7. Polar women in the archives

Polar women in the archives: how to unbury them

Convenors: Petia Mankova, UIT The arctic University of Norway & Elena Larskaya, European University in Saint Petersburg

Contact: petia.mankova (at) uit.no

Seminar room: Brisk (Parallel session 1); TBC (Parallel session 4)

Format: Hybrid

For the past two decades the Arctic has attracted considerable attention to climatic changes, infrastructural projects, geopolitical and environmental concerns and future projects. Arctic pioneers, scholars and scientists are publicly commemorated and celebrated, still the historical importance of women in the Arctic is often unrecognised.

In the proposed workshop we want to discuss the archives as repositories of knowledge of exclusionary male achievements and male activity in the Arctic. The women there make either furore, or are an invisible presence. Based on our experience with archives in Norway and Russia, the papers in the workshop will discuss who are the women in the Arctic and how to find sources exposing the women as a transformational force in the Arctic through their engagement in historical processes, scientific advances and everyday chores.

Who are the ‘polar women’ - explorers, scientists, housewives? What archival sources and repositories are available, and to what extent they challenge the border between science and humanities, scientific documentation and private commemorations?


Anka Ryall

Vladislava Vladimirova

Jenni Räikkönen

Maria Fedina

Dmitry Arzyutov

Stephan Dudeck

Oksana Butuk

Eleonora Togyer

Elena Larskaya & Petia Mankova


Anka Ryall, UiT The Arctic University of Norway, anka.ryall@uit.no

Women Scientists in the Norwegian Polar Archive

The so-called biography archive at the Norwegian Polar Institute in Tromsø contains materials about 1330 individuals connected to its work in the Arctic and Antarctic. Covering almost a century, from the early days of state-supported Norwegian Spitsbergen expeditions after 1905 until the late 1990s, it is an important repository of knowledge about participants in the historical development of institutionalized polar activities in Norway. Less than three per cent of the people with files in the archive are women, and only a handful of those are polar scientists. This is probably an accurate reflection of the overwhelmingly male-dominated – even masculinist – world of twentieth-century Norwegian polar research. My presentation will highlight the information in the archive about the few women who broke that mould, with particular emphasis on what it reveals about the important contributions of the first woman who did research in the Arctic, the botanist Hanna Resvoll-Holmsen (1873–1943).

Vladislava Vladimirova, PhD, Docent, Uppsala University, vladislava.vladimirova@ires.uu.se

Women veterinaries in the Arctic?

In this presentation I like to explore how private archives can provide alternative source of knowledge for history and anthropology. As an example, I use the life story, photos and archival documents which an elderly woman, whom I call Larisa, from the village of Lovozero shared with me in 2003. Larisa moved to Lovozero, a relatively small village in the Kola Peninsula, Northern Russia, escaping from war-marauded St. Petersburg during the early 1940s, in search for a job and better life. Larisa was a trained veterinary doctor and was employed as a much-needed expert at the reindeer herding cooperative ‘Tundra’. Her life story, memories, and private archive provide a picture of veterinary work and the organization of Soviet reindeer breeding during WW2 and in the post-war years.  While veterinary specialists have been given high status and place in the history of Russian development and modernization in the Arctic, meeting Larisa was the first occasion when I realized that some of these experts were actually female. After an early Soviet drive for women emancipation, veterinary science seems to have become a primarily male occupation, especially in the Arctic and in reindeer husbandry. Larisa’s archive and life story are then an important lens for critically analyzing this male dominance, its historical and social formation, and impact on knowledge practices in relation to reindeer herding. 

Jenni Räikkönen, University of Tampere, jenni.k.raikkonen@tuni.fi

Midwives and Nurses of the Finnish Lapland. Photo collections as sources for the history of experience of maternity care

In this presentation, I am concentrating on one particular source material and aspect of my PhD dissertation: the photo collections of Finnish midwives and nurses who worked in the Finnish Lapland and Sámi homeland in postwar decades. I will discuss the potential of non-textual sources as a historian interested in past experiences, sociomaterialities, and everyday lives in Maternity care. Photo collections of midwives, such as Elsa Engman (1888-1953) and Rita Berggren (1923–2013), are a rich source material for researching the everyday lives and encounters in midwifery and nursing professions. Midwives and nurses, who at the time were exclusively women, were engaged with local women and children. This is also present in the pictures they have taken. Thus, the photos have the potential as sources to the history of Northern women’s lives more widely. I will discuss the ethical questions related to interpreting photos taken by Finnish professionals in an area that has been widely visualized and photographed through colonialist eyes. I argue that midwives' photo collections can in some instances be interpreted as visual biographies and that the photos can also be seen as a form of emotional work in an area where Maternity care work had its special characteristics. 

