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  • Anna Soer

Wealthy White Women in the Arctic and colonial conquest

Dernière mise à jour : 7 sept. 2022

I recently went to my local library to escape the overwhelmingly suffocating heat of downtown living. There, a book was peaking through the Politics shelf: Sisters in Hate: American Women on the Front Lines of White Nationalism by Seyward Darby (2020). Before starting this book, I was reading and learning from Joanne Barker's exceptional analysis in Red Scare: The State's Indigenous Terrorist (2021). The two together prompted a question for my field of research: Who were the white women who shaped settler colonialism and white supremacy in the Arctic? Who were they, what positions they held, and more importantly, why did they work to advance white supremacy and colonialism in the Arctic - a sphere shaped by masculinity and (masculinist) desire for conquest (see Bloom, 1993)? The motivations behind colonial conquest in the Arctic has been well researched, and yet, in the humanities as well as in social sciences, the role of women - be they Indigenous or settler - remains under studied and perhaps under-valued as well. The roles of white women - painters, explorers, business developers, home makers, leaders, advocates..., are vast and fundamental to the advancement of white supremacy and the colonial enterprise. Is it so in the Arctic as well?

This is a blog post which is essentially a preliminary look onto this particular topic. I wish to develop this further and will use my post to sketch out some initial thoughts. Please let me know if you have any related resources, thoughts, knowledge of the role of white women in the establishment of colonial rule in the Arctic.

I will start small and look at where I live - Canada. Interest in the Arctic grew for the Canadian federal government slightly before the Second World War and during the Cold War. The Arctic border being the closest to - at the time - the USSR, the US and Canada invested militarily, economically, and politically in Arctic territories. In Canada specifically, enforcing colonial rule in the Arctic meant the development of registration programmes such as the identification disk system which erased the place of Inuit women in the eyes of the federal government, imposing a patriarchal naming and registration system instead. Knowledge is power and 'knowledge' can also apparently shape reality toward a desired outcome. Other means of asserting control over the Arctic by the Canadian federal government also included the forceful High Arctic relocation programme in 1953. The Broken Promises documentary by Patricia Tassinari (1995) gives voice to the victims and shows the extent of the harm done. The High Arctic relocation programme and the identification disk system were not randomly designed - nor were they novel in terms of tools serving colonial control. A significant body of research already exists on the context of the development of these systems and tools of colonial governance control. The point here is not to delve into it again but to wonder about the actors behind the development of this larger context, for both hard and soft powers - from the federal Prime Minister Louis St. Laurent in 1953 to The Beaver magazine - have participated in shaping systemic discourses around the justification of colonial - white - control over the Arctic.

For white women, the 19th and 20th century saw the active participation in explorations and political programmes - and colonial conquest (alongside which white supremacy and racial segregation) was not detached from the argumentation in favour of white women's suffrage - especially so in the US. The Arctic - being described as 'primitive wilderness', 'forbidding' yet 'grand' (see Cronin, 2016 and Sangster, 2007) by Southern settler society - served as an area of ultimate proof of white masculine physical superiority, of white masculine physical and mental strength against an untamed brutal nature. Yet, exploring the Arctic - much like exploring Antartica - thereby also served white women's argument that they were just as worthy as white men: they could also conquer, explore and tame Wilderness. They could also serve Science and the state. The examples of two white women and leading explorers, the American Louise Arner Boyd (1887-1972) and the Canadian Lady Jane Franklin (1791-1875), can perhaps serve as a first outlook onto the role of white women in advancing white supremacy and colonial control in the Arctic.

It first bears to remind that Louise Arner Boyd and Lady Jane Franklin were not any white women either: they were extremely privileged and part of the affluent bourgeoisie. The juxtaposition of their race as well as their economic status (class) is absolutely key here as they reflect two colonial and imperial ideals: rich and white.

Louise Arner Boyd collaborated heavily with the American government during the Second World War. She led scientific expeditions on the Coast of Greenland as well as in Labrador and near the Baffin Islands serving the Department of Commerce in order to study and understand radio-wave transmission in the Arctic. She worked in close collaboration with the Department of the Army. Her dream of exploring this supposedly deep Arctic wilderness, this unknown territory, blended very well with the military and economic imperatives of the US government to extend control over the region - risks mitigation and colonial control through scientific research. That people were already living there were of little concern. As a woman, she served her cause to advance the position of (white) women in politics, education, and the work place by smashing stereotypes of women in exploration - especially so in the Arctic. And as a white woman, she also served the U.S government's imperial quest for control over the area against ennemies.

Lady Jane Franklin was the wife of Sir John Franklin who was a British Royal Navy officer and led multiple Arctic explorations in Canadian Arctic waters - such as an attempt to cross the Northwest Passage (which concluded in his death). Lady Jane Franklin, after her marriage, was an active figure in Australia and New Zealand, establishing schools and charities. She commissioned monuments and art galeries. When her husband died, she led multiple expeditions starting 1852 to the Arctic to find her husband's body and to understand what had happened. Her expeditions have served to extend western knowledge of the Arctic and today still, several landscapes bear her name - for instance on Ellesmere Island (Lady Franklin Bay). The wikipedia description of her character and the nature of her purpose behind the expeditions is telling of the kind of framing she benefitted from (and still today): "Lady Franklin devoted herself for many years to trying to ascertain his fate". Devotion and deep loving emotions towards her husband seem to be how she is here framed and remembered as: " The popularity of the Franklins in the Australian colonies was such that when it was learned in 1852 that Lady Franklin was organising an expedition in search of her husband using the auxiliary steamship Isabel, subscriptions were taken up [...]." Popularity for who? Who were those monuments and art galleries she commissioned for? Through charity, art and devotion, Lady Jane Franklin used the gendered norms of the "Angel in the House" to strengthen and further British colonial power over the colonies - including in Arctic Canada.

It is perhaps on this last point that I believe a gendered analysis would be much welcome for the understanding of colonial and imperial conquest in the Arctic: through patriarchal and racial gendered norms, wealthy white women have capitalised on their assets to advance their positions and aspirations by joining colonial and imperial enterprises both in the Arctic and elsewhere - for Lady Jane Franklin in Australia. This finer gendered reading of power dynamics in the Arctic - by highlighting the agency, voice, and capacity of these women - adds onto the existing literature on both Arctic conquest and colonial entreprise and on the role of white women in enforcing colonial white heteronormative rule.

Let me know your thoughts!



Grant, S. D. (1998). Arctic wilderness—And other mythologies. Journal of Canadian Studies, 33(2), 27-42.

Cronin, M. (2016). Richard Byrd, Technological Explorer: Polar Exploration, the Machine, and Heroic Masculinity in Interwar America. Technology and Culture, 322-352.

Ganzevoort, H., Balthazar, L., Haenens, L., Conway, J. F., & Frideres, J. S. (Eds.). (1998). Images of Canadianness: Visions on Canada's Politics, Culture, Economics. University of Ottawa Press.

Sangster, J. (2007). " The Beaver" as Ideology: Constructing Images of Inuit and Native Life in Post-World War II Canada. Anthropologica, 191-209.

Pálsson, G. (2004). Race and the intimate in Arctic exploration. Ethnos, 69(3), 363-386.

Reeploeg, S. (2019). Women in the Arctic: Gendering Coloniality in Travel Narratives from the Far North, 1907-1930. Scandinavian Studies, 91(1-2), 182-204.

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