“A Woman’s Place is in Antarctica”

Dr Paul Merchant is an Oral History Interviewer for the National Life Stories’ project An Oral History of British Science at the British Library.



Patch for anorak bought by Janet Thomson in New Zealand’s Scott Base, Antarctica in 1984

In 1983 geologist Janet Thomson became the British Antarctic Survey’s  (BAS) first female scientist allowed to work in the Antarctic.  After years of quiet persistence she was finally allowed to join her male colleagues in the field and to demonstrate that giving women the same opportunities as men was not the danger to British Antarctic science that had long been assumed.  She had been working as a geologist for BAS since 1964, restricted to the analysis (in laboratories in Birmingham and Cambridge) of rocks collected in Antarctica by male colleagues.  Time and again, she had asked to ‘go south’ herself – to collect her own samples in the field:

“I did periodically mention it in passing to Dr Adie [senior BAS geologist and its deputy director from 1972] and in the end it became quite a joke between us, you know, that I really did want to go and he said, ‘Well you can’t,’ you know, and [laughs] – and that was it, but it – I always– I didn’t let it drop but I never made a great song and dance about it because at the time it was quite clear that there was not going to be a change in the situation.”[i]

When, in 1983, a planned geological survey of the Antarctic Peninsula found itself one man short,  Janet continued to gently question BAS’ ban on women in the field:

“They wanted a fourth and they were thinking about employing a – a fourth person just for the – the summer cruise.  […] And I said, ‘Well there’s me,’ and I kept saying, ‘Well there’s me’ [laughs]. […] And […] it was finally agreed that I should go. And I joined the ship in Punta Arenas in November of ’83.”[ii]

Janet doesn’t sound particularly dangerous here.  Indeed, she was seen by others at BAS as quiet and “straight-laced”, “modest and rather shy”[iii]  She was careful not to emulate what she saw as the “rather strident” feminist voices of the time:

“I think that that probably was essential just to make people sit up and take notice but it wasn’t the way that I wanted to behave. […] There was an awful lot of shouting on the radio that I remember hearing by very articulate ladies –  nobody within my own sphere of acquaintances – but it would be what I heard on the radio or read about in the paper.  […] But it [pause] I can’t quite put my finger on it, I just didn’t want to be branded as one of them, you know, a sort of stroppy female who sort of shouted the whole time [laughs] and didn’t do anything.”[iv]

And yet, Janet Thomson clearly was a dangerous woman as far as the British Antarctic Survey were concerned.  By the time she stepped onto a research ship bound for Antarctica in 1983, female scientists had already made many successful journeys into male scientific spaces: women were members of engineering institutions in the 1920s, by the 1930s the Royal Aircraft Establishment employed several women, the first Fellows of the Royal Society were elected in 1945 – the same year in which Rosemary Lowe-McConnell established her fisheries laboratory on Lake Nyasa in Malawi for the Colonial Service, Dorothy Hodgkin won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1964 and female geologists were working in the field for the British Geological Survey from the early 1970s.  BAS, though, was not following suit.  The organisation was – reflects BAS glaciologist Charles Swinthinbank – “about the slowest” to change; its director had Sir Vivian Fuchs had said “I’m never going to have women in the Antarctic”[v].

Why was shy, quietly spoken Janet Thomson so dangerous for BAS?  The answer, I suggest, is that she threatened BAS’ concern with stability.  The Survey’s scientists were engaged in an effort to produce reliable knowledge in an environment that is constantly moving – literally flowing.  Indeed, much of the science sought to measure the rate at which glaciers moved, to survey areas of shifting ice in relation to rock benchmarks and to record the “mass balance” of ice sheets.  Actually getting anything done at all depended on periods of meteorological calm and the integrity of the surface or, at least, an attentiveness to the likelihood of breaks in the surface: crevasses.  And, above all, it was felt that that the successful work of groups of men in close quarters – in tents and cramped bases – relied on individual psychological strength (not cracking-up) and participation in a homosocial culture of work in which the masculinity was tried and tested, conventional, straightforwardly heroic and clubby.

