By her own admission, Rachael Mead is obsessed with Antarctica.
She’s been fascinated by the remote continent since she was a child, devouring tales of explorers like Ernest Shackleton and Douglas Mawson.
Since then, the South Australian writer and teacher has spent time researching, working and travelling in Antarctica.
And yet, one impressive Antarctic trailblazer was unknown to Mead until about six years ago when she was leafing through a book on Antarctic art.
The name Nel Law was mentioned “in a footnote”, Mead says — and it revealed an incredible fact.
“I saw that [Nel] was the first Australian woman to go to Antarctica. The fact that I had never heard her name before almost brought me to my knees with shock.
“I just thought, ‘There must be a story here‘.”
As it turned out, Mead was right.
“The more I found [out], the more intriguing she became to me,” she says.
An incredible figure was emerging: a 1960s housewife, breathtaking artist and rule-defying ship stowaway.
‘Astounding’ artist seizes her turn
Learning about Nel Law was not easy.
Mead spent several years delving into the life of the woman who lived in Melbourne from 1914 to 1990. The result is her fictionalised account of Nel’s life, The Art of Breaking Ice.
“I learned that [Nel] stowed away — had gone down first to Macquarie Island and then to Antarctica — without official permission,” she says.
In Australia, women weren’t officially allowed to go to Antarctica until 1974. But Nel’s husband was Phil Law, an important Antarctic scientist with ANARE (Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions).
Every year he led a long expedition to Antarctica and so, together, the Laws hatched a plan for Nel to join one.
At the end of 1960, Phil was to travel to Macquarie Island, halfway between Australia and Antarctica. Before the ship parted, Nel hid on board and only presented herself once out at sea.
The trip went well, not only because she proved to be an excellent traveller who didn’t suffer seasickness, unlike many on board.
It was also a success because of the incredible art that Nel, who had honed her painting skills over years at her Melbourne home, was able to produce on board.
“The paintings that she did of Macquarie Island are astounding,” Mead says.
“There’s one in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery [of] an enormous penguin colony, which is absolutely breathtaking. The level of detail in it is just stunning.”
‘In hiding and ready to go’
The Macquarie Island trip went so well, Nel decided to hide away again a month later, on a ship headed to Antarctica.
She had managed to do her Macquarie Island trip completely under the radar. However this time smuggling a forbidden female passenger on board didn’t go as smoothly.
“She hopped on the ship and was in hiding and ready to go … but unfortunately, the press got wind of it just in the very last minute,” Mead explains.
“They were only hours from sailing … and basically Phil and Nel had to scramble and managed to sweet talk [then Assistant Minister for External Affairs Senator John Gorton].”
At the time, Senator Gorton was responsible for Australia’s presence in Antarctica and — in the nick of time — he gave his unofficial blessing and Nel was able to go.
“But there was a huge controversy over it, and the press went wild while she was down there,” Mead says.
A joy marked by darker side to the ice
Nel, the housewife–artist and smuggled traveller, set foot on Antarctica at Mawson Station on February 8, 1961 — and it won her over.
“She was just so taken with it,” Mead says.
In a Women’s Weekly article published in April 1961, a month after her return, Nel said she was “staggered to find so much colour down there”.
“The sea is a real washing-knob blue, the sky is often quite green, and the fringes of the icebergs and floes have a turquoise colouring. Sunsets are fantastic crimsons, oranges, golds and greens,” she told the magazine.
“There is no night there in the summer, and when the weather is good, the men work almost right through. I did, too, partly because I was frightened I’d miss something if I went to bed … Every hour there was something different to see and paint.”
However, in her book, Mead describes another side to Antarctic travel: an oppressiveness that she experienced, and that she imagines Nel would have, too.
On base in Antarctica in 2005, Mead felt the “scrutiny” of male crew members and a “feeling of … constant consciousness of how you present yourself as a woman”.
“As women, we’re used to a certain level of being observed, and that attention not always being welcomed, but it just felt like, at that particular time, in that particular space, it was magnified.
“I was able to use that [experience] to try and inform what I suspected Nel was experiencing on that ship, being the one woman among 70 men.”
Mead says there’s a specific culture among expedition crew to Antarctica that is the result of historic Western attitudes towards the continent as “a territory to be claimed and explored”.
“In the 60s, science was still a very male-dominated field, so it’s gone from exploration being [male-dominated] to science being [male-dominated],” she says.
“I can see how there has been a certain resistance to gender equity.”
Mead points to the recent report into the culture at Antarctic research stations, commissioned by the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD).
The report concluded, that, among other problems on stations, “women experience a range of harassment including uninvited physical contact or gestures, unwelcome requests for sex [and] sexual comments, jokes or innuendo”.
“I think on some level, it is unethical for us to continue trying to encourage women to enter a male-dominated field if we are not confident that organisations can keep them safe,” the report’s author Meredith Nash told the ABC last year.
Not fazed by the rules
Amidst the fairly strict gender roles of 1960s Australia, Nel defied prohibitions to pursue her art and venture to one of the most mysterious parts of the world.
Having remained at home for 12 consecutive years, while her husband travelled for about five months a year to Antarctica, Nel carved out her own opportunity to experience it for herself.
“She was courageous enough to defy the rules, to go down as a housewife and an artist to a place that, until that point, had only allowed men down there,” Mead says.
“She was a trailblazer. And her legacy is not just in that courage, it’s also in her art, and being an artist in an environment that prizes science.”
Mead hopes her book helps to draw more attention towards Nel and her important legacy.
“She’s very impressive … It’s a tragedy that she isn’t more well known,” she says.
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