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You are who you decide to be

The theme for the UN International Women’s Day 2023 is ‘DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality.’

Isobel on the Arctic Sea Ice in1933 whilst travelling 250 miles by dog-sleigh to reach Aklavik

International Women's Day first took place on March 19th 1911, when over a million women and men attended public events to show their support across Austria, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland. In June that same year, on the eve of King George V’s coronation, around 40,000 women from 28 suffrage societies, marched for female enfranchisement. Isobel was 22 years old and it must have seemed like women were on the brink of a major break-through.

DigitALL shines a light on the girls and women championing transformative technologies and digital education and Isobel was one such lady of her time. Her diaries, would have been todays blogs, initially capturing the details of family life and going on to record her Scottish ‘strolls’ and international expeditions.

By 1916 Isobel had published her first book – Lyrics from West Lothian. It was a volume of her poems and even if she’d been alive today it’s unlikely that she would have turned to Chat GPT for help to write it. Putting pen to paper was a form of therapy for Isobel and the permanence of publishing her thoughts was also a way of challenging the society she lived in. Writing is a brave act and at that time an almost entirely masculine activity. Isobel went on to write six books of poetry and seven more on her travels, alongside countless magazine articles. No publishing platform, no laptop, just dedication and self-belief.

Having survived the horrors of WWI Isobel began to venture beyond the confines of mainland Scotland, heading first to the Hebrides and in 1927, Greenland. For context it’s worth remembering that television was first demonstrated in San Francisco on Sept. 7, 1927 (designed by Philo Taylor Farnsworth, a 21-year-old inventor who had lived in a house without electricity until he was 14!), so all that Isobel knew about the world, would have come from books, word of mouth and radio. Even so, it seemed this early information technology was enough to pique her curiosity and encourage her to break the boundaries of acceptable female behaviour.

Isobel’s trips to Greenland (she travelled to East Greenland first and then went to Umanak, North Greenland in 1928), show her embracing innovation once more. It was there she began filming daily life and how the local people worked and played. The National Library of Scotland’s Moving Image archive, holds 11 silent films made by Isobel. Watching them must have been a revelation to the people who crammed the village halls and lecture theatres where Isobel spread the word about her adventures. They showed Inuit’s collecting ice for water, using kayaks to hunt for seals, the wild flowers of the region and dancing, which looks remarkably Scottish, passed on as it was by visiting whalers. Motion picture photography was in its infancy, yet Isobel was not only using it, but transporting it to regions unknown, to educate, inform and entertain.

Word of Isobel’s travels would have been carried by post and telegraph – the telephone was invented in 1876 but wouldn’t be in household use until the 1930’s and even then, only in the most affluent. Long before social media, Isobel knew the power of reputation and hers carried more weight than any LinkedIn introduction of today, ensuring she found both board and lodgings almost a century before TripAdvisor was founded.

Isobel relied on ‘technologies’ such as sextants, compass and husky dogs for navigation across unchartered territories. GPS was only developed in 1973 by the department of defence to assist the military and it wouldn’t become commercially available until seven years after her death. She recorded her findings in journals, a true explorer with no need for any of the validation currently craved. She didn’t have access to weather predictions, a mobile phone or a Fitbit and yet, she not only survived, but thrived, adopting the behaviours of the local people, befriending strangers and relishing her self-reliance.

Isobel relied on ‘technologies’ such as sextants, compass and Gus Masik's husky dogs for navigation (thanks to RSGS archive)

Advocating innovation and technology for gender equality may seem like a modern theme for this year’s International Women’s day, but Isobel shows us that she carried this torch long before any of the advances we believe to be necessary even existed. Isobel was a pioneer, an explorer, a social commentator and an advocate for womankind. You won’t find her films on YouTube, but her voice has already lasted over 130 years and we’re only beginning to tell her story.


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The North Star Explorer

Learn more about Isobel’s passion for the natural world, her experience of travelling to remote places and her encounters expressed through art and creative writing.

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