Who Was Annie Smith Peck?

Michelle Rosenberg

Victorian
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Annie Smith Peck isn’t a name familiar to many, and yet she was a truly remarkable woman.

An ardent supporter of women’s suffrage, a intrepid mountaineer and highly accomplished public speaker, she lived a life of adventure, following her passions across the world. But what, exactly, made her quite so well known in her time?

1. She was daring

Annie hung a “Votes for Women” banner on Mount Coropuna in Peru at the age of 61. When she succeeded – on her fifth attempt in four years – she was the first person to do so. She later referred to the experience as a ‘horrible nightmare’.

suffragettes-vote
National League of Women Voters hold up signs reading, ‘VOTE’, Sept. 17, 1924. Image credit: Everett Collecton / Shutterstock

2. She was determined to access higher education

Annie did one of the few things open to women at the time: became a teacher. She graduated from Rhode Island Normal School, a teaching establishment, in 1872. Keen to continue her education, she wanted to apply to Brown University, like her brothers and father before her. She was refused admission, however, because she was a woman.

Instead, she moved to Michigan to teach languages and maths at Saginaw High School – during which time she decided she wanted more. She wanted to go to university. Her father was appalled, telling her it was ‘perfect folly’ for her to consider doing so at the grand old age of 27 years old.

Annie wasn’t having it and wrote to him telling him so. Impressed by her determination, her father acquiesced, and Annie enrolled at the University of Michigan in 1875, which had only recently begun accepting female students. She achieved a degree in Greek in three years, followed by a Masters in 1881.

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3. She wasn’t afraid of a challenge

It was a lecture by a visiting professor, in which he detailed his recent climb up the Matterhorn and his fervent belief that a woman would be too frail to take on such an endeavour, that inspired Annie to take up mountaineering as a sport in the mid 1880s.

4. She received no familial support

Ms Peck was a Classics scholar with a Master’s degree in Greek, who took up mountain climbing. These attributes would not normally belong in a sentence when referring to a woman in 19th century society. Her family didn’t approve of her exploits, and she had to support herself through global lectures about her travelling and writing four books.

Unlike the majority of women in her time, Annie never married or had children.

5. She was a globe-trotter

It’s reported that she said: “My home is where my trunk is.”

6. She was a keen mountaineer

Annie climbed in Europe and the US, including California’s 14,380-foot Mount Shasta in 1888 and the 300-foot summit of Cape Misenum in Italy, as well as summits in Switzerland and Greece.

1895-mountaineers
Mountaineers in Washington State, c. 1895.

7. She made history

In 1892 she became the first woman to be admitted to the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, where she studied archaeology.

8. She achieved her goals

At the age of 45, after promising herself a decade before that she’d do it, she finally climbed the Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps in 1895.

Better yet, she did it in trousers: knee-length knickerbockers, boots, a tunic, and a veiled hat. The first woman who had climbed the Matterhorn, Lucy Walker, in 1871, had done so in a dress.

Sensibly, although radically for her time, Annie had decided that climbing 4,478 metres in skirts would be too dangerous.

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9. She beats the odds

Sexism in sport is nothing new: it was tough to find anyone who would climb with a woman – and those that did agree gave her a tough time. One group of guides deliberately cut her ropes after she’d crossed a crevasse field and left her to it.

They were apparently stunned when she later returned to camp, alive and well.

10. She was an inspiration to others

The legendary Amelia Earhart was a fan, saying she ‘felt like an upstart compared to Miss Peck.”

She wasn’t alone in feeling inspired. The Singer Sewing Machine Company had the bright idea of including picture cards of her in their machines’ packaging to encourage other women to tread in her footsteps.

11. She was a record-breaker

In 1897, Annie triumphed by climbing the 18,406-foot Pico de Orizaba and Popocatépetl in Mexico in 1897; the Orizaba ascent was, at the time, the highest climb in the Americas ever made by a woman. Just three years later, in 1900, she conquered Monte Cristallo in Italy, the Jungfrau in the Swiss Alps and Austria’s Fünffingerspitze.

As one of four founding members of the American Alpine Club, in 1902 she set off to South America, competing with fellow adventurer Fanny Bullock Workman to be the first person to summit the tallest mountain in the Americas: Aconcagua.

mt-popocatapetl
Mount Popocatepetl, Mexico. Image credit: Kuryanovich Tatsiana / Shutterstock

12. Age did not stop her

Her final climb was Mount Madison in New Hampshire in 1932 – she was 82 years old. Whilst climbing the Acropolis in Greece in 1935, aged 84, she fell ill with bronchial pneumonia.

Annie died July 18, 1935, in New York City. Her tombstone is engraved thus: “You have brought uncommon glory to women of all time.”

Michelle Rosenberg is a writer and passionate women’s historian with a great fondness for her two daughters, bawdy humour and inappropriate language – in that order. She is the founder of women’s history hub www.herstorically.co.uk, whose most recent event was a collaboration with the Salem Witch Museum. Her book ‘The 50 Greatest Explorers in History’ will be published by Pen & Sword in October 2020.

Michelle Rosenberg