Nfld. & Labrador·Audio

'Deadweight at best': Discover the inspiring voices of women explorers

Latonia Hartery was inspired by a 1937 newspaper headline that described how 1,300 women applied for a single spot on a British Antarctic Survey expedition. All were turned down. Why? Women were deemed to be “deadweight at best, and disarray at worst.” The incident inspired the title of Hartery's new CBC documentary.

Archeologist and Explorers Club member Latonia Hartery with the stories of women explorers

Latonia Hartery, seen on Ellesmere Island surveying archeological sites at Alexandra Fjord, presents a new CBC Radio documentary on women who explored Canada's North. (Daniel J Catt)

Even though many of us would consider Amelia Earhart an explorer, she was never accepted into the famed, New York-based Explorers Club, which banned women until 1981.

What about archeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, who excavated the Viking site at L'Anse aux Meadows, in northern Newfoundland? Her history-changing accomplishment is often attributed solely to her husband Helge, who wasn't even an archeologist.

What about Mi'kmaw midwife Mary Webb, a multi-lingual outdoorswoman who delivered 700 babies travelling hundreds of kilometres on foot or dog sled — should she be considered an explorer?

Latonia Hartery, an archeologist and a member of the Explorers Club, was inspired by a 1937 newspaper headline that described how 1,300 women applied for a single spot on a British Antarctic Survey expedition. All were turned down. Why? Women were deemed to be "deadweight at best, and disarray at worst."

That phrase provided the title of a documentary that Hartery has made for CBC Radio, about the stories of distinguished acts of exploration in Newfoundland, Labrador and the North — all by women.

This documentary is a riveting reworking of the concept of an explorer and focuses on women's narratives of endurance. It aims to make listeners more aware of women's accomplishments and to build on our possibly outdated definitions of exploration.

The story starts on Arctic explorer Capt. Bob Bartlett's ship The Effie M. Morrissey. Although the ship has a woman's name, only a couple of women were ever permitted to sail on her for official expeditions. 

Hilda Dove, centre, was from Brigus, also the hometown of her famed explorer uncle, Bob Bartlett. (Submitted by Latonia Hartery)

Bartlett's niece was one of them. Hilda Dove of Brigus, N.L., travelled to Greenland with her uncle, who was so well known internationally because of newsreels and articles, she made the front page of the New York Times upon their return. 

In 1938, she travelled through Europe and South America solo and wrote to Uncle Bob: "I have had one hell of a fine trip since leaving Newfoundland, that does not sound very ladylike but you will admit it is descriptive." 

'No cuss words left for me to learn' 

However, Hilda's adventure does not mean Bartlett was supportive of women explorers.

Louise Arner Boyd, a wealthy California adventurer engaged in radiowave work off the coast of Greenland, hired Bartlett for a four-month trip in 1941. It was a secret assignment for the U.S. war effort.

Archeologist Anne Stine Ingstad and her explorer husband Helge Ingstand conclusively proved L'Anse aux Meadows had been a Norse settlement. (Submitted)

Author and researcher Maura Hanrahan says Boyd and Bartlett butted heads and Boyd said of the trip, "there are no cuss words left for me to learn."

The U.S. Department of Terrestrial Magnetism praised Boyd's research and her photos are still used today for climate change research.

Despite that, she's been a ghost in the northern exploration annals  — at least, until the book The Polar Adventures of a Rich American Dame, which was published in 2017.

LISTEN | Learn about an overlooked chapter of exploration with Latonia Hartery's documentary: 

Latonia Hartery, a fellow of NYC’s famed Explorers Club, tells the stories of distinguished acts of exploration in Newfoundland, Labrador and the North — by women. This documentary is a riveting reworking of the concept of an explorer and focuses on women’s narratives of endurance. 53:52

Roberta Buchanan, a retired Memorial University co-author of The Woman Who Mapped Labrador, says that in the 19th and early 20th centuries, "it was all to do with the white man conquering stuff and penetrating virgin territory. So the idea of a woman doing it was almost horrifying."

...in the early 20th century or 19th century, it was all to do with the white man conquering stuff and penetrating virgin territory. So the idea of a woman doing it was almost horrifying.- Roberta Buchanan

In northern exploration, Inuit women were often backgrounded — their names were rarely written down. Yet, they were a crucial part of many expeditions as skilled food harvesters and translators.

They were also experts at sewing waterproof seams; a life-sustaining skill that prevented many men from perishing on their race to the poles.

This portrait of Labrador's Mikak and her son Tutauk was painted by British society painter John Russell in 1769. (Ethnologische Sammlung der Georg-August-Universität (BiKat 26). Photographer: Harry Haase)

Imprisoned in 1767 by the British, 27-year-old Mikak learned English and impressed Newfoundland's governor, Hugh Palliser,who sent her and her infant son Tutauk to London. Palliser was trying to build peaceful relations with the Inuit. "

She came from a sealskin tent and then here she is walking around in a royal palace," said Heather Campbell, a Labrador Inuk artist and the Inuit Art Foundation's strategic initiatives director. 

"London had over 750,000 people at the time. The difference would have been enormous."

Mikak befriended the dowager princess of Wales and posed for renowned society portrait painter John Russell.

She looks very approachable, but also very regal and it was very rare for someone who was indigenous to be portrayed in that way.- Heather Campbell, Inuit Art Foundation's Strategic Initiatives Director

Campbell calls the portrait remarkable.

"It's very sort of classically done. So she's sitting sort of three quarter view and she's holding the King George medal in her hand and she's wearing traditional clothing, including a headband with his long ear ornaments that are hanging down," she said.

"She has very faint face tattoos. She looks very approachable, but also very regal and it was very rare for someone who was Indigenous to be portrayed in that way. So I think it shows how they felt about her as a person."

On her return, Mikak played a role in establishing the Moravian mission in Nain.

"She was an agent of change, in this time of great social and cultural upheaval for anybody in Labrador," said Michelle Davies, the archeologist for the Nunatsiavut Government.

"A lot of the time we attribute that cultural change to men almost by default, largely because history is written by and about men and even the language that we sometimes use erases women's stories. And I want to put in a little shout-out to the Daughters of Mikak Project, an oral history project, which highlights Labrador women's leadership."

Mina Hubbard may have grown up on a farm in Ontario, but she earned a reputation for exploring the wilderness in Labrador. (Archives and Special Collections/Memorial University)

Deadweight at Best also explores the accomplishments of Mina Hubbard from Bewdley, Ont., who vindicated her husband Leonidas after he mysteriously died adventuring in Labrador. In 1905, armed with iron will and no experience, she completed her husband's intended trip with his former guide, and mapped the George and Naskaupi Rivers. Moreover, she did it in a race with the man she blamed for her husband's demise. She arrived 50 days ahead of him.

TA Loeffler, Maura Hanrahan, Heather Campbell, Michelle Davies, Shannon Webb Campbell, Jane Severs and Roberta Buchanan — the women interviewed for the documentary and the historic women they speak about all share an expansive idea of exploration that encompasses the concept of care as well as curiosity to learn more about the world. 

Tune into CBC Radio One on New Year's Day at 8 a.m. local time, 8:30 in most of Newfoundland,  to hear Deadweight at Best: The Frozen Voices of Women Explorers.

You can also stream the documentary in two parts from CBC's regional documentary series Atlantic Voice on CBC Listen.  

About the Author

Angela Antle

Host, Atlantic Voice

Angela is a producer who works from St. John's and is the host of Atlantic Voice, a Sunday morning documentary program on CBC Radio.

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