Women Explorers: Annie Smith Peck

History is replete with the accomplishments of male explorers. The first to the North and South Poles, the first to reach Everest's summit and the first that took the fledgling steps on the moon were all men. It is certain however that despite the preponderance of headlines that pay tribute to these and other male dominated exploratory feats, that woman did not patiently wait until acknowledged to make their mark in the realm of adventure and discovery. Throughout the course of exploration history woman have been part of the equation. They have taken on a plethora of roles from the soliciting of financial support to serving as champions for a cause. For those that ventured into the field, they often confronted insufferable obstacles well beyond those normally encountered in an already difficult and dangerous field of endeavor. To supersede these, women did whatever was necessary sometimes dressing as men and stowing away in ships, later climbing mountains in cumbersome petticoats or eventually designing their own gear. To pursue their dreams women oftentimes risked social discredit, although they understood this as one of the hazards of exploration, and did whatever was required often forsaking family and friends so as to play a significant role in the unfolding and discovery of the planet and beyond. In the early days of exploration what lay beyond one's immediate borders was virtually unknown and the desire to add to the geographical contours to the map, to be the first to know what was out there and where, were often the drivers for the early explorers both male and female alike.

Whereas in past times woman were oftentimes accorded minimal acclaim comparative to their male counterparts who may have accomplished similar or even later feats, today woman are increasingly being given their due as many of these early explorations and accomplishments were preserved via extensive written records, paintings and photographs of journeys. Today there is unlikely to be any rain forest, mountain or underwater sea-bed explored that has not at least included, if not featured women. Through the beginning of the 20th century however, women still had not been accorded much notice for their pioneering feats and discoveries, it has been mostly by painstakingly collecting and piecing together correspondence, diaries and notes from the history books, that an alternative insight into what were significant female contributions to the annals of exploration are being recognized. One such trailblazer, who significantly stretched the confines of female expectations of the period, was the explorer/mountaineer Annie Smith Peck.

This October marks the 165th birthdate this extraordinary woman who would establish many firsts, many within the exploration realm. Hailing from Providence Rhode Island, she was the youngest of five children, the only surviving girl preceded by a throng of athletic and competitive brothers, perhaps catalyzing Annie's ambitions despite significant social pressures to mitigate these. Her father a well-educated lawyer, member of the United States House of Representatives, and successful entrepreneur, saw fit that Annie in her formative years attend the Providence-based Dr. Stockbridge's School for Young Ladies, deemed a suitable institution for girls of well-considered families. It is unlikely however that the educational objectives at the time of this exclusive institution had much in common with the plans that young Annie had in mind for herself. Woman at the time were discouraged to pursue the heights of education, but like the mountains that she would later tackle, Annie Peck, reached their summit. Fervently wishing to pursue a University education Annie was not admitted to Brown, the alma mater of her father and brothers based on her gender. While her family deemed the idea a "folly" Annie succeeded in gaining entrance to the University of Michigan not long after this institution first allowed women, graduating in Greek and Classical Languages in record time with honors. She followed this with a Masters degree and later pursued additional academic training in Europe where she studied archeology and learned a number of the romantic languages. She was the first female to attend the American School of Classical Studies in Greece. Subsequently Annie was awarded a professorship representing one of the first U.S. women to achieve this status.

Despite her prestigious career in academia, Annie's sojourn in Europe had inspired a special fascination for mountains. Unable or unwilling to ignore their lure, Annie had by age 44 left her position as a Latin Professor at Smith College to become a full-time mountaineer, an even less-likely profession for women at the time than that of a Professor. In the late 1800s when Annie began mountain climbing in earnest, exploration still generally presented women with a host of additional obstacles over those normally encountered by men. What was then considered "well-bred" society had deemed that this line of endeavor conceded no place for a woman and as such presented especially onerous social stigmas. Refined women were not expected to endure the hardships of expedition travel, and no effort was made to accommodate those that might desire to do so. Little was readily available in the form of female clothing or gear for such exploits and this lack of appropriate attire was a grievance expressed by many a female explorer, many of whom had been forced to clandestinely tackle the problem sometimes even requiring the assumption of a male identity rather than risk the scorn of wearing male clothing.

In 1895, Annie became only the third woman to ascend the Swiss Matterhorn, and the first to do this in trousers under a long tunic rather than the unwieldy skirts of the day. It was her donning of trousers at a time when woman were prohibited from wearing slacks in public, rather than the accomplishment that attracted intense press attention and debate spurring a public dialogue as to what were accepted roles and careers for women. However Peck was not deterred and went on to scale numerous peaks including Mexico's Mount Orizaba and Mount Popocatepetl in 1897 and later Mount Sorata in Bolivia in 1904. After several attempts she eventually bested the Peruvian 22.205 foot Mt. Huascaran, reaching the pinnacle on Sept 2. 1908 when she was 58 years of age. This achievement represented the only case where a woman climber would attain the summit of a major mountain before a male climber. It had taken Peck four years and five tries to summit this mountain, believed then before more facile means of accurate measurement were developed, to represent the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere. Peck's last mountain ascent was of the 5,636 foot Mount Madison in New Hampshire at the age of 82. Upon her death in 1935 at age 84, she was acclaimed as the "female" mountain climber of greatest renown. Today she can be more accurately described as among the greatest mountaineers of all time, irrespective of gender.