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Biography & Autobiography Adventurers & Explorers

Antarctic Pioneer

The Trailblazing Life of Jackie Ronne

by (author) Joanna Kafarowski

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
May 2022
Adventurers & Explorers, Women, Polar Regions, Expeditions & Discoveries
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    Publish Date
    May 2022
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    Publish Date
    May 2022
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Jackie Ronne reclaims her rightful place in polar history as the first American woman in Antarctica.

Jackie was an ordinary American woman whose life changed after a blind date with rugged Antarctic explorer Finn Ronne. After marrying, they began planning the 1946–1948 Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition. Her participation was not welcomed by the expedition team of red-blooded males eager to prove themselves in the frozen, hostile environment of Antarctica.

On March 12, 1947, Jackie Ronne became the first American woman in Antarctica and, months later, one of the first women to overwinter there.

The Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition secured its place in Antarctic history, but its scientific contributions have been overshadowed by conflicts and the dangerous accidents that occurred. Jackie dedicated her life to Antarctica: she promoted the achievements of the expedition and was a pioneer in polar tourism and an early supporter of the Antarctic Treaty. In doing so, she helped shape the narrative of twentieth-century Antarctic exploration.

About the author

Joanna Kafarowski, Ph.D., is an independent scholar on a mission to celebrate the unsung heroines of the polar world. She is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, has worked with Indigenous women throughout the circumpolar region and wrote the first comprehensive biography of a female Arctic explorer. She lives in Victoria, British Columbia.


Joanna Kafarowski's profile page

Excerpt: Antarctic Pioneer: The Trailblazing Life of Jackie Ronne (by (author) Joanna Kafarowski)

Chapter 1
Overcoming the Odds

Not how you are, but what you make of things.
— Norwegian proverb

Churning through the frigid billowing waves, the battered Zodiac sped straight and true toward tiny Stonington Island in Antarctica. On board, her heart filled with trepidation and her eyes fixed on the approaching shore, was polar icon Jackie Ronne and daughter Karen. Almost fifty years previously, Jackie had been the first American woman to participate in an Antarctic expedition, and one of two daring women to overwinter on the continent. It was now February 1995 and this momentous trip to East Base on Stonington Island was her first visit back in decades. She had never intended to return, but fate had intervened. The thirteen months she had spent there in the company of her husband, famed polar explorer Finn Ronne, and the twenty-two-member expedition team had been challenging, fraught with tension — and the highlight of her life. Years later, her husband and most of the expedition members were dead and Jackie was beginning to receive the recognition she deserved.

Reaching the pebbled beach, the two excited women and their friend, photographer Ann Hawthorne, were assisted out of the bobbing boat and scrambled awkwardly onshore. The M/V Explorer, operated by luxury cruise specialist Abercrombie & Kent, was anchored a kilometer and a half away with ninety-two guests eager for their turn to visit the island. Thankfully, everyone waited respectfully for Jackie to have time there with Karen. It was a laborious, slow climb to East Base, with snowdrifts up to their waist in some areas, but nothing was going to stop them now. Hawthorne remembered how important it was to get Jackie to the base: “It was a walk of discovery back in time.” Finally, as skuas dived and careened about their heads, Jackie stood in the clearing of buildings that represented the most momentous part of her life — her time as a member of the 1946–1948 Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition.

The tiny 3.5 x 3.5–metre Ronne Hut in which she and Finn had lived and worked was still there, in a dilapidated state. Jackie had to climb on a pillar of stones to peer through the dirty, streaked window that Finn had installed for her. She was flooded with emotions — excitement at visiting this remote place from her past and sorrow because Finn was not there to share it with her. She and Karen wandered the few steps over to the wooden bunkhouse, with its plaque declaring East Base as a protected heritage site, and then surveyed the foundations of the machine shop, which had been demolished in the intervening years. Lastly, she and Karen entered the science building where the men had conducted their experiments. She was dismayed by the condition — the creeping mould on the wood and the missing panels on the roof. There was evidence of decay everywhere. So much had changed and most of the equipment and furnishings inside the buildings had been stolen, removed, or destroyed.

Karen knew all the exciting stories, but how wonderful to hear them again from her mother in situ, where the historic expedition had taken place. This was where Jackie Ronne’s lifelong obsession with Antarctica had come to life and where her role as a pioneer had originated. Karen later commented: “She didn’t see herself as a feminist icon who did unusual, difficult things. She thought she was caught up and swept along by events and ended up becoming famous for going to the Antarctic. She didn’t set out to be a rebel.”