A sense of this stable, homosocial culture – as well as its dependence on the exclusion of women – is provided by Thomson’s account of a visit to BAS’ geology section at the University of Birmingham, in the 1960s or early 1970s , of BAS’ director Sir Vivian Fuchs:

“There was one occasion when he had come up and he invited the geologists to have a beer with him in the local pub […] and Sue West and I went and we sauntered in and sat down and he was already in there and he said, ‘Oh, I didn’t know BAS employed women!’ [laughs]  And strictly speaking BAS didn’t because we were still on the University of Birmingham payroll, but we were seconded to work with BAS, so we regarded ourselves as BAS employees.  So he was very much one for talking to the chaps and I think we rather spoilt his – cramped his style by being there at the time. […] He was very sunburnt, had a pipe which he used for pointing [laughs] and, you know, he was quite a charming man – I mean he – he was – it was obvious that the – the men enjoyed his company; they responded to him very well and there was quite a lot of laughter, so I think he was one of those men who could talk to the troops very easily. […] So there was a good bonne amie; he was a – a leader of – of men I think.”[vi]

Janet was dangerous because – through a quiet persistence in asking to work in Antarctica – she threatened this tried and tested, all male culture of science that was considered so stable that it was rarely reflected on by those involved – it was ordinary:

“I don’t think they really thought about it – it was just, you know […] they went to the Antarctic and the women stayed at home.  It’s what had happened – it was a sort of carryover from it being a service operation during the war and there was still a lot of service oriented approach to the way the Survey was carried out I think, and since women weren’t in the services why should they be in the – well in the services that went overseas – why should they be considered for the Antarctic.  […] So I think it was quite some time before people began to think that it was rather strange.”[vii]

If women were suddenly present, then to the unstable physical environment would be added another moving layer; a destabilised social environment: “I’m sure that Sir Vivian would not have countenanced having any women just from the general attitude, you know, it was chaps’ environment”.[viii]  If the reliably heroic, homosocial environment of the research station, the tent, the aircraft, the research ship, the sledge team was allowed to change in any way, how could the production of scientific knowledge continue in a stable way?

In the end, Janet Thomson was not just a dangerous woman because she paved the way for other female BAS scientists in Antarctica; she asked BAS to resurvey its entire homosocial culture of work.  This entailed, along with female scientists in the field, the recognition that a particular version of masculinity might not be the only model for successful, stable production of knowledge in the Antarctic.  Climate scientist Eric Wolff, who joined BAS in 1979, observes:

“Because of the time it was – a much higher proportion of BAS scientists would have been outdoor-types than would be now when you’re being selected now essentially on your academic ability, whereas at the time people just self selected I think a lot on the fact that they were into that kind of thing. […] At the time […] BAS didn’t take women south to the Antarctic and I always said that, the point when they let a weakling like me go to the Antarctic, they lost the argument that they were trying to make about why they couldn’t take women to the Antarctic, because, there are plenty of women who are stronger and more technically competent at climbing for instance than I am. […] People had grown up – most of the senior staff at BAS, the very senior staff, had been at BAS for probably twenty years, and they’d just grown up with a particular idea that this was a man’s world and, that it was easier if it remained a man’s world.”[ix]

Easier.  Not needing attention. Stable.  Janet Thomson was a dangerous woman not just because she – through quiet persistence – claimed the right to do science in the field in the Antarctic.  She was dangerous because she forced BAS to question the one feature of its Antarctic science that could be relied upon to stand still when you took your eye off it.


[i] Janet Thomson interviewed by Paul Merchant.  British Library reference: C1379/20 [Track 5 40:24 – 41:00]

[ii] Janet Thomson interviewed by Paul Merchant.  British Library reference: C1379/20 [Track 6 40:07 – 44:24]

[iii] BAS Club Newsletter, December 2001 p. 14

[iv] Janet Thomson interviewed by Paul Merchant.  British Library reference: C1379/20 [Track 5 45:44 – 49:53]

[v] Charles Swithinbank interviewed by Paul Merchant.  British library reference: C1379 /03 [Track 13 43:06 – 43:15]

[vi] Janet Thomson interviewed by Paul Merchant.  British Library reference: C1379/20 [Track 4 45:42 – 47:38]

[vii] Janet Thomson interviewed by Paul Merchant.  British Library reference: C1379/20 [Track 4 35:43 – 36:37]

[viii] Janet Thomson interviewed by Paul Merchant.  British Library reference: C1379/20 [Track 5 Track 5 44:32 – 44:43]

[ix] Eric Wolff interviewed by Paul Merchant.  British Library reference: C1379/70 [Track 3 22:05 – 24:50]


Images: Janet Thomson in Antarctica in 1985 by P.D. Rowley, copyright: The British Library. Patch for anorak bought by Janet Thomson in New Zealand’s Scott Base, Antarctica in 1984 by Paul Merchant, copyright: The British Library. Used with permission.