Monday, June 7, 2021

The Girl Explorers by Jayne Zanglein

Source of book: Borrowed from the library


This book is a recent release, and contains a lot of fascinating history. The “Girl Explorers” of the title are the members of the Society of Woman Geographers - an organization founded after Roy Chapman Andrews, president of the men-only Explorers Club refused to admit women, dismissing them as “not adapted to exploration.” He was, of course, a sexist pig - and completely wrong, as the members of the Society went on to prove. 


Jayne Zanglein is an attorney who has previously written legal books, but who decided to rescue the Society from relative obscurity, and correct the deliberate mis-telling of history that men did about these women. 


Zanglein decided to write about the book after a trip of her own, having discovered Blair Niles, a criminally underrated woman who explored - and wrote several books about topics as different as LGBTQ people in Harlem, prisoners in French Guiana, the Hatian slave revolt, and the Amistad. She was also one of the founders of the Society, and researching her led to the discovery of many other notable women, some better known than others, who made their mark as explorers and feminists. 


Members of the society over the years include the famous - Amelia Earhart, Pearl S. Buck, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Goodall - but many others that should be famous - Ellen La Motte, Sylvia Earle, Ruth Crosby Noble, Mary Ritter Beard, Harriet Adams. And a lot more too. 


Before getting into a few quotes and ideas from the book, I want to discuss the writing a bit. Zanglein is, as I noted, an attorney, not an experienced (non-legal) writer, and it shows a bit at times. On the plus side, the research is solid, with extensive endnotes, plenty of primary or contemporary secondary sources. The stories themselves are fascinating, and Zanglein did a good job of choosing which stories to tell. That said, the writing is a bit wooden in places. I particularly noted the ends of the chapters, when there was practically neon lights advertising “here comes the transition paragraph.” I feel bad about complaining, because I am also an attorney, and I know all too well that my writing has flaws. And the writing isn’t bad per se, it’s just not as good as it could be. I was tempted to imagine how the stories would sound in the hands of, say, Candice Millard, or Simon Winchester. My wife (who hasn’t read the book) also complained about the patronising title. (Although I doubt the author got to pick that, and it is a reference to the way the Society was dismissed by the male sorts.) Kind of related to this is the fact that Zanglein tends to use first names to refer to most of the characters - although this makes a lot of sense because several of the women worked with their husbands in the field, so last names would be confusing. But overall, the book is a good read, even if not as compellingly written as it could have been. 


Something else I should note, which the author herself discusses, is that the Society was overwhelmingly white and upper class, in part because of the way society worked in the 1930s. Education beyond primary school for women was limited mostly to wealthier families, as were opportunities to travel abroad. And white women were far more likely to have these opportunities as well. 


That said, the author also brings out the ways in which many of the Society members were progressive for their time (and sometimes even for our time), and were far more likely to advocate for the rights of minorities, indigenous peoples, the environment, and LGBTQ people than their male counterparts. There is a good argument to be made that had the United States embraced its female explorers and their values, we might have avoided the toxic masculinity that came to dominate the 20th Century and beyond in the American imagination. 


It is fitting that Blair Niles dominates the book from beginning to end. She was a truly compelling woman, the soul of the group for decades, a bold and respected explorer, writer, and thinker. I was hoping that I could find her books either at the library or on Amazon, and it was shocking how difficult (and expensive) they are to find now. I hope this book leads to someone re-issuing them. Anyway, the main body of the book starts off with Niles’ description of the typical egotistical male explorer: “we-white-men, red-blood-in-your-veins variety.” These men, as she put it, love to “swap the usual solid and time-frayed stories inherited from generations of smoking-rooms, and to strike attitudes of importance, boasting of achievements and prowess. Power, in it’s many forms, was their obsession.” Many of the men she is referring to fabricated tales of danger and daring in their books, and measured their “manhood” by their violence against animals and darker-skinned humans. 


Another woman of witty tongue and amazing accomplishments was Annie Smith Peck, who took up mountain climbing relatively late in life, setting several records (for women OR men) in altitude during her 50s. Her competition with fellow female climber Fanny Workman - who set the Asian record while Peck set the South American one. Of course, as is still too usual, she got more press for wearing pants while climbing than for her actual accomplishments. Peck was also a militant suffragist, dating from her teens when she heard Anna Dickinson speaking. Part of that speech is quoted in the book, and it is so good, I have to mention it. 