While her friend Arctic explorer Louise Arner Boyd had yearned to visit the frozen wastelands of the polar pack ice since she was a child, Jackie Ronne (born Edith Maslin) had hardly even heard of Antarctica until she was a teen. History-making in Antarctica — the intense, international competition to be the first to reach the South Pole; the tragedy of the lost lives of desperate heroes; the stark beauty of this desolate continent — was of no real interest to her. It existed in a separate reality from her own. She grew up as an ordinary American girl with a normal, if rather dysfunctional, family. Despite her unremarkable beginnings, Jackie always felt in her bones that she was meant for something extraordinary. Her destiny, to be an Antarctic pioneer, would not be revealed for years to come.

Editorial Reviews

Joanna Kafarowski’s scholarly biography is a gripping portrayal of Jackie Ronne — Antarctica’s First Lady. Her contributions to polar history are reflected in this well-written and riveting book.

Marlene Wagman-Geller, author of Women of Means

An important book for ensuring women explorers like Jackie Ronne are given the recognition they are due, and that future generations may be duly inspired. A much-needed reminder of the work that needs to be done to correct the prejudices of the past.

Felicity Aston, first woman to ski solo across Antarctica

Kafarowski deftly chronicles and celebrates Jackie Ronne’s little-known contributions to Antarctic history that helped shatter the “ice ceiling” for women. Told with empathy, indignation, and humour, this fresh and honest account of a determined young woman who overcame a troubled childhood and staunch opposition from the Antarctic establishment to become an explorer and leader in polar circles is set against the backdrop of the struggle for women’s rights in twentieth-century America.

Carol Devine, polar explorer and co-author of The Antarctic Book of Cooking and Cleaning

A well-researched book on the life and work of Jackie Ronne, shedding light on the pioneering role she played in changing Antarctica from a site of male-only expeditions to one of permanent scientific bases where male and female experts work side by side.

Anne Strathie, author of Herbert Ponting: Scott’s Antarctic Photographer and Pioneer Filmmaker

An engrossing read about a forgotten female explorer. With impeccable research and style, Kafarowski’s protagonist is freed from her former trivialized status as merely the supportive wife of expedition leader Finn Ronne.

Laurie Gwen Shapiro, author of The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica

Joanna Kafarowski’s biography of Edith (Jackie) Ronne is an important addition to the tapestry of Antarctic history. All too often, women’s voices and contributions are muted or absent altogether. As the first all-women’s group across the ice to the South Pole in 1992/93, starting from the Ronne Ice Shelf, we had a sense of pride of the small sisterhood on this vast and remarkable continent.

Ann Bancroft, first woman to reach both North and South Poles across ice

At last! A proper book on Jackie Ronne, a glorious Antarctic pioneer who, for too long, has remained in the shadows. As Joanna Kafarowski writes in these pages, “the history of women in Antarctica has been marginalized,” and I am thrilled that she has written this absorbing book to give Jackie the credit she deserves seventy years after her tumultuous expedition. This biography deserves widespread attention.

Sara Wheeler, author of Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica

A captivating history of one woman’s lifelong love affair with Antarctica.

Erling Kagge, author of Philosophy for Polar Explorers

As much a sociological read on the role of women in the mid-twentieth century as it is about Antarctic exploration... we come away with a sound sense of a remarkable woman with a strong sense of self

Pilgrim House

It is long overdue that Jackie Ronne gets the acknowledgement she deserves. Her husband, explorer Finn Ronne, would never have reached his goals without her. What contributions to science and Antarctica!

Liv Arnesen, first woman to ski solo and unsupported to the South Pole

This book reminds us just how often the Antarctic dreams of great men were accomplished by the support and sacrifice of their wives, at home and on the ice. An inspiring exploration of a pioneering woman in Antarctica and the challenges she faced, both on the frozen continent and on the home front.

Danielle Clode, author of In Search of the Woman Who Sailed the World

An inspiring and well-researched book. The story of courageous Jackie Ronne and her experiences in Antarctica in the 1940s is a gift to all women dreaming of adventures in faraway places.

Monica Kristensen Solås, Antarctic explorer and author

Smooth, effortless storytelling about a woman’s coming of age through adventure and supporting other women to do the same. The stories of women are often left untold — mere afterthoughts in polar exploration. Here, Joanna opens up a life well-lived. Well done!

Amy Gigi Alexander, writer, publisher, cultural explorer

Kafarowski’s book is an outstanding addition to recent literature celebrating the contributions of overlooked women explorers.

Jayne Zanglein, author of The Girl Explorers

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