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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Women of Discovery

Air Date: Week of

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Magellan, Columbus and Cortez are giants in the history of exploration. Little, however, can be found on the women of exploration – until now. Living on Earth’s Diane Toomey talks with Milbry Polk, author of "Women of Discovery: A Celebration of Intrepid Women Who Explored the World."


TOOMEY: Jane Goodall, Amelia Earhart, and Sylvia Earle aside, women explorers haven’t always received the same recognition as their male counterparts. But for centuries, women have been embarking on voyages of discovery. And in doing so, their first challenge was often at home, overcoming prejudice, and ignoring the morays of their societies.

As author, Milbry Polk writes, "To go beyond the narrow perimeters set by culture was usually to become an outlaw, literally, to be cast out by society to die." Indeed, little is known about most of these women. But Milbry Polk is out to change that. She’s an adventurer herself, and she’s written a new book, along with Mary Tiegreen, called "Women of Discovery: A Celebration of Intrepid Women Who Explored the World." Milbry Polk, welcome to Living on Earth.

POLK: Thank you so much for inviting me.

TOOMEY: Before we get into some specific stories, tell me what the research process was like for this book, considering that many of these women are unknown or little known to history.

POLK: The research process was a long and serendipitous one. It’s not a subject that you can easily go to the library and look up. So, we found a lot of these women in footnotes of other books. Or I’d be at a dinner party, and somebody would say, "Women explorers. Well, there was that crazy woman who was down in the Amazon 20 years ago. But she’s probably dead." So then I would follow-up on who that was.

So in the end, we chose about 84 women that covered 2,000 years of history, more than a dozen different nationalities. And their endeavors crossed a wide swath of interests from every kind of science to our geography and painting. And, honestly, we chose most of them because we really liked them.

TOOMEY: In your book, there’s a picture of Mary Henrietta Kingsley. And, in this picture, she’s dressed in the proper attire for her era, Victorian England. She’s got a hat, a parasol, gloves. But Kingsley, in her 30s, traveled to the Congo, at the time when that part of Africa was known as "the White man’s graveyard." What motivated her? And, what was her experience in Africa?

POLK: When she was young, her father had a perfect horror of educated women. But he was, luckily, gone a lot. And so, she could go into his library where she educated herself. When her parents died in her early 30s, her brother wrote her a letter saying, "Now that our parents are dead, you can move in and take care of me the way you took care of them."

But instead, she decided to blow her small inheritance on a ticket to the Canary Islands. And she went there. And it was when she was there she heard about this perfectly dreadful place that you were guaranteed to die within six months called "the White man’s graveyard." And that’s where she wanted to go.

She went home to England, got a small commission from the British Museum to collect fish, and outfitted herself as a trader so she could support herself paddling up and down the tributaries buying and selling. And she learned the language of the Fang, who were then greatly feared as cannibals. She traveled widely with them, and was really entranced with their way of life.

And, she described them as "Full of fire, temper, intelligence, and go. But I ought to confess, people who have known him better than I do say he is a treacherous, thievish, murderous cannibal. I never found him treacherous or thievish. He is a cannibal, not from superstitious motives. He just does it in his common sense way. Man’s flesh, he assures me, is very good. And he wishes I would try it."

She, by the way, is not the only woman in the book who spent time with people feared as cannibals. There are a couple of others. And maybe also it’s because they were unarmed women who had a purpose that they were really taken up by these people, and not feared.

TOOMEY: She also has something to say about proper attire while in the Congo, doesn’t she? What does she say about that?

POLK: Well, she felt that, like a proper Victorian, that she wanted to greet the people of Africa the same way that she would greet her own people. So, she wanted to dress the way she was in Africa the same way that she dressed in England.

And, actually quite a few women felt that way, too. It was a sign of respect for the people that you were encountering. And she actually credits her thick skirts with saving her life. Because she fell into a pit that had sharpened stakes in it for capturing animals. And, she landed on her skirts, and the stakes couldn’t penetrate her skirts. So, she wrote about the blessings of a good thick skirt.

TOOMEY: It really does seem like a number of the women explorers that you include in your book did approach the indigenous peoples that they encountered with a certain openness that, perhaps, some of their male counterparts did not.

POLK: Well this, I think, is because they were historically excluded from those organizations that supported exploration; universities, government schools, the media. And because the women then didn’t have the support, they didn’t have the money, they often traveled alone. So they were dependent upon, many times, the people with whom they lived. So, they often learned the languages of where they went. And they saw the things that the larger expeditions, because of their very nature, obviously missed.

TOOMEY: In a book with many incredible women, my most memorable character is someone named Lady Mary Pierepont Wortley Montagu, who was so outrageous for her time, in the 18th century, that her own daughter burned her papers. Tell me about Lady Montagu.

POLK: Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, an English woman, married against her parents’ wishes. And, because of this, lost a great deal of her potential inheritance. But nonetheless, her husband was eventually appointed to be the ambassador to the Sultan of Turkey. And she, against all convention, decided to go with him. It was not something that court ladies were really even allowed to do. But she managed to do it.

