Women's Paths

'They Made Their Mark' honors the 20th century's most fearless females

Reading a book as steeped in women's history as Tucsonan Jane Eppinga's They Made Their Mark: An Illustrated History of the Society of Woman Geographers almost qualifies as an exercise in despair.

To consider that the 20th century was populated by vibrant souls like Amelia Earhart, Rachel Carson and Margaret Mead, and then to compare these daring women with the women so often seen in today's media--a dismal cast of porn stars, useless debutantes and attention junkies--is depressing.

Everyone's curiosity is now so inner-directed and technologically dependent that we've lost the capacity and yearning for real-life experiences, the kind sought by, say, Marguerite Harrison, who discarded her genteel upbringing and embarked on far-flung expeditions ranging from the deadly gulags of Soviet Russia to documentary filmmaking in the Persian mountains. Harrison was a lot like Indiana Jones--only more daring and authentic, and very likely unafraid of something as silly as a snake.

Such is the marked success of Eppinga's book, which, in addition to chronicling the obvious contributions of primatologist Jane Goodall and astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, also illuminates the lesser-known adventures of female travelers, international spies, big-game hunters and speleologists--all of them members of the Society of Woman Geographers, founded in 1925. There simply isn't another overview like this one, so beautifully designed and packed with photos.

Speaking of photos, one of my favorites is of Fay Gillis Wells posing next to her biplane in her leather helmet and jacket and grease-stained pants. While Wells never achieved the fame of Earhart, she nonetheless helped establish women in the history of aviation. On her second day of flight school, she and her instructor conducted one too many aerobatic maneuvers and had to parachute from a disintegrating plane. Snagged in a 60-foot tree, Wells had to be rescued, but eventually earned her membership in the Caterpillar Club. (Caterpillar, because parachutes back then were made of silk.) From there, Wells went on to work as a private pilot, journalist, academic lecturer and government official. Eppinga says she even accompanied President Richard Nixon "on his historic trip to the People's Republic of China" in 1972. She was a member of the Ninety-Nines, an association of women aviators to which Earhart also belonged. (For more on the Ninety-Nines, see Page 6.) Wells did much to honor her famous friend over the years, including the getting the Post Office on board to produce an Amelia Earhart airmail stamp.

More rewarding are Eppinga's profiles of women you can't even look up on Wikipedia. For instance, there's the strikingly attractive Chickasaw storyteller and performer Te Ata (aka Mary Francis Thompson), who studied at Columbia, did one-woman shows in London and taught before being "discovered" by Eleanor Roosevelt. The first lady invited her to perform at the White House, after which Ata "crisscrossed the country staging programs," even entertaining King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. Ata died just before her 100th birthday in 1995, an incredible woman from a time when being incredible wasn't easy.

Eppinga even brings a fresh perspective to more established (and perhaps controversial) figures like Rachel Carson, the mother of the modern environmental movement whose book Silent Spring was published in 1962. Even today, the banning of DDT is viewed as problematic, especially given its effectiveness in combating malaria. Over time, Carson's right-wing critics have hammered her for valuing nature over the lives of malaria victims. But as Eppinga notes in her profile: "Rachel always emphasized that she was not opposed to the use of poisonous chemical sprays, only to 'indiscriminate use' at a time when the potential of such chemicals was not known."

Today, the Society of Woman Geographers continues as an international, nonprofit, professional and social organization, and still brings together women who share a passion for unusual world exploration. Yes, They Made Their Mark serves as a promotional book that, for the most part, celebrates rather than subjectively documents the group's last 80 years. But unlike other promotional publications, this one truly enlightens readers who may not be that familiar with the range of heroines in the 20th century.

The next time Lindsay Lohan's tabloid exploits get you down, pick up this book. It will remind you of the greatness of women adventurers and their accomplishments, and why we need to remember them now more than ever.