Why I Write Biographies about Forgotten Women - Dundurn
May 26, 2022

Why I Write Biographies about Forgotten Women

Writing a biography means immersing oneself completely in another person’s life. It took me over ten years to research and write about Arctic explorer Louise Arner Boyd and almost four for my most recent book, Antarctic Pioneer, about Antarctic trailblazer Jackie Ronne. It’s a significant investment of time and energy that bumps up hard against the milestones of your own life. I lost both parents, moved countries, and suffered personal hardship during the writing of these books, and I can attest to the fact that it required tremendous discipline and willpower to turn away from the grief and return to the life I was writing about. Seeing the relevance and the need for the story to be written regardless of what’s happening in your own world. It’s intimate, messy, and uncomfortable to sift through the foibles of another flawed human being. It’s mentally and physically demanding, involving a lot of travel, spending weeks at archives, museums, libraries scanning documents, taking notes, asking tough questions, and always staying focused on your subject’s voice inside your head.

Early on, I decided to write solely about women’s lives. This was a personal and political act on my part. Biographies about women are woefully underrepresented, as are female biographers, and I am happy to do what I can to redress this. It’s not just about seeing more books about women on the shelves but making sure that women’s voices and women’s stories are heard. I’m a Fellow of the Explorers Club and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and my particular interest is women explorers in polar regions. Even today, when people are asked to name a polar explorer, they usually think about men — Shackleton, Amundsen, Scott, or Fiennes. Over the course of my research, I’ve uncovered so many extraordinary lives, including Hanna Resvoll-Holmsen, a Norwegian botanist, early photographer and conservationist who took part in the 1907 expedition to Svalbard and Arnarulunnguaq, a Greenlandic woman who worked as guide, translator, and ethnographer during the Fifth Thule Expedition that travelled across Greenland, Alaska, and the Canadian Arctic in 1921-1924. There are so many untold women’s stories left to discover. In my own area of expertise, no one had ever written about Jackie Ronne, despite the fact that she was the first woman to participate in an Antarctic expedition (the Ronne Antarctic Research Expedition 1946-1948) and the research conducted on Louise Arner Boyd who organized, financed, and lead seven Arctic expeditions between 1928-1941 was paltry at best. I consider myself privileged to be the biographer of these women. I undertake the writing of these books knowing what the personal cost will be. Yet, for me, the joy of sharing these women’s lives is so very sweet.

Joanna Kafarowski, Ph.D., is passionate about researching and writing about the lives of women in polar history. She is the author of The Polar Adventures of a Rich American Dame: A Life of Louise Arner Boyd, the first comprehensive biography of a female Arctic explorer. She lives in Victoria, British Columbia. Learn more here.