be guiding a large needle into her chest. Her mouth is tight with focus.
When she learned the tumor was malignant—by photographing slides of tissue samples and emailing the photos to the US for diagnosis—she faced a paradox. “[I]n my unique position of being the most sick and the only healer, it is my duty to never let the fear or concern for my condition become real,” she wrote home.
Temperatures in Antarctica during the winter reach ninety degrees below zero Fahrenheit, turning jet fuel into jelly and making it impossible for planes to land. Nielsen was trapped on the ice, with an aggressive form of breast cancer, until spring. So she organized an airdrop of chemotherapy drugs—a plane loaded with Taxol did a fly-over and dropped six boxes of drugs attached to parachutes. She learned how to administer her own treatment. The cold and altitude exacerbated the side effects of chemo, but Nielsen continued on in her role as base doctor.
Eventually, Nielsen was too sick to work, and her life was in danger. Defying safety protocol, a plane, carrying as few crew members as possible in case of a deadly mission failure, was sent to evacuate her, thus ending her time at the South Pole.
Nielsen would go on to live another ten years. Eventually, her cancer returned and spread. She died at the age of fifty-seven.
Her life would become defined by her experience in Antarctica, though she spent less than a year there in the end. As long as she lived, she would find it difficult to explain exactly what compelled her to abandon the status quo, her former life, and head south, other than knowing it was necessary for her to do so. As Le Guin writes in “Sur,” for women to want to go to the South Pole, they must be “mad, or wicked, or both.”
Nielsen knew that if she shied away from things that scared her, she would miss out on something essential to being alive. “The thrill of conquering demons pulls you close to the things you fear,” she wrote. Antarctica, though deadly, was for the living. But, as Le Guin’s narrator notes when lamenting the fate of women who, for various reasons, weren’t able to join the expedition to the pole, “I look back with regret only to those friends who wished to come with us but could not, by any contrivance, get free—those we had to leave behind to a life without danger, without certainty, without hope.”