V. The Pearys

Commander of several Arctic expeditions, Robert Peary spent much of his adult life in the Arctic, exploring Greenland, Ellesmere Island, and ice-covered Polar Sea. Being first at the North Pole consumed Peary, pushing him to act in ways that some found self-centered and imperious. [5-2.1] Yet Peary was also enormously skilled as an explorer, a master of organization and a sharp observer of native practices. Peary often expressed a patronizing attitude toward Inuit men and women, but he also grasped the genius of their technology, from clothing [5-5, 5-6, 5-7, 5-8] to dog sledges, and relied heavily on their skills as seamstress, hunters and dog sledge drivers. Josephine Peary, who married Robert in 1888, was an equally complicated figure. [5-1] She called herself a “nineteenth-century woman” accepting a supporting role to her husband, quietly enduring his infidelity with Inuit women, and fiercely defending his claim to have reached the North Pole. She expressed a chauvinistic attitude toward the Inuit, a sense of racial superiority common to white Americans of the age. Yet Josephine also challenged traditional attitudes about gender. At a time when Americans had come to view the Arctic as a stage for manly endeavor, she joined Robert on his Greenland expedition of 1891-92. She returned with him to the Arctic again in 1893, giving birth to a daughter, Marie Ahnighito Peary. In her book about Marie’s birth and infancy, The Snow Baby, girls and women emerge as the heroines of Arctic life while men, including Robert, are almost entirely absent.