Antarctic Pioneer The Trailblazing Life of Jackie Ronne by Joanna Kafarowski

Antarctic Pioneer The Trailblazing Life of Jackie Ronne by Joanna Kafarowski

Jackie Ronne reclaims her rightful place in polar history as the first American woman in Antarctica.

The aim of this book is clearly to set the record straight and to acknowledge ‘Jackie’ (formally Edith) Roone as an important contributor to the history of Antarctic exploration and understanding. Her popular writings brought the Antarctic to life for ordinary people and sustained interest in Antarctic expeditions.

In one communication from the Antarctic, she wrote:

“No words can do justice to the grandeur of the great snowy mountains that tower up all around the island,  the massive glaciers … always cracking, grumbling and roaring, the vast sapphire icebergs growling their way like huge animals through the smaller ice of the bay, the long Antarctic sunsets turning the snowfields pink, the bare rock, and the whistling winds.” (1947)

This wasn’t the life she was born into, in fact, she was rescued from poverty by her aunt and uncle who sponsored her school and university education in a period when few women had such an opportunity. In her teens Jackie moved in and, on one occasion, they all went to a lecture on the Antarctic given by explorer Admiral Byrd who had recently returned from US Antarctic Service Expedition (1939-1941). None of them could have realised how significant this would become.

A bright and able woman, Jackie secured a job in the US Department of State working on the war effort, but the job also meant she crossed paths with the movers and shakers of her time, men and women who formed the basis of her social life.  One evening in 1942 she agreed to go on a  blind date. That was when she met Lieutenant Commander Finn Ronne. Some 20 years older than Jackie, Finn, Norwegian by birth, and a member of the expedition led by Admiral Byrd, charmed and fascinated Jackie with his passion for the Antarctic. The following year Finn and Jackie were married. Her love for Finn was inseparably intertwined with the Antarctic, which became her life-long passion too.

The book spends a great deal of time detailing Jackie’s role in organising Finn Ronne’s own expedition,1946-1948. Her job meant that she understood the workings of government and had the necessary contacts and, moreover, the skills necessary for the punctilious preparation required for an Antarctic expedition. She also took control of publicity, vital for the funding of the trip, often writing pieces in Finn’s name. Jackie eventually took a leave of absence from her job and became a vital, if in acknowledged, member of the team – whilst fulfilling the domestic role of the dutiful housewife.

Jackie didn’t expect to go with Finn to the Antarctic even when she and Jennie Darlington, the wife of pilot Harry Darlington, agreed to travel with the men as far as Argentina. But Finn realised that Jackie’s skills were vital to the success of the expedition and without consulting the men invited the woman along, to the consternation of many of the team including Jennie’s husband. This, and Finn’s uncompromising leadership, set the mood for division and discontent for which the expedition is renowned.

So it was that Finn ensured that Jackie was the first woman to step onto Stonington Island in 1947, as a member of the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition (RARE). She was also the first woman to take to the air over Antarctica. A few other women had been to Antarctica with navel husbands but none as members of an expeditionary team. (Incidentally, Jennie’s role in supporting the scientific effort on the trip goes largely unrecognised by the Ronnes).

Jackie made it her life’s work to maintain the RARE legacy, organise Finn’s future missions to Antarctica, and influence public perception of the Antarctic through her lecture tours and writings (often still ghosting for Finn). She also influenced early tourist voyages to the Antarctic and was a consultant on the international Arctic Treaty of 1966.

That is the biography. What underlines it, however, is a story of another age, when women had to tread carefully on what was seen as men’s territory. In Jackie’s words:

“Women, they say, would be a disturbing element on an expedition with a group of men living in close quarters… It would be completely impractical to worry about the welfare of womenfolk when there are serious aims and objectives to accomplish.… Every member of the party must pull his share of the load. To be a participant, a person must have sound scientific qualifications  — not just the urge for glamour to be the first there.”

Throughout the trip and into the future Jackie would continue to underplay her own (and Jennie’s) personal experiences, believing it detracted from her husband’s accomplishments and the RARE legacy that Jackie helped to construct.

Jackie distanced herself from other members of the team in her role as expedition leader’s wife too and Finn eventually formalised this when he nominated her as leader in the event of his death. Strangely, she did not develop a friendship with Jennie either, who wrote:

“Now we should be confiding our fears to each other, drawing strength, the one from the other, but I knew that any overture I made would be rebuffed or would result in further embarrassment.”

On their return again it was Jackie’s domestic situation that fascinated the American public. Headlines such as “Antarctic  Housewife,” focused on experiences that readers could identify with. And she did little to set the record straight.

Finn was happy to underplay his wife’s role too. In Kafarowski’s words:

Finn’s primary concern was that Jackie assists him in his work. He demanded much of her: an able workmate to help write his speeches, lectures, and books, and help him edit his films; a partner who could act as his legal proxy in all matters in his absence; an advisor who could help guide his career; and a “traditional” wife who would provide him with a happy home.

This subservience comes across as shocking today. We are reading about times that are well within living memory. It’s not just Finn’s attitude but Jackie’s acceptance of it that is hard to read. Although in 1966, when the world was changing for women, she did write to Finn in a private letter saying:

There has been very little give and take in our marriage — just mostly take — you have never been a companion to me — my worries have never been taken to heart by you — you have always been too preoccupied with your own affairs.

But it wasn’t until after Finn’s death that she became more vocal about her role. Her daughter, Karen, recalls “Previously Jackie downplayed her own role in the expedition because she thought that’s what he wanted  … and she was right.”

Antarctic Pioneer then is as much a sociological read on the role of women in the mid-twentieth century as it is about Antarctic exploration. There are few lyrical descriptions of the icescape and majesty of the continent and the account of the expedition sticks to the facts about Ronne’s role rather than launching off into tales of exploration. Instead, we come away with a sound sense of a remarkable woman with a strong sense of self but one who is willing to subjugate her own life to that of her husband.

However, Jackie Ronne’s successful participation in the RARE expedition, her work as an Antarctic pioneer and her lifelong promotion of the Antarctic paved the way for the next generation of women who would work in, explore and make policy decisions about Antarctica.

  • Antarctic Pioneer The Trailblazing Life of Jackie Ronne by Joanna Kafarowski is published by Dundurn Press ($25.99). To order a copy go to www.dundurn.com For UK orders go to www.hive.co.uk (£17.99)
Deborah Gray
Guest Writer | Website | + posts

Deborah Gray is a travel and food writer who loves immersing herself in new cultures. An active environmentalist, her writing aims to communicate the wonder of our planet. More of Deborah’s work can be found at deborahgray.co.uk

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