Despite their considerable travel success, the couple was forbidden to become a member because the club, founded in 1904, did not allow women.
In fact, its President Roy Chapman Andrews went on to declare that “women are not adapted to exploration” while addressing female students at New York’s Barnard College in 1932.
Niles, who was already on an expedition to Asia, and Harrison, America’s first foreign intelligence agent, decided to expand their network after discussing their frustrations over lunch.
They invited the economic geographer Gertrude Shelby and the journalist Gertrude Emerson, who had led an expedition to Asia, to tea and at the end of their meeting the four women had agreed to form their own club.
While membership was not restricted to explorers, those who joined had to be “women who really did things,” according to a letter Harrison wrote to the explorer, Harriet Chalmers Adams, the Society’s first woman president.
In the nearly 100 years since then, membership books have listed human rights activists and former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, primatologist Jane Goodall, and anthropologist Margaret Mead, among others.
Break through barriers
The explorer Blair Niles was a founding member of the Society of Woman Geographers.
“That group of women paved the way for women today,” Zanglein told CNN Travel. “Not just in terms of travel, but also in terms of the fight for injustice and equality.
“We need to examine and applaud these women for their accomplishments at a time when travel has been so difficult and they have been discriminated against by men and the media.”
Zanglein first learned about the society during a trip to Asia in 2016 and began researching its members, some of whom the world had all but forgotten by the time she returned.
“A lot of people at the time thought women were more ruthless than men,” she explains. “You would joke that if a man saw a lion he would be careful, but a woman would say, ‘Oh, isn’t that cute?’
“Then trouble would begin because the men would have to save a ruthless woman.”
One of the main themes of the book is downplaying the achievements of women geographers, especially in the early 19th century.
Zanglein describes the frustrations of the explorers, who were often uncredited for their expedition work, while reporters constantly asked questions about their makeup and not about their significant achievements.
“The challenge they faced alongside exclusion was isolation,” says Zanglein. “Because they had no way of connecting with each other before society.
“Marguerite Harrison was once a prisoner in Lubyanka Prison in Russia and she [reporters] would ask her about love interests. “
However, the author notes that attractive women have sometimes been used to generate advertising for travel expeditions.
Niles’ ex-husband, ornithologist and marine biologist William Beebe, was once reprimanded by the Bronx Zoo for submitting countless pictures of women in bathing suits instead of pictures of men doing science.
“He knew that if you put these pictures of women in the papers, donations would come in and people would fund expeditions,” says Zanglein. “So it’s kind of a vicious circle.”
Amelia Earhart was an early member of society and received the first gold medal.
Getty Images / Getty Images
Aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, arguably the most famous member of society, is said to have often weakened her achievements in order to “appear less threatening”.
“I’m very honored, but I doubt my qualifications,” she told members of society. “However, if the other members put up with me for a while, I’ll try to make up for the shortcomings.”
Earhart, also a member of the National Woman’s Party and an early proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, was the first woman to fly non-stop across the Atlantic alone. This was an occasion that marked the company with the award of its first gold medal.
She disappeared with navigator Fred Noonan when she became the first woman to fly around the world in 1937, and was officially declared dead 18 months later.
“She was charming in that she didn’t accept praise or recognition for herself, but for all women,” says Zanglein. “That made her very adorable.
“Her life or death is mysterious. People love to speculate about what happened to her.”
The mountaineer Annie Smith Peck, the third woman in history to climb the Matterhorn, can also be seen in “Girl Explorers”, as can the WWI nurse and author Ellen La Motte, who talks about her experiences in the essay book ” The Backwash of War “from 1916 wrote. “
The stories of sculptor Malvina Hoffman, known for her life-size bronze sculptures, and geographer Helen Candee, one of the Titanic’s survivors, are also covered.
“These women were not different in the restrictive sense that we sometimes use the word today to denote the inclusion of colored people,” writes Zanglein in the author’s note.
“Most of the early members were white. But they were different in other ways: socio-economic status, educational level, occupation, sexual orientation, marital status, ethnicity, and nationality.”
Society member Sylvia Earle, a legendary marine biologist who led the first team of female aquanauts.
According to Zanglein, the women were very supportive of one another and some trained other members and “always gave one another practical advice”.
While intrigued by all members of society, Zanglein felt a particularly strong bond with Niles, who was born on a plantation in Staunton, Virginia and “ended up being an advocate for black and gay people.”
Niles’ book “Condemned to Devil’s Island,” a fictional account of the escape from real life of a prisoner she met while visiting Devil’s Island penal colony, was brought to life in the 1929 Hollywood film “Condemned”.
The discoverer wrote “Black Haiti”, based on the slave rebellion in Haiti, and “Strange Brother”, the first fictional work that sensitively portrayed gay men in Harlem.
“I kind of fell in love with Blair,” admits Zanglein. “The Girl Explorers” references various early 19th century materials with depictions of the breed that are quite shocking to read today.
Although some members of society apparently shared the racial prejudices of the time, Niles, along with Moffat and Zonia Baber, a career devoted to interracial understanding, were among those who worked hard to challenge those views.
“I think there is probably a connection between people who choose to travel and are broad and open-minded,” adds Zanglein.
“That feeling of amazement that you get when you travel and want to learn something about other people is definitely something that made her [the early society members] more open, but not all of them were. “
Primatologist Jane Goodall is one of the most popular members of society today.
CBS / Getty Images
Although she developed the concept for the book years ago, Zanglein is grateful that it was published at a crucial moment in history for Americans.
“What impressed me most about the early members of society was that they had compassion for people of all races and nationalities,” she says.
“I think it will resonate with readers today because it comes at a time when Americans have become more divisive and less tolerant.”
The Explorers Club accepted its first female members in 1981, nearly 60 years after the Society of Women Geographers was founded.
While Zanglein recognizes that the original club has come full circle over the years and is now celebrating the achievements of women from all walks of life, the Society of Women Geographers is still going strong.
The author was recently recognized as one of its newest members following a rigorous application process, during which a committee scrutinized her eligibility.
To be accepted, potential applicants must “demonstrate professional achievements in a variety of disciplines that contribute to geographical knowledge and experience on international trips or expeditions”.
Zanglein believes society is as relevant today as it was in 1925, when Niles, Harrison, and their friends chatted about their antics over tea in a New York apartment.
“And as long as there are women who travel or occupations that require travel in male bastions, there will be a need for society.”