Encyclopedia Womannica

Explorers & Contenders: Lucy Walker

Episode Summary

Lucy Walker (1836-1916) was a British mountaineer who was the first known woman to climb the Matterhorn, a famously tall peak in the Alps that measures 14,692 ft. All in all, she completed 98 expeditions in her life, all at a time when women were urged not to exercise strenuously.

Episode Notes

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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. 

The whole month of April, we highlighted Explorers and Contenders, women who veered outside of prescribed gender norms to accomplish feats in fields strongly associated with men. These women literally discovered new paths and/or participated in incredible athletic endeavors. I have loved this group and have found them inspiring, especially during quarantine. 

Our final woman this month combined exploration and sport. She was a British mountaineer who was the first known woman to climb the Matterhorn, a famously tall peak in the Alps that measures 14,692 ft. All in all, she completed 98 expeditions in her life, all at a time when women were urged not to exercise strenuously. Let’s talk about Lucy Walker.

Lucy was born in 1836 in what’s now Canada to a family that hailed from Liverpool, England. She grew up in Liverpool where her father was a lead merchant. 

Lucy’s father and brother were also early mountaineers and members of the Alpine Club at a time when major peaks in the Alps were being ascended for the first time. As such, the family spent their summers in the Alps, but due to gender norms, Lucy took no part in climbing. 

According to some sources, Lucy first attempted mountain climbing at age 22 after a doctor recommended she walk to help her rheumatism, a problem that had plagued her for years. From her first trek up the Alps that year, it was clear that Lucy wasn’t your average walker. She wasn’t satisfied strolling in the valleys. She wanted to climb peaks with her father and brother. Her family was happy for her to join and hired guide Melchior Anderegg to assist

Melchior, a Swiss expert in the Alps, became a pivotal figure in Lucy’s climbing endeavors and was actually the only guide she would work with. 

Lucy’s mountaineering was far outside the norms of Victorian society. Women at that time were expected to play very specific roles and exercise was not seen as a feminine endeavor. While at home in Liverpool, Lucy played the perfect Victorian lady. In the Alps, her behavior was less by the book.

On expeditions, Lucy often climbed for 14 hours per day and she slept in mountain barns. Between 1864 and 1869, she was the first woman to summit at least 5 peaks in the Alps. 

Still, she was forced to play by certain rules. She had to climb in a hefty skirt and she always had a male family member with her as being alone with other men was seen as improper. 

Despite her unusual feats for her gender at the time, Lucy wasn’t particularly well known. That is, until she set her eye on a famous, pyramid shaped peak that no woman and few men had successfully climbed before. 

Lucy was determined to be the first woman to summit the Matterhorn and she knew she needed to hurry. An American woman also had her eye on the prize and was actively planning an expedition.

Lucy gathered a group and set off, determined to beat the American to the punch. On August 22, 1871, she did just that. Wearing a white print dress, Lucy became  the first woman to make it to the top of the Matterhorn.  

With that climb, Lucy became famous. She continued mountaineering, missing only two climbing seasons between 1858 and 1879, and she did so in style, wearing dresses and sipping on champagne. Trousers wouldn’t really become a thing for women until long after Lucy finished climbing. While Lucy didn’t keep journals or written first person accounts of her expeditions that we know of, others wrote about her and noted her fondness for champagne and sponge cake. 

In total, Lucy completed 98 climbing expeditions in her lifetime. She also helped promote her sport among other women. In 1909 she joined the Ladies’ Alpine Club and in 1913 she was elected the organization’s president. 

On September 10, 1916, Lucy died at her home in Liverpool. At a time when women athletes were hardly tolerated, let alone celebrated, Lucy accomplished incredible feats, blazing a path for women to come. 

All month we’ve talked about explorers and contenders. I’m sad this month is ending but really excited for what’s next. Tune in tomorrow for the first episode of a brand new theme: Mavericks and Legends. 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!