Biography of U.S. Mountain Climber Fanny Bullock Workman Part 1

About the American mountain climber Fanny Bullock Workman, biography and history of the U.S. traveler.


FANNY BULLOCK WORKMAN (1859-1925). Traveler and mountain climber.

A photograph taken in 1912 reveals a great deal about Fanny Bullock Workman. She is dressed with Victorian propriety in a thick skirted costume, sturdy boots, and sun helmet, and she stands--ice ax planted next to her--in the snow on the Silver Throne promontory above the treacherous Siachen Glacier in the trackless wastes of India's Karakoram Mountains near the border of Tibet. In her hand is a newspaper displaying the headline VOTES FOR WOMEN. No other European or American woman ventured into those snowy regions until well after W.W.I. She was ahead of her time, a feminist who believed in athletic liberation but faced "sex antagonism" in her chosen pursuit. For example, the Royal Geographical Society barred women as members--except for a brief period in 1892--until 1913, even though Fanny and others like her were exploring previously uncharted territory.

In 1881 Fanny, a New England blue blood and the daughter of a governor of Massachusetts, married William Hunter Workman, a sober, handsome physician 12 years her elder. The marriage, which appeared to be traditional, was actually much different than the run-of-the-mill upper-class marriage of the time, if only because it was egalitarian.

Three years after their wedding Fanny bore their only child, Rachel, who was cared for by nurses at first and sent to boarding schools in Europe later. In 1888 William, claiming poor health, retired from his practice, and a year later the Workmans were in Europe soaking up culture and climbing the Alps. Then they discovered the bicycle, which by the 1880s had been developed into a safe vehicle. One could travel almost anywhere by bicycle, and the Workmans did. In 1895, carrying her tin teakettle on her handlebars and with heavy Kodak camera equipment in her pack, Fanny set off "awheel" with William on a trip to Algeria, using a steel-cored whip to repel dogs that attacked her skirts and brandishing a gun occasionally to frighten bandits. As with everything, the Workmans shared the writing of their books. Their first two, Algerian Memories: A Bicycle Tour over the Altas Mountains to the Sahara and Sketches Awheel in Modern Iberia, written with stilted charm, reveal them as adventurous, nature-loving, and snobbish, with a gratuitous sense of Anglo-Saxon superiority. Invited into the living room of an "obese, oily-looking" Spanish woman, they rudely took out their notebooks and started writing when they grew bored.

In 1997 the Workmans sailed to the Far East for a 17,300-mi. bicycle trip through Ceylon, India, Java, Sumatra, and Cochin China (now part of Vietnam). The temperature was fiercely hot, and the terrain rough. They forded rivers, hauled their bicycles through sand, fixed tire punctures--once 40 in one day--and sat up all night on cane couches in railroad stations, "a method of repose which does not serve to relieve fatigue any too well after a hard day's ride."

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