Journalist Polk Speaks On Notable Female Explorers

Speaking on women’s accomplishments in the field of exploration, photojournalist and author Mildred Polk addressed students and faculty during Wednesday’s All-School Meeting. The mother of Elisabeth Polk-Bauman ’04, Ms. Polk visited campus as part of Women’s Forum Winter Weekend. Since her graduation from Harvard University with a degree in Anthropology, Ms. Polk has traveled on expeditions across the globe with the National Geographic Society and the American Museum of Natural History of New York City. Despite her extensive experience in exploring, Ms. Polk had come across only a few female explorers. Inspired to conduct research on this issue, Ms. Polk collected the stories of 84 female explorers and compiled them into her 2001 book, Women of Discovery. Ms. Polk began Wednesday’s speech by explaining her interest in exploring, which, she said, “defines us as human.” According to Ms. Polk, one does not seek a career in exploration – exploration “finds you.” Ms. Polk deemed two people to be her main inspirations: her father, who traveled around Arabia to negotiate peace treaties, and her godfather, an Egyptian architect. Both men exposed Ms. Polk to traveling and exploration at a young age. After graduating from high school, Ms. Polk took a year off before attending college and applied for a mapping expedition to Alaska. Having to hide her gender in order to gain admission into the program, Ms. Polk shocked her colleagues when she revealed her true identity. Ms. Polk then organized an expedition to follow the path of Alexander the Great. A turning point in her life occurred when she gave birth to her first of three daughters. With a new family, Ms. Polk found that exploration needed a new definition for her. According to Ms. Polk, to be an explorer, one must “have a purpose” in her explorations and be a risk-taker by believing in “uncommon ideas.” Furthermore, an explorer must be curious, open-minded, courageous, and willing to share her ideas. Ms. Polk explained that, in the past, women explorers acted on their own, as most organizations would sponsor only those expeditions led by men. Consequently, until recently, women-led expeditions remained small, with women unable to publish their own findings. Then Ms. Polk spoke on such eminent explorers as Dutch woman Alexandrine Tinne, who attempted to find the source of the Nile in the mid-1880’s. Throughout her journey, Tinne encountered prominent male explorers, all of whom made disparaging remarks to her. Nevertheless, Tinne did not let these chauvinistic comments dissuade her from her humanitarian purpose of buying and then freeing slaves. Another woman explorer, Mary Kinsley, received no education whatsoever, as her father was “terrified” of women who could “hold a conversation” with a man. Kinsley, however, chose to disobey her father and educate herself. Having developed an interest in collecting fish in the Congo, Kinsley traveled to the Canary Islands. She then volunteered as a nurse in the South African Boer wars. Another female explorer whom Ms. Polk discussed was Annie Smith-Peck, a Latin Professor at Smith College during the 1930’s who became a rock climber. Although the notion of a woman rock-climber was unheard of at the time, Peck nevertheless succeeded in climbing Peru’s Mount Humascaran at the age of 60. After discussing several other women explorers, including primatologist Jane Goodall and marine biologist Sylvia Earle, Ms. Polk ended her speech by urging students to take full advantage of their education and to understand that no goal is ever unattainable. “Exploration is the ultimate experience,” Ms. Polk stated. Ms. Polk was available for discussion immediately following the meeting and during lunch hours in Ropes Salon. Women’s Forum Winter Weekend will kick off tonight with a Coffee House in the Underwood Room from 8:00-10:00 p.m. On Saturday night, The Knitting Factory’s DJ, Ultragrrl, will spin for a dance in Underwood from 8:30 p.m.-11:20 p.m. The movies “Lovely and Amazing” and “Frida” will also play in Kemper Auditorium at 7:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m., respectively.