Encyclopedia Womannica

Explorers & Contenders: Annie Smith Peck

Episode Summary

Annie Smith Peck (1850-1935) was a famous American mountaineer, adventurer, writer, lecturer, and suffragist who popularized mountaineering for the American public and for women in particular. She also wrote four books encouraging contemporary readers to travel, seek adventure, and take part in the exploration of the world around them.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s explorer was a famous American mountaineer, adventurer, writer, lecturer, and suffragist who popularized mountaineering for the American public and for women in particular. She also wrote four books encouraging contemporary readers to travel, seek adventure, and take part in the exploration of the world around them. Please welcome Annie Smith Peck.

Annie was born on October 19, 1850 in Providence, Rhode Island to George and Ann Peck. The youngest of five siblings, Annie grew up in very comfortable surroundings. 

When Annie was old enough to attend school, she was sent to Dr. Stockbridge’s School for Young Ladies and then Providence High School, where she excelled academically. After high school, Annie enrolled at the Rhode Island Normal School, a teacher’s college where she earned her teaching degree in 1872. 

With her degree in hand, Annie was hired to teach Latin at her alma mater Providence High School. But that didn’t last long. Annie was determined to attend Brown University like her father and brothers. Unfortunately, Brown refused Annie admission due to her gender.  

Deeply disappointed by this result, Annie decided to pack her bags and move to Saginaw, Michigan. She quickly found work as a math and languages teacher at Saginaw High School.

Still, Annie’s determination to earn a degree from a university had not abated. She was resolute in her desire to further her education no matter the obstacles. Her family was not particularly supportive of this goal, believing it to be ridiculous for her to attend university at that point in her life. She wouldn’t graduate until the age of 27! Annie wrote her father a letter in which she made her position quite clear. She said:

"Why you should recommend for me a course so different from that which you pursue, or recommend to your boys is what I can see no reason for except the example of our great grandfathers and times are changing rapidly in that respect."

After receiving this letter, her father changed his mind and from then on supported Annie in all of her educational endeavors. 

In 1874, Annie enrolled at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She was a member of only the fourth class at the university to include female students. While there she majored in Greek and Classical Languages, earning her bachelor’s degree with honors in 1878, and a Masters in 1881. After earning her Masters degree, Annie was immediately offered a position teaching Latin at Purdue University. 

After teaching at Purdue for two years, Annie received the opportunity in 1884 to travel to Europe to further her studies. She became the first woman to attend the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, where she studied archaeology while also learning to speak French, Spanish and Portuguese. 

While in Europe, Annie was first introduced to mountaineering. She quickly became wildly enthusiastic about it. At first she only ascended small to moderate peaks, but soon she was  climbing much harder fare, including well known peaks in the U.S. and Europe. By 1892, Annie had completely given up teaching to spend her time mountaineering, giving lectures on archaeology, mountaineering, her travels, and writing. 

In 1895, Annie followed in the famous footsteps of English mountaineer Lucy Walker- who we will also be covering this month- by ascending the Matterhorn. Interestingly, Annie’s actual climbing achievement was overshadowed in the media by what she chose to wear for her climb, which included a long tunic, tall hiking boots, a hat with a veil that covered her face, and baggy knickers. Apparently this outfit was so unusual that it prompted a debate in the New York Times on the much larger topic of what women should do and what they can aspire to become.

In 1897, Annie climbed Pico de Orizaba in Mexico, which at the time was the highest peak ever climbed by a woman in the Americas. In 1900, Annie ascended to the tops of three of the highest and most famous European peaks located in Italy, Switzerland, and Austria. Two years later, Annie helped found the American Alpine Club to encourage further mountaineering and adventuring. 

In 1903, now over fifty years old and still not yet satisfied with her achievements, Annie decided that she wanted to set a climbing record. 

In 1908, accompanied by two Swiss mountain guides, Annie’s team became the first expedition to successfully ascend the 22,205 foot north peak of Huascarán in Peru. Annie believed this accomplishment set a new record for the world’s highest altitude climb, beating out Fanny Bullock Workman's record climb of the Himalayan Pinnacle Peak. But Workman was suspicious of Annie’s calculations and hired her own engineers to re-measure the height of Huascarán. Workman’s engineers found that Annie had misjudged the altitude by about 2000 feet due to a faulty altimeter, meaning that Workman’s record held. Though not a world record after all, Annie still obtained the record for the highest altitude climb in the Western Hemisphere…at 58 years old. The northern peak of Huascarán was eventually named Cumbre Aña Peck in Annie’s honor.

In 1911, a 65-year old Annie ascended one of the peaks of Coropuna in Peru. A life-long and ardent suffragist, Annie made a statement by sticking a banner reading "Votes for Women" into the ground at the top of the summit. 

Annie wrote a book about these experiences entitled A Search for the Apex of America: High Mountain Climbing in Peru and Bolivia, in which she famously noted, "My home is where my trunk is.” This was one of four books Annie eventually wrote encouraging readers to travel and explore the world around them. They were immensely popular with everyone from businessmen and diplomats to leisure travelers and adventure tourists. 

Annie continued climbing well into her old age, ascending her final mountain when she was  82. Besides her role as a founder of the American Alpine Society, Annie was also president of the Joan of Arc Suffrage League, a member of the Society of Woman Geographers, and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.

In 1935, Annie started another tour of the world, but fell ill early on while climbing the Acropolis in Athens. She returned home to New York City and died on July 18, 1935 from Bronchial Pneumonia. She was 84 years old. 

All month, we’re talking about Explorers and Contenders. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter, Womannica Weekly. 

You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!