And she wrote a series of letters home about her experiences that were later gathered together and published against the will of her daughter. But what she did was truly extraordinary. She traveled, first of all, without her husband. And once she got to Turkey, she went into baths. She went into harems. She really did quite a lot of extraordinary things.

And she made a discovery that was really quite exceptional, is that she discovered that smallpox, which was then the great horror of Europe, but she discovered it wasn’t quite as rampant in Turkey because the Turkish people practiced a form of vaccination that they had actually gotten from the Chinese.

And she was so entranced with this, she had her own children vaccinated. Brought back this knowledge to England. Because she was a member of the court, she was able to convince the King and Queen that it was something that they ought to look into. They tried it on some condemned criminals. Eventually, about 800 people were vaccinated. But she was attacked from the pulpit as consorting with the devil.

And, if she hadn’t been so highly connected at court, she probably would have been burned as a witch. So that the knowledge of her discovery, which she brought back, was suppressed for a full 75 years before Jenner resurrected it. And he’s now credited with the discovery of the vaccination.

TOOMEY: Sometimes, it actually helped to be a female explorer. I’m thinking here of the American ethnobotanist Nicole Maxwell who worked, beginning in the 1940s, in the Amazon Basin. And the wife of a shaman in that region spilled the beans to Maxwell about plants that were used to make birth control. Tell me about her story.

POLK: Nicole Maxwell had quite a varied life before she ended up in the Amazon. And she went down to Peru to be a reporter. And she went out on a day trip, and was introduced to some of the peoples living on the Amazon. And eventually, she discovered that what her role really was going to be was to document the use of medicinal plants by the local indigenous tribes. And she spent 40 years doing that.

The women came to her with their own secret medicine which the men didn’t know about because it’s women’s medicine. And the women down there made a tea which would enable them to be infertile. And then when they wanted to have a child, they would drink another tea.

When she brought this information back to America, a male expedition was sent down to the same region to find out the same information and see, in fact, if what she’d found was true. But they would pull up in a great motor launch to the edge of a village, and through bullhorns, yell out, "Bring us down your medicines. We’ll pay you." And of course, nobody moved because this was private, secret information that was not just given to anybody. And, since nobody responded to this, they came back and said she’d made it all up.

TOOMEY: Let’s talk about a 20th century American explorer. Zora Hurston was an African-American who started out life as a maid in the segregated rural South. Eventually, she becomes an anthropologist and folklorist. And she travels to Haiti in 1936 to study her passion, which was voodoo. Tell us about her life.

POLK: Zora Neale Hurston is best remembered today as one of the literary figures in the Harlem Renaissance. And she actually began her life as an anthropologist. And she was sent down to the American South to collect folklore and folktales. One of the pictures we have of her in the book is paddling through a swamp on her way to some backwoods places to collect their stories.

And, in the course of this, she became fascinated with the practice of voodoo. And she ended up in Haiti. And she actually took the very first picture of a zombie, which we’ve included in the book. And she speculated about how zombies are created. And, it wasn’t until the 1980s that Wade Davis was actually able to go down there and discover that it’s the toxin of the puffer fish that causes a person’s vital signs to be suppressed, and then they’re buried, and then all the things happen.

But she, I think, had quite an amazing experience, and was really quite frightened by what she was finding. Again, she was alone, unsupported. And she eventually went back and became a writer. She ended up her life as a maid, and then living in a poor house in Florida. And when she died, all of her belongings were gathered, and they were being burned by the side of the road. A policeman stopped and said, "Where is the permit for burning this?" which, of course, the people didn’t have. And that’s the only reason that saved what there is today of her.

TOOMEY: Women have come very far in the sciences, and other fields, in the past few decades. Indeed, in some fields now, women make up the majority in some scientific fields. So, are women explorers now operating on a level playing field?

POLK: I’m asked this everywhere I go. And, unfortunately, no. There are many, many more opportunities now. But it’s still extremely difficult. And it’s still hard to get the funding or to get the senior positions. And you can really count the numbers of women that have gone very far.

And I’m hoping that a book like this will open up everybody’s minds to the fact that women have been contributing and are contributing enormously, and that they should be accorded the equal celebration, and financial rewards, and positions as their male counterparts.

TOOMEY: Milbry Polk is an explorer and co-author, along with Mary Tiegreen, of Women of Discovery: A Celebration of Intrepid Women Who Explore the World. Thanks for speaking with us.

POLK: Thank you very much for having me.


TOOMEY: You can find out more about Women of Discovery by visiting the Living on Earth Today website. Hear excerpts from the diaries and biographies of the women explorers. And listen to an extended version of my interview with Milbry Polk. Just go to www.loe.org. That’s www.loe.org.


TOOMEY: You’re listening to NPR’s Living on Earth.




Women of Discovery: A Celebration of Intrepid Women Who Explored the World – by Milbry Polk, Mary Tiegreen



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