Cheetahs, Penguins and Bears…oh my!

These are just some of the century-old denizens that you will find inside the historic New York City Upper East Side mansion that serves as the headquarters of The Explorers Club.

This venerable club celebrated its 113th year with their annual star-studded awards dinner held on March 25, 2017. The black tie fundraising gala was held at the equally historic site of Ellis Island in New York Harbor. It was a stellar and sold out event that embraced and celebrated the stars of modern day exploration.

The 1200 VIP members and guests included Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Robert DeNiro, and a special appearance by James Cameron via video link.

All three men delivered impassioned speeches that conveyed their support for exploration, conservation and science.

Sir Fiennes was the keynote speaker and is regarded as the “Worlds Greatest Living Explorer.” He is 72 years young and continues to travel on extraordinary expeditions which help raise awareness of our planet.

James Cameron, an Explorers Club member and past awardee joined the evening via a videotaped speech in which he addressed the importance of pushing the boundaries of deep ocean exploration. Mr. Cameron refers to the annual awards dinner event as the “Oscars of Exploration.”

The Explorers Club has approximately 3500 members representing over 60 countries and 30 Chapters around the world. As of March 2017 the membership was 23% female and 77% male. Membership is decided upon by a committee with the highest level awarded being that of Fellow, which requires noted contributions to science and exploration. There are 801 female members worldwide which include Fellow, Student, and Associate levels. I was honored to have been awarded membership as a Fellow in 2003 and have since wondered: Where are all the female explorers?

The sad fact is that for centuries, many women have gone unrecognized for their contributions to exploration simply because of their gender. It is well documented that well into the 1930’s women disguised themselves as men in order to travel around the world on expeditions.

In April 2017, Canadian researchers discovered four bodies in permafrost that were part of the ill fated Sir John Franklin’s North West Passage Expedition of 1845 . These bodies were confirmed to have been women, though their names are lost in time, their fortitude and intrepid spirit are now part of Arctic exploration history.

The history of women in the Explorers Club dates back to 1914 when it held its first “Ladies Night” at the New York City HQ. It was designed as an evening to which members could invite female guests for entertainment and education through lectures.

I decided to delve into the archives of the club to research the many fabulous females and events that paved the way for change.

Lacey Flint is the Archivist and Curator of Research Collections. She is extremely knowledgeable and engaging in discussing the clubs impressive history and guided me through the journey sharing artifacts and anecdotes. The archives are meticulously maintained and looked after as those you might find in a museum.

In looking over the priceless books, letters, photos and ephemera I was transported back in time. The photos of dashing men at various functions and on expeditions made me feel that a woman would have been just as comfortable in the same situations and equally qualified. This rings true for women like Osa Johnson, a photographer, filmmaker and author who documented the jungles of East Africa, Borneo and the South Pacific in the 1920’s.

Amelia Earhart was an aviation pioneer and contemporary of Osa Johnson. These women pushed aside boundaries that were placed upon them and secured a seat at the table of many “all boys” clubs. In 1932 Amelia Earhart was a featured speaker at a Ladies Night event and was issued a commendation for her transatlantic flight of 1928.

In 1934 the Explorers Club created an “Honorary Roll of Women” to allow them to attend certain functions and be recognized for their tremendous exploration efforts and feats.

However, women remained ineligible for membership until the mid 1960s.

It was during this time that the annual dinners finally allowed members to bring their wives along to the black tie gala held at the Waldorf Astoria.

In the 1970’s the advertising world focused on the power of women in the workforce and across many areas which had been exclusive to men. The Virginia Slims cigarette slogan “You’ve come a long way baby” rang true across the world and women were finally recognized for their contributions and abilities to conquer boardrooms, mountain peaks, deep oceans and space.

On September 19, 1981, the Freshman class of 16 women were honored with membership into the all male Explorers Club. Their areas of expertise included, Space, Sea, Anthropology and Archaeology. The illustrious group included aquanaut Dr. Sylvia Earle, Anna Roosevelt, and astronaut Kathryn Sullivan.

Pictured: Sylvia Earle (left) and the author (right) 

Despite the influx of female members over the next few decades it was not until the year 2000 that the Explorers Club welcomed its first female President: South African born, British-American conservationist, explorer and businesswoman, Mrs. Faanya Rose. She reigned from 2000-2002 and continues to be a very active member both in the field and through her work and mentorship with young explorers.

She is a glamorous, gracious and generous woman who embodies the spirit, kindness and strength that has seen her through a fascinating life of adventure, tragedy and triumph.

I met with Faanya to discuss her being the first female president of the club and how best to encourage participation and expectations from women in a predominantly male arena.

She states: “I was not elected President because I was a woman, I was elected because I was the best man for the job at the time.”

“Women should be insulted to be appointed to any position because of their gender…they should be appointed or selected because they have the competency and the skills to do the job!”

On going into the field, she states: “To go on expedition is not only to have an adventure but to learn and to discover. To share knowledge is to contribute.”

The Exploring Women of tomorrow need role models today and can find them within the hallowed halls of the Explorers Club. I believe we must inspire, engage and educate through our firsthand knowledge and experiences. The Explorers Club is steadfast in its support of the next generation and helping them conquer mountains, explore the seas, unlock scientific mysteries, and so much more.