Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Investigating Women's Antarctic Experiences: Some Methodological Reflections on a Qualitative, Feminist Project

Academic journal article Resources for Feminist Research

Investigating Women's Antarctic Experiences: Some Methodological Reflections on a Qualitative, Feminist Project

Article excerpt

This paper focusses on three methodological issues arising from the research: the impact of the subject position of the researcher in data gathering and interpretation, ethical aspects of the relationships between researcher and researched especially in participant observation, and the challenges this study presents to ways of narrating women's lives. The study involved women's experiences of living and working in Antarctica and their struggle to resist the discourses that maintain Antarctica as a male preserve.

This paper arises from a research project on the ways in which women narrate their experiences of living and working in Antarctica.(1) In this study, I talked to women who had worked in Antarctica at one of four small isolated communities. The project was cast within a broad feminist qualitative methodological framework using long interviews. Halfway through the interviewing, I went to Antarctica for fieldwork for a different project which enabled me to undertake participant observation there and to experience Antarctic station life for myself. In this paper, I want to highlight some key issues and dilemmas which bear on the task of writing an account based on diverse individual narratives. In particular, I will consider the discourses that have been created to define the human presence in Antarctica and the ways in which my study disrupts these, some dilemmas in the conduct of the researcher, some ethical implications of the researcher-researched interactions, and the problems of creating a written narrative that is based on the different knowledges that result from such research into women's lived experience.

Since women are considered latecomers to Antarctic work, I wanted to focus on women as a group in order to hear how they experience life there. There are many accounts by men, though the majority of these emphasize extraordinary adventures and incidents. Even most of the research with people in Antarctica, both physiological-medical and psychological, has only involved men.(2) The Antarctic has been constructed in literature, art and myth as a place for men, and in the eyes of many men, even today, women should not be there. They are there, but in limited numbers, and I wanted to see how they told their own stories.

Women in Antarctica: enter late, in small numbers

While the number of people who have travelled to Antarctica is still small, the last continent to be explored by human beings has long played a symbolic role in western imagination. A huge, uninhabited, icy wilderness, it beckoned to the intrepid voyagers while images of dread, and like the encounter in Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner, tantalized. The French, Norwegians, British, Americans and Australians played key roles in the discovery and exploration of Antarctica. The race to be first to reach the geographic South Pole in the first decade of the 20th century, and the ensuing expeditions, form part of a heroic literature that arises from the technological achievements and political environment of late colonialism (Pyne, 1987). The public narratives of the exploration of Antarctica exemplify the "great men" version of history, with their focus on the leaders and the exploits. Hardship and suffering provide a heroic dimension.

Women first voyaged south in 1773 (Chipman, 1986, p. 18). The first woman to be allocated an official role, however, was a New Zealand nurse, G.L. Hammond, who spent the summer of 1945-6 on Campbell Island; and Edith Ronne, wife of the expedition leader, was appointed recorder on his 1947-8 Research Expedition. The first woman scientist to participate in an expedition was Marie V. Klenova, a marine geologist on board the Russian ship Ob based at Mirny in the summer of 1955-6. During International Geophysical Year (1957-8), two more Russian women scientists went to Antarctica. The Russian group included women as the stewards on their ships, though the two PanAm flight attendants who briefly landed at McMurdo that summer were paid more attention by the press. …

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