Maria Fedina, University of Helsinki, maria.fedina@helsinki.fi

Komi women in political and societal life of the Komi Autonomy

Recent decades have symbolized the influx of Komi women into the political, activist, and public spheres in the Komi Republic. In less than a century a Komi woman has transformed from being a mere someone’s “wife and family” to becoming a decision-maker and an actor herself. Education and culture being traditionally women-dominated spaces in Komi continue to be such, however, new domains, like politics and entrepreneurship, have witnessed the increase in female actors as well. At the same time, women engaged in these fields are not only the transmitters of knowledge but are innovative pioneers and driving force of the Komi movement.

Komi archives, as well as collective memory, sustain the image of male-dominated local history. The role of woman in the regional history is rarely discussed and marginalized even in the academic research: to our knowledge, there are not any non-Russian publications on the topic, and even the number of the Russian-language papers is minimal.

In our presentation we analyze how the image of a Komi woman was created and sustained in the local press in the 1920s – beginning of the 1930s, the period of the development of Komi statehood that is usually considered to be the “golden era” of Komi sovereignty and political participation. Several major periodicals published both in Russian and Komi, namely Komi mu (in English: Komi land), Ordym (in English: A path), and Jugyd tuj (in English: A bright way), are examined. Analyzing the archival materials, we additionally attempt to reach a better understanding of the factors that influenced the development of the role and status of Komi women in contemporary Komi Republic.  

Dmitry Arzyutov, University of Oulu, Finland, darzyutov@gmail.com

The Gender of the Archive: On Embodied Knowledge in the Fieldnotes of Russian and Chinese Anthropology Couple of Elizabeth and Sergei Shirokogoroff

This paper examines the history of field ethnographic research of the famous Russian and Chinese anthropology couple of Elizabeth and Sergei Shirokogoroff. Based on a recently discovered documents which have been published as a collection of their field notes and letters (three-volume edition: Arzyutov et al. 2021, 2022a, 2022b) from Siberia, Manchuria, and China, I aim to compare their techniques of observing, measuring and describing human bodies (their own and of their “informants”). All that allows me to unveil what I call the ”gender of archive”. For this, I creatively adapt the idea from the seminal work of Marylyn Strathearn “The Gender of the Gift” (1988) about the relativity of our concepts of nature and gender in particular. In this paper, I argue that Elizabeth and Sergei Shirokogoroff treated human bodies differently. If Elizabeth constructed a vast research program on the study of Tungus women and compared her observations under her menstrual cycle, the menstrual cycles of her informants and the behaviour of her and their husbands, Sergei, on the contrary, methodically measured, photographs and described almost exclusively Tungus men to construct his colonial theories of ethnic migrations and identity. The epistemic connectivity or "dividuality" of human bodies (of anthropologists and their "informants") constituted Elizabeth and Sergei's research strategies that very rarely crossed. All that led to the difference of their ways of anthropological theorizing. Sergei's vision of anthropology (and also biopolitics) became focal for future building of Soviet state-sponsored ethnographic agenda, while Elizabeth's voice was suppressed and used only as an accompaniment to her husband's grandiose theoretical ideas. With the present paper, I seek to re-evaluate their legacy and claim back the initial diversity of Shirokoroff's field research techniques. This work is sponsored by the Eudaimonia Institute, University of Oulu (“Archiving the Planet”).

Dr. Stephan Dudeck, Research fellow at the Institute of Cultural Research, University of Tartu, Estonia


The life and death of Nata Findeisen – factors of women’s invisibility in ethnographic research between the Soviet Union and Germany

Despite the fact that contemporary historical inquiry in the history of social sciences is aware of mechanisms of gender bias and their importance for the development of its disciplines, it is often by chance that information on the life and fate of women-researchers of the quite recent past are appearing from scattered sources of private and public archives. This paper attempts to shed light on a currently discovered biography of a women ethnographer and her role in the research of several ethnic minorities in the Arctic and Subarctic in the early 20th century, her short but promising career in Germany and her tragic and still much unknown last years. I will speak about Anastasia Michailovna Stepanova or Nata Findeisen, a young woman from St. Petersburg, who met and accompanied a German anthropologist Hans Findeisen on two expeditions to Siberia and Northern Fenno-Scandia. She became his wife already in Siberia and moved with him to Germany, where she became a co-author of an ethnographic exhibition and active academic writer. She contributed already on her own on one of the most valuable museum collections of Crimean Tatar ethnographic objects outside Russia. Information about her time in the late 1930ies and during the WW II is scarce, but recently discovered documents and oral history shed some light on the end of her life. The aim of this paper is to analyze different factors and potentially structural conditions, which contributed to the invisibility of her work, and that of other women in the history of our discipline and in particular anthropological research in the Russian North in early Soviet times.

