Cold hard facts

Jackie Ronne’s pivotal role in pioneering Antarctic research detailed in new account


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It seems Antarctic adventures can remain hazardous, even more than 70 years after they ended.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 11/06/2022 (286 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

It seems Antarctic adventures can remain hazardous, even more than 70 years after they ended.

Victoria author Joanna Kafarowski writes that in researching this biography of Jackie Ronne, she was threatened by Ronne supporters and opponents alike, stonewalled, deliberately misdirected and ignored.

The polar explorers’ fraternity was a tough one to break into in the late 1940s when Norwegian-American explorer Finn Ronne and Edith (Jackie) Ronne, his wife, led an expedition that mapped and photographed nearly 1.2 million square kilometres of virgin Antarctic coastline, proved Antarctica was one land mass and contributed significant scientific findings. And the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition (RARE, 1946-1948) was conducted on a shoestring budget.

On top of the science, Jackie was the first American woman to set foot on Antarctic land and one of the first two to overwinter there.

Finn, despite scientific credentials, was not part of the elite circle of Antarctic explorers, even though his father was a noted explorer. Finn could be a polarizing figure among his own expedition team and among the wider exploration community.

Jackie, for her part, was a woman in a postwar American society that expected women to stay home and care for their husbands and family. No matter how significant her contribution to RARE, she had to face that societal bias.

Jackie’s successful participation in the heroic expedition and her work as an Antarctic pioneer paved the way for other women who would explore and make policy decisions about Antarctica far into the future, Kafarowski writes.

The author, in Antarctic Pioneer, celebrates Jackie’s achievements and helps her subject step out from Finn’s shadow, where she supported and promoted his work, his public profile, at the expense of her own.

Jackie was born Edith Maslin into a dysfunctional family in Baltimore in 1919 and was eventually adopted by a favourite aunt and uncle, who both worked as scientists in the National Bureau of Standards. They introduced her to the worlds of science and exploration, which set her on a path that eschewed the life of a 1940s housewife, and she began working in the State Department and planning a meaningful career for herself.

She met Finn on a blind date and sparks flew despite his being 20 years older. Jackie helped him plan his expedition, not expecting to be going on it. The initial plan was for her to manage the expedition office at home, but Finn recognized her help would be crucial closer at hand.

The expedition met opposition before it got going, by the likes of explorer Admiral Richard Bird, whom Finn had worked with on two expeditions but whose relationship was marred by jealousy and suspicion.

RARE negotiated a lucrative contract with the North American Newspaper Alliance (NANA) for exclusive rights. NANA regularly supported world explorers and was known for hiring Ernest Hemingway to cover the Spanish Civil War. It was Jackie, who worked in communications in the State Department, who kept newspaper readers back home informed about the Ronne exploration. Many of the stories carried her byline, but a lot she filed under Finn’s name, helping to shape his legacy as expedition leader and generating much needed funding.

Jackie’s role went far beyond reporting to the news syndicate: she was de facto camp manager, handling all administrative tasks; she flew reconnaissance missions; she helped the cook prepare trail meals; was a counsellor; and an assistant to the scientists.

“The full extent of Jackie’s contributions to the exploration was never formally recognized, even by Jackie herself,” Kafarowski writes.

Finn was disliked by many of the expedition members as he was dictatorial. When they returned to the U.S. in April 1948, Jackie was sick and tired of being the stern Mrs. Ronne and looked forward to disagreeing with Finn and being frivolous and free.

Yet, she decided not to return to her government job and instead continue to promote the RARE discoveries and Finn’s career. And, at the same time, he wanted her to be a traditional housewife. Jackie did a good job at all that and was adept at the networking while Finn was off exploring and she was at home raising their daughter. After Finn’s death in 1980, she became an advocate for an Antarctic treaty and polar tourism until her death in 2009.

This book presents a picture of Jackie Ronne as a self-confident, versatile and intelligent woman who was on an equal footing with her husband, even if society wouldn’t embrace her in that role.

Chris Smith is a Winnipeg writer.

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