Updated: Oct 30, 2020
What happened when men banned women from the all-male Explorers Club?
On a brisk winter evening in 1932, the Society of Woman Geographers held its first formal dinner at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. The evening’s program would be nothing short of spectacular. The Society had asked explorer Roy Chapman Andrews, an Indiana Jones-style adventurer, to explain the remarks he made a few weeks earlier at Barnard College, Columbia University’s college for women. “Women are not adapted to exploration.” Andrews was the president of the Explorers Club, which had banned women from admission.
Andrews believed that, in many ways, women are equal to men. But he thought that they are not as strong as men and their nervous systems are more sensitive. “With them, it is the drops of water that wear away the stone. The trivialities which men manage to completely ignore disturb them and prevent them from settling down to hard and concentrated work.” Without a trace of irony, Andrews continued: “Take, for instance, a man who gurgles his soup. I have seen a man fly into a rage over such a simple thing as this, clench his hands at mealtime, turn to the offender and cry out: ‘Great Scott, man, can’t you eat your soup quietly?’”
Newspapers throughout the country publicized Andrews’s speech, and most editorials took the side of women. The Gazette of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, wrote, “Men excel women as explorers for the same reason that they excel in most other lines, simply because leaders of expeditions, like Mr. Andrews, have denied women the opportunities to prove themselves.” The Newark Advocate in Ohio warned, “This is no time in the world’s history to try to convince women that they cannot do anything a man can do.” The Albuquerque Journal joked, “This should be evident to any man—if women want to go, they’ll go.” The New York Sun wrote, “When Roy Chapman Andrews told the Barnard girls recently that women had no place in exploration, he forgot to take into account the women who already had proved him wrong.”
When Roy Chapman Andrews told the Barnard girls recently that women had no place in exploration, he forgot to take into account the women who already had proved him wrong.
The Society of Woman Explorers had also invited three women to speak: aviator Amelia Earhart, zoologist Gloria Hollister, and explorer Elizabeth Dickey. These three women and other 200 members of the Society had already proved Roy Chapman Andrews wrong. The Society’s youngest member, Gloria Hollister, age thirty-one, was the first speaker. She had a master’s degree in zoology from Columbia and was an expert on fish coloration. Gloria had adopted a revolutionary technique that made fish transparent so that she could observe their bone structure without the need for dissection. Gloria described her dive 410 feet below the ocean in a bathysphere: a metal diving globe lowered into the water by a cable. During the descent, she was connected to land by a telephone line. “But for the telephone communication, I might have been an isolated planet swinging in mid-ether!” She told the audience how the fish bumped against the bathysphere’s small porthole. “This has opened up a whole new world for scientific investigation.” She was proud to be the “only girl who has adventured into the ocean.” The audience applauded.
From left to right: Osa Johnson, Blair Niles, Amelia Earhart, Grace Barstow Murphy, Elizabeth Dickey and Gloria Hollister. Left to right, rear: George Palmer Putnam, Martin Johnson, Dr. George Sherwood, Bernt Balchen and Lawrence Gould. From https://www.ameliaarchive.org/
Next, South American explorer Elizabeth Dickey rose to address the audience. She wore a pale blue evening gown. Dazzling earrings peeked from under her coiffed hair. She told the audience that during her honeymoon in Ecuador, she met headhunters who shrank the heads of their dead enemies to keep them as trophies.
“Here’s one,” she said, as she pulled it out of a box. “This is a particularly beautiful specimen.”
A reporter for the Minneapolis Star was so shocked at the sight of the head that he swallowed an olive pit.
Amelia Earhart, a new member of the Society, spoke next. She was preparing for a solo transatlantic flight, which she planned to coincide with the fifth anniversary of Charles Lindbergh’s transatlantic flight. Amelia glanced over at Annie Peck, the 81-year-old mountaineer, who was an expert in Latin America. Amelia told the audience that, unlike Annie, who climbed mountains, she simply buzzed over them in her plane.
The crowd stirred as Ruth Crosby Noble stood. She told them that, to no one’s surprise, Roy Chapman Andrews had declined the invitation to the dinner. Instead, he had sent a letter.
Ruth reminded the audience that Andrews recently informed Barnard College’s all-female student body that they did not have the physique to be good explorers. After he announced his expedition to the Gobi Desert, Andrews complained that he received a letter from a woman who wanted to become the expedition’s field secretary. She desired to create a welcoming environment for the explorers. Andrews sneered, “I am skeptical about the possibilities for a ‘home atmosphere’ in a desert where sandstorms continue for weeks. I am equally unimpressed with ladies who put on riding breeches and plunge into jungles and deserts hunting live savages and dead fossils.” Then he bragged about his accomplishments finding fossilized dinosaur eggs in the Gobi Desert.
Noble read his letter aloud.
“What I said was this: That on a big expedition where the staff includes a half dozen or so men I consider women to be a great detriment; they cannot do a technical job in most cases any better than a man, and their sex alone makes for complications. A leader has enough difficulties in running a big expedition without saddling himself with any that can be avoided.”
Andrews brought his wife along on expeditions. Santa Ana Register (July 29, 1931), 17.
Andrews also said, “I know of no more effective way to wreck an expedition than to put in one woman, or worse still, two.” In support, he cited the Chinese character for trouble: a roof with two women under it. “One woman in an expedition is bad enough,” he said, “two are impossible.”
The audience erupted in an incredulous buzz.
It would not take long for members of the Society to prove him wrong. Members would set records as they climbed higher, flew faster, and dove deeper than men. But these women were not motivated by a desire to beat men’s records, for they knew that women were capable explorers. Nor did they find a need to confine their travels to expeditions approved by men or to seek male approval. As deep-sea diver, Sylvia Earle, one of the more famous members of the Society alive today, explained, “Sometimes people find it hard to take us seriously. But most of the problems are in the minds of the men.”
Sometimes people find it hard to take us seriously. But most of the problems are in the minds of the men.
For a post about the Explorer's Club inclusion of women, gays, and lesbians today see Celebrating LGBTQ Scientists.
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