More than a century ago, being a woman and a mountaineer was not easy. Fanny Workman and Annie Peck knew something about it…

In the second half of the 19th century, at a time when nothing predestined women to climb the peaks, Fanny and Annie explored the mountains of the world. At no time did they team up and embody two quite different paths. Their determination to be where we did not expect the women of their time nevertheless emerges as a common point. Discover the singular trajectories of Fanny Bullock Workman and Annie Smith Peck, two American mountaineers.

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They were born in the middle of the 19th century on the East Coast of the United States into white bourgeois families. Fifty short kilometers separate their childhoods. Annie must jostle for a place among three brothers who shine in their studies. She would like to go to university like them, but women don’t have the right. Determined to support herself, Annie begins a teaching career. Time passes and higher education is finally opening up to women. She then continued her training in Greek at the University of Michigan.

Fanny, she does not have the same priorities. Her schooling ends with a passage through a boarding school for young girls where cooking, good manners and the art of keeping a house are the main subjects. At the time when Annie is graduating from university, Fanny is getting married. She marries a doctor who will introduce her to mountaineering. With comfortable legacies, they will be able to travel and indulge their common passion for the mountains. Annie, she does not go through the marriage box. It is education that will provide him with his first income and allow him to take off.

First summits in Europe

In 1895, Annie Peck climbed the Matterhorn in the footsteps of Lucy Walker. Unlike the latter, she wears men’s clothes and this is mainly what the period press will note. His name is starting to be known among climbers. Fanny Workman is also one of the first women to have climbed this mythical summit, in a much more conventional outfit for the time. After having explored many parts of Europe by bike, Workman set sail for the Himalayas. She hires Swiss guides to venture into the mountains of present-day Pakistan. Explorations are followed by ascents. She was 47 when she climbed Pinnacle Peak, in present-day Ladakh, in 1906. She then reached a record altitude for a woman: 7,091 meters.

Himalayas and Andes

At the same time, Annie Peck climbs in South America. In the Andes Cordillera, she multiplies the ascents. Until that of Huascaran north, in 1908, summit of 7,300 meters of altitude according to his statements. Workman does not admit to losing her title and spares no expense to demonstrate that she is still the tallest woman in the world … She hires a French geographer who leads an expedition at her request to precisely measure the altitude of Huascaran . He then reveals that the altimeter used by Peck was defective and that, in addition to the approximations of his guides, an error of 600 meters had slipped into the story… Enough to restore his title to Workman.

Feminism at the top

In 1911, Peck continued his South American ascents. In Peru, she climbs the Nevado Coropuna. At its top, it extends a banner pleading for the right to vote for women. A few years later, Workman was photographed in the mountains reading a newspaper headline on the same subject. This is a theme on which they agreed, women should be able to vote. And their symbolic acts will not be in vain. In the United States, they will see the establishment of the right to vote for women during their lifetime.

More than these anecdotes, it is the actions of Workman and Peck that will carry a feminist message in a context where big names in mountaineering are encouraging women to turn away from this sport. Sports historian Allen Guttmann even explains that “the clear assumption underlying attempts to limit women to light exercise and graceful movement, was that vigorous sports are essentially male…. With the onset of puberty, boys were expected to display prowess as a symbol of virility and dominance; girls had to do just enough gymnastics to stay healthy while they developed their skills to keep a household or attract potential husbands”. These women who climb the mountains demonstrate concretely that the dominant genders of Western societies are not so indisputable.

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In 1912, Fanny Workman referred to her current exploration as the “Fanny Bullock Workman Expedition” and explained: “Inscribing my full name on the expedition map is solely for the benefit of the accomplishment women. Now and in the future, it should be known that a woman was the initiator and leader of this expedition. When later, the woman will occupy her recognized place of worker in all fields, such a highlighting of her work will no longer be necessary; but that day has not quite arrived, and now it behooves the women, for the benefit of their sex, to record what they do”.

Albert Mummery, Alexandre Burgener, Matthias Zurbriggen, the Duke of Abruzzo, Norman Collie… The main names in the history of mountaineering for the period when they climbed from the Andes to the Himalayas are the names of men. Annie Peck and Fanny Workman died in the interwar period.

Illustration – from left to right, Peck and Workman © DR