Interviews

The High-Altitude Life of Fanny Bullock Workman

A conversation with Cathryn J. Prince, author of a new biography focused on a mountaineering pioneer.

Fanny Bullock Workman could have lived a safe, conventional life in Gilded-Age America. Born into a wealthy New England family on the eve of the Civil War, she was the daughter of a Massachusetts governor who married at twenty-three and had two children. But there was nothing conventional about Workman or her life. She was drawn to adventure tourism and extreme sports before the terms existed — and long before such pursuits were judged suitable for a woman. Workman and her husband, a doctor who became her partner in breaking gender barriers, explored some of the most remote regions of the world and co-authored a series of books recording their travels. They cycled across India and Algeria. They mapped and photographed unknown swaths of the Himalayas. And they climbed, with Workman reaching the summits of more mountains than any woman before her and setting altitude records that stood for decades.

Connecticut-based author and journalist Cathryn J. Prince brings Workman’s remarkable story and achievements to life in Queen of the Mountaineers: The Trailblazing Life of Fanny Bullock Workman, released this week by Chicago Review Press. Prince scoured her subject’s many publications and consulted personal letters, diaries and journals to recreate, in vivid detail, a life lived large. Workman was an accomplished author, a meticulous explorer and a skilled expedition leader. Most of all, she was relentless and determined to prove that a woman could excel in the physically demanding world of high-altitude climbing — and at a time when mountaineering gear and safety equipment were crude. “Through her writing she tried to show it was possible to travel the world and climb the highest mountains,” Prince writes. “She went further than any woman had gone before. She was a pioneer.”

Prince is the author of five previous nonfiction books, including American Daredevil, a biography of celebrity travel writer Richard Halliburton (Chicago Review Press) and Death in the Baltic, the forgotten story of the world’s worst maritime disaster, the sinking of the liner Wilhelm Gustloff near the end of World War II (Palgrave MacMillan). A frequent contributor to the Christian Science Monitor and The Times of Israel, Prince is an adjunct professor in the journalism department at SUNY: Purchase in New York.

I spoke with Cathryn Prince about her new book, why she was drawn to Workman’s story, and why the accomplishments of this trailblazing woman still resonate today.

Who was Fanny Bullock Workman, and why was she determined to challenge and transcend the gender barriers of her time?

She was an intrepid, ambitious, and complicated woman who relished breaking boundaries. She cycled tens of thousands of miles across India, Southeast Asia, Algeria, Morocco, Spain and Germany, held the woman’s altitude record for decades, climbed more peaks than any of her peers, and became the first woman to map the far reaches of the Himalayas.

Workman and her husband were avid recreational climbers and bicyclists. She viewed these excursions as ways to test her own strength, but also as ways to see how women around the world were treated.

When the Royal Geographic Society of London hesitated at the idea of her addressing its members because she was a woman, she was not deterred. She took it as a challenge and became the second woman to address the society. On the mountain she believed she was every bit as capable as a man when it came to leading an expedition. When guides and porters balked at her leadership she ignored the sexism and turned her attention to the tasks at hand, proving them wrong.

Seeing, and experiencing discrimination, made her determined to live a life where she would be judged for her work and her accomplishments — not for her gender.

“The mountain,” you write, “didn’t care if you were a man or a woman.” Is this what drew her to mountaineering, rather than other pursuits where she might make her mark? 

Yes, most definitely. Mountaineering attracted Workman for the sheer challenge of going where no one had gone before and for the fact that it was an environment where the only thing that mattered was one’s mental and physical strength.

Why do her life and accomplishments still matter?

So many of the issues Workman faced are issues we wrestle with today: including the way strong, ambitious women are judged differently than men, whether a woman decides to have children and, if she does, how that fits into her pursuit of a career.

Workman held that women should live a life that was right for them, not the life society deemed correct. While for Workman that meant marriage, motherhood and pursuing her passion, which she turned into her career, she understood other women might feel differently.

As an aside, it’s interesting that Workman married a man who would beconsidered a feminist today. He fully supported his wife, believed she should pursue what was important to her and together they raised their daughter to believe that as well.

Workman’s achievements are undoubtedly impressive, yet, I think the real message underpinning her story is how she navigated and bucked tradition, living a life with purpose and determination.

This is also the story of Workman’s climbing rival, Annie Smith Peck. Tell us a little about her.

Born and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, Annie Peck grew up in a stern household. Unlike Workman’s parents, Peck’s parents didn’t initially support her ambition. For example, they believed higher education was a waste for women. Nevertheless, Peck persisted and was admitted to the University of Michigan.

The drive and persistence she displayed to pursue her education is so representative of Peck. She displayed those same traits time and again, especially in her pursuit of trying to summit Mount Huascaran in Peru, which was of course the climb that pit her against Workman for the altitude record.

Like Workman, Peck believed women should be judged for their accomplishments. Interestingly, she and Workman refrained from going after each other personally during the dispute over who had climbed the highest. They wanted their rivalry to be about their achievements, not about the fact that they happened to be two women.

How did you discover Workman’s story?

I stumbled on Workman’s story while reading an article about the time she and her husband cycled the length of India. I remember looking at the picture of her bicycle, it was a safety bicycle and rather simple by today’s standards, and her woolen skirt and jacket, and thinking this is quite a woman.

Then I read an article she wrote in Harpers about climbing and the more I read, the more I was intrigued. Here was a woman who was a pioneer in her field, who defied social conventions, whose story had been lost to history, and who had a story that would resonate today.

What challenges did you face in researching and writing the book?

It’s always challenging to get inside the head of the person, or persons, about whom I’m writing. Workman was particularly challenging because while she left behind numerous journals, correspondence, and notes, she was emotionally reserved.

It took time to understand what made her tick. Going through her papers in the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh I found little “treasures” between the pages of her journals, a tiny silk American flag here, pressed flowers there, boxes of photographs, lists of books she read and wanted to read — these things helped me unravel her personality.

The other challenge was the fact that I am not a climber. The highest I’ve been is just less than 10,000 feet, a molehill by mountaineering standards. I was fortunate to find people in the climbing community who answered my many questions about climbing and how things have changed over the decades.

What’s next? Do you have a new project in the works?

I am only at the earliest stage of research but I can tell you it will be Vietnam in the era of 1963-1965.

NONFICTION
Queen of the Mountaineers: The Trailblazing Life of Fanny Bullock Workman
By Cathryn J. Prince
Chicago Review Press
May 7, 2019

About Dean Jobb

Dean Jobb is the author of Empire of Deception (Algonquin Books), the stranger-than-fiction story of 1920s Chicago swindler Leo Koretz. It was the Chicago Writers Association’s Nonfiction Book of the Year for 2015. His next book recreates the Victorian-era crimes of Dr. Thomas Neill Cream, who murdered as many as ten people in Chicago, London and Canada. Dean teaches in the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Nova Scotia and writes a monthly column on true crime for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Website: deanjobb.com Twitter: @DeanJobb

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