“The presence of women is an absolute necessity to keep the men happy,” Robert E. Peary once wrote, arguably justifying the fact that his wife Josephine Cecilia Diebitsch Peary accompanied him on his first Greenland expedition in 1891-which caused anger and resentment among his crew. But perhaps this saying was merely an excuse for the fact that his Josephine had simply decided of her own accord to accompany her husband into the Arctic wilderness.
For Josephine, born on May 22, 1863 to German immigrants on a farm in Forestville, Maryland, and raised in Washington, was headstrong as a child and as a teenager defied the self-image of women at the time: She insisted on transferring to a business school after two years of high school and, as a graduation speaker, postulated that women could and should do far more than sew buttons and iron shirts. It is not surprising, therefore, that Josephine unhesitatingly took over her father’s linguistics lectureship at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington when he became ill – at the same fee her father had drawn. She was just 19 years old.
Josephine also let flounder this young engineer she had met at a dance in Washington: a certain Robert E. Peary, who had surveyed the rain forest in Nicaragua and now dreamed of being the first man to conquer the North Pole. She did not want to wait at home for her “absentee husband”. Two years after their first meeting, in 1888, she married him anyway. Love was stronger than Josephine’s reservations. And another three years later she accompanied him to North Greenland, where base camp was set up in McCormick Bay. She was the first white woman to winter so high up north, which caused quite a stir in the international press – while Josephine spent fourteen months cooking booze stew, sewing buttons – and walrus hunting for the crew of six.
Enchanted by the wilderness of the ice and her experiences with the Inuit, Josephine learned from the natives, kept meticulous diaries, and published her account of her experiences, “My Arctic Journal,” in 1893. Even if these remarks are marked by the racism that prevailed at the time (the author called the Inuit “our huskies”, “the dirtiest individuals I have ever seen”): Josephine’s notes are among the very first ethnological reports in which members of foreign tribes were not merely measured to the millimetre, but whose everyday life and culture were described in detail.
Josephine was also the first white woman to give birth in the far north, in September 1893, when she accompanied her Robert on his second North Greenland expedition. Her children’s book “The Snow Baby” about the birth of Marie was a huge success. The young mother remained faithful to Robert even when she discovered in 1900, at the beginning of her third visit to North Greenland, that her husband was leading a double life and had two children with an Inuit. Perhaps she consoled herself with the fact that other crew members also fathered children with Inuit women – the men, after all, were away from home for up to three years. Josephine herself bore Bert, as she called Robert, three children, the second dying at the age of seven months.
Robert repaid Jo, as he called Josephine, for her loyalty with happy last years: after he had supposedly become the first person to reach the North Pole in 1909, the family lived happily united in America. Without her, he kept insisting, he never would have made it to the North Pole. And without him, she said, her life would have been empty. Josephine Peary died on December 19, 1955 at the age of 92. Just a few months earlier, she was honored by the National Geographic Society with the Gold Medal Of Achievment, the highest award this venerable society had to bestow. Josephine was buried next to Robert, who had passed away 35 years before her.