Oksana Butuk, European University of Saint Petersburg, rica@eu.spb.ru

Nina Demme

Interest in Soviet polar explorers in the first half of the 20th century is now increasing in the Russian society: they are written about in the media, films are made, scientific research and fiction are published. A special place in the early polar exploration was occupied by women, their roles in the Arctic of that time were diverse and need additional studies. Particularly the role that was practically absent in other countries - the researcher, the scientist who, along with men, lived and worked at polar stations. This role was also the embodiment of the Soviet idea of solving the women's issue.

In the 1930s Nina Demme became the symbol of this role. In the pre-WW2 period, not only the newspapers of the USSR, but also the USA and Europe media wrote about her. USSR journalists praised the courage and strength of the Soviet woman, Western journalists accused the Soviet Union of human experiments. After the war, Demmе was practically forgotten, and only now interest in her figure is beginning to return.

Most of the materials about Nina Demmе that the researchers used in their work were published in the Soviet years, and therefore were subject to censorship: the emphasis was placed on what seemed important and acceptable at that time. For anthropologists these publications are important as a reflection of the those years. At the same time, what was significant for Demme herself in such materials could be missed.

Here ego-documents come to the rescue: personal and work diaries, autobiographies, reports on the work of polar stations. They allow you to hear the voice of Demme herself, to know her position, to see her through the eyes of her own contemporaries. In my report, I would like to present archival documents, copies of which I own, and characterize the range of topics that they cover.

To date, I have at my disposal working and personal diaries of Nina Demme, written from 1939 to 1944 during wintering, an autobiography of 1959, a report on work at the polar station in 1932-34, as well as a diary of musher Fyodor Kuznetsov for 1930-31 years, wintering with Nina Demme in Franz Josef Land — here Demme is one of the the most important characters that the author wrote about.

In these documents we can see how Nina Demme herself related to wintering and their danger, what role she assigned to herself in the North, how her ideas about this role, about the Arctic and its heroes changed. At the same time, we observe a woman who presents herself as an equal with a man, can and should — on the same level with him — do what she loves — the study of the Arctic.

Eleonora Togyer, KU Leuven, Belgium, togyereleonora@gmail.com

Writing the lady traveller into the Arctic discourse: Helen Peel’s Polar Gleams: An Account of a Voyage on the Yacht 'Blencathra' (1894)

Helen Peel travelled to the Kara Sea in 1894 on board the steam yacht Blencathra and shortly after her return to England she published a travel account about her Arctic journey. This paper investigates how in Polar Gleams: An Account of a Voyage on the Yacht 'Blencathra' (1894) Helen Peel manages a genre burdened by the plots, images and symbols of masculinity, to become recognised within the Arctic discourse.

Hindered in these efforts by her gender, Peel creates a double voiced text, her own rhetoric to accomplish her goal, that allows her to take on a masculine voice while carefully retaining her femininity. I will highlight the narrative strategies she deploys as she uses travel writing as a route towards cultural and intellectual authority as well as a means of self-fashioning while she retains a sense of propriety to assert the respectable femininity of her narrator.

Applying an interdisciplinary approach that combines gender studies, history, feminist theories in travel writing and literary analysis, I will guide the readers/audience through Peel’s hybrid narrative to uncover how she masterfully balances between the masculine Arctic discourse and respectable Victorian femininity and how she creates a feminized form of exploration narrative that allows her to establish herself as a knowing and authoritative traveller with a meaningful connection to and great understanding of the Arctic region without the retaliation of the scientific circles.

By recovering the voice of Helen Peel my aim is to give visibility to a less well-known woman traveller and demonstrate the rich texture of her narrative. Analysing how she performed specific gendered aspects of travel and womanhood, thereby turning gender constraint into gender fluidity to link her feminized form of exploration narrative to a primarily scientific, masculine Arctic discourse, further deepens our understanding of women travellers’ position in the Arctic discourse during the late nineteenth century.

Elena Larskaya, European University of Saint Petersburg, rica@eu.spb.ru

Petia Mankova, UIT The Arctic University of Norway, Petia.mankova@uit.no

Women in the Arctic: inverting heritage; inverted heritage

The Arctic has had its women: professional paid labourers, local and indigenous women, and women who want to know more about the life in the Arctic. Nevertheless, their presence is often a side note.

We postulate that the Arctic makes a hierarchy of spaces - the closest to the pole, the higher in the hierarchy. In our presentation we use empirical examples to show how these hierarchies have affected the archives and the visibility of the women who had inhabited and ventured into the higher latitudes. We also look at the archives and their architectures: Although Norway and Soviet Union have had different ideological projections on the role of the women in society, the practices of documenting their presence were surprisingly similar. The memory of women and their work - for the wellbeing of the scientific, trade and indigenous communities in the Arctic, is shadowed in the archives by the welfare presence of the state, various institutions and male achievements.

Against this background, we look for the possible ways to tend the memory of women as scientists and their political engagements as indigenous and local actors, not only by critically examining and questioning the shortcomings of the archives but also trying to understand how the women themselves wanted to be remembered.