“Idiots and women! They might say that this phrase is not complimentary to my own sex, but it is the law. It prescribes that people twenty-one years of age can vote if they are not criminals, paupers, idiots, or women. It is, however, only as to the latter class that the law is strictly enforced. Why should a government professing freedom for all, deny it to about one-half of the citizens? Why should it be stated that taxation and representation always go together, and then have women’s property taxed, while she is denied representation? They say woman is incapable of making laws. But they take it for granted that she understands them and punish her if she violates them. It is said that if women vote, they will also hold offices. Well, what then?”


Peck would take this to heart and advocate for women’s rights throughout her life. I loved her response to Edward H. Clarke, perhaps the best known of Victorian Era men who claimed that education and thought negatively affected the female reproduction system: she noted that men like him “never worried about women scrubbing floors or working fourteen hours a day in the home or factory.” 


Likewise, she defended her attire without apology: 


“I dare assert that knickerbockers are not only more comfortable, but more becoming, whether to the stout or slender figure.” 


The book explores the status of divorce laws at the time, because several of the members were divorced, or divorced at some point, usually by getting a “Nevada Divorce” in Reno. Blair Niles was no exception. Her first husband, Will Niles, was quite an explorer in his own right, but was also prone to mental illness and extreme egotism. He also was less than honest in his writing, making himself out to be a hero, and erasing much of what Blair did. (In cases where she was the heroic person, or the one in danger, he substituted himself. Yeesh.) And also, he expected her to do the drudge work, the tough work, the editing, and so on. She essentially wrote whole portions of his book, yet he took the credit. Not entirely a surprise she left him for a more progressive man. I thought one quote was interesting in this section, from a minister, Daniel Wise, who sounds a whole lot like the preachers I grew up listening to. 


“Remember that, however unsuited to each other you may be, the irrevocable covenant has been uttered. You are bound to each other for life; and both prudence and duty command the concealment of your dislikes, and the strongest efforts to conform to each other’s tastes.”


Meaning, in practice, the woman had to conform, while the man was socially free to take a mistress. There is a reason that female suicides went down dramatically once no-fault divorce became the law. 


Speaking of suffrage, many of the members were part of the cause, and the New York Chapter of the Society was well represented at the protests. I found the banners of the era to be inspiring. The author quotes a few of them, including these two:


“All this is a natural consequence of teaching girls how to read.”


“Woman suffrage has passed the state of argument. You could not stop it if you would. And in a few years, you will be ashamed that you ever opposed it.”


Amazing that: once you stop keeping women ignorant, they want to be equal. Who knew? And, I am determined in our own time that those who now are vehemently opposing equality and civil rights will someday be ashamed of their current position. 


It was interesting to learn a bit more about Pearl S. Buck. I have only read one of her books (although I own a few more), but find her life and writings fascinating. One of her quotes opens a chapter, and I think it is worth quoting here as well. 


“The main barrier between East and West today is that the white man is not willing to give up his ‘superiority’ and the colored man is no longer willing to endure this ‘inferiority.’” 


And that is precisely at the root of our current national division. The more things change… Oh, and what chapter opens with this quote? The one on the opposition of the Society to the Ku Klux Klan and The Birth of a Nation. Adelene Moffat (social worker and archaeologist) was particularly vehement in her condemnation of both. She concurred with a black newspaper’s description of the film as “an appeal to the baser emotions to degrade a people and incite race hatred.” And she described the KKK as people “strong in their prejudices, and limited in knowledge and foresight. They cloaked their mental and moral timidity under a noisy bravado, stimulated by that other ready aid to valor, whiskey.” 


Zonia Baber (geologist and geographer) also pushed back against racism, stating that as long as the “white race retains its childish or primitive belief that it is superior to all other peoples and consequently intended by God to dominate over all other races, there can be no permanent peace.” Not bad for nearly 100 years ago. 


The chapter on Haiti and other white supremacist undertakings was particularly good. Again, Blair Niles is front and center. I didn’t really learn about Haiti until the big earthquake - at that point, a number of people I love and respect started talking about the actual history - the slave revolt, the attempts by various Western powers to undo that revolt, and the centuries long punishment given to Haiti for having the gall to throw off enslavement. The book describes the occupation by the Americans (quoting historian Mary Renda) in a nutshell. 


“Marines installed a puppet president, dissolved the legislature at gunpoint, denied freedom of speech, and forced a new constitution on the Caribbean nation - one more favorable to foreign investment.” 


It is a story told over and over again in the history of the United States. Overthrow democracy, install a puppet dictator who will give giant corporations favorable deals to plunder the resources. (see also: Iran, Democratic Republic of the Congo…) As Blair Niles wrote about this history in her book, Black Haiti: A Biography of Africa’s Eldest Daughter. Although others have since written about it, Niles was the first. Zonia Baber served on a committee put together by the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom that investigated the conditions in Haiti during the occupation. Another woman on the committee, Emily Blatch, noted: “There are more ways of helping a neighbor who is in trouble than knocking him down and taking possession of his property and family.” Niles’ book was extensively cited in the report. 


If this book had been Niles’ only one, it would have been a big deal. But she wrote several others, including one on LGBTQ people in Harlem, in an era when they were outlawed and persecuted. There is a fascinating quote from her on why she wrote the book. 


“I want so much to make people understand others and thereby come to a better understanding of themselves. Mutual understanding would banish half the sorrow and cruelty from the world.”


That’s just outstanding. The last bit is telling as well. Understanding is good, is key, is necessary. But it only banishes half the sorrow and cruelty. The rest remains because many people just straight up want to be cruel. (See: many Trump voters, who love the cruelty of his policies.) So, the job is two-fold. Convince those who can be convinced, through mutual understanding. And then, the good people of the world need to protect the vulnerable from the bad ones. 


I mentioned Pearl Buck, and there are definitely several places in her story that I found fascinating. Of course, there is the part where, having visited America, she was denied entry by Communist China, because her writing was, well, politically incorrect (original meaning of that term.) Also interesting was that Buck, who spent most of her first 42 years in China, had assumed that women were valued in the United States by comparison. What she found shocked her. Women were very much mistreated and assumed to be inferior. 


“A few of them know it, more of them dimly suspect it. The reason for this unhappiness is a secret sense of failure, and this sense of failure comes from a feeling of inferiority, and the feeling of inferiority comes from a realization that actually women are not much respected in America. Your home ought to be enough for you if you are a nice woman. Your husband ought to be enough - and your children. But if they aren’t enough, we say, ‘Go and have a good time, that’s a nice girl. Get yourself a new hat or something, or go to the matinee or join a bridge club. Don’t worry your pretty head about what is not your business.’” She urged readers to “face the fact that as a nation we are in a medieval state of mind about the place of women in society.” 


Man, that is STILL what my former religious tradition is pushing hard. And what my family tried to cram down my wife’s throat, until she got tired and got out. And that is one of the things at the heart of Trumpism: women care (or only should care) about how much their husbands earn at work, not about their own jobs or dreams. 


Another example of that was the story of Sylvia Earle, marine biologist, who took a ton of crap (in the 1960s!) for being the only woman on a team that spent weeks in the Indian Ocean doing research. She got to hear such gems as these:


“Well, half of the fish are female, so I guess we can put up with a few women as aquanauts.”


“You did an okay job, but I did not really approve of having you involved. It wasn’t that I was opposed to having women, but I just didn’t think you should be involved, because you’re a mother. None of the other women was a mother.”


When Earle responded to the latter with, “Well, there were dads,” she was told, “That’s different.”


Oh really, and why is that? Maybe because of your misogynistic view that women’s place in the world is to reproduce the species, while only men get to transcend? That somehow being without a mother for a few weeks was worse than being without a dad? Again, way too much personal experience with this, particularly the condemnation my wife received for being away working (while I cared for the kids) - something I was never condemned for when I did it. 


Perhaps the saddest part of this book was how so many of these women were “written out of history.” Their accomplishments - indeed their names - “sank from sight, their achievements questioned or minimized.” That is, alas, a reality of how history has been recorded, with men taking credit for what women did. 


This book is, fortunately, a corrective to that omission. 

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