The Hippo


May 27, 2020








A Woman’s Place Is at the Top: A Biography of Annie Smith Peck, Queen of the Climbers, by Hannah Kimberley
(St. Martin’s Press, 347 pages)

By Lisa Parsons

 Queen of the climbers? More like queen of the gig economy! Of the 1900s!

You probably haven’t heard of Annie Smith Peck, but your grandparents or great-grandparents would have. The Rhode Island native made a name for herself nationwide in the early 20th century by setting mountain-climbing records in the Andes and giving talks about her expeditions. She worked Kickstarter-style, drumming up funds to pay for gear and travel expenses and rewarding her patrons with exclusive articles or lectures about her journeys — and in her later years, in-show advertising.
Only she had to write her fundraising pleas on paper with a pen. In cursive.
You might think there’d already be a biography or two about this trailblazing mountain-climber and suffragist, but it has fallen to Massachusetts’ Hannah Kimberley to write the first, and she’s made it a brisk read. 
Growing up in a well-to-do family in Providence, Annie Peck had always desired to excel in the model of her three older brothers. She wanted to support herself rather than depend on a husband, and she envisioned becoming a well-paid professor or a high school principal (as two of her brothers did). However, just as Peck’s family thought it a matter of course that the boys would attend college, they thought it a matter of course that Annie would not.
Where her parents fell short in supporting her ambitions, high school teachers stepped in, and when a new teachers college opened in Providence she enrolled, paying her own way with money she’d earned giving piano lessons and substitute teaching. This still wasn’t enough to land her her dream job, so at 24, again over family objections, she entered the University of Michigan, which had recently begun to admit women. (She tried for Brown, but they said no girls.) She graduated with honors, went on to earn a master’s degree, and finally scored a teaching job at young Purdue University in Indiana.
Where, it turned out, she hated the weather, she hated the cost of living, and she was always tired. 
Just over 30 years old, she took a refreshing vacation in the Adirondacks and did her first real climbing. A seed was planted.
Using her college connections, she next attended the American School of Classical Studies in Athens, the first woman to do so, and climbed as many Greek mountains as she could in conjunction with her studies.
Back from Europe, educated and experienced to the hilt, she hoped to become a classics professor at a coed school. The best she could score was a job at women-only Smith College.
Now in her 40s, she began to carve her own path by giving lectures on her areas of expertise, mainly Latin and Greek archaeology. Buoyed by letters of recommendation from former professors, she quickly went from speaking at ladies luncheons to addressing college crowds, art clubs and the National Geographic Society. 
“At this rate,” Kimberley writes, “Annie could teach ten classes and equal her annual salary at Smith or Purdue in just a few months.” 
It was not long before she put together her love of climbing and her lecturing skills. Rather than continue giving the same talks on Greek history she’d given for years, she needed to branch out. So Annie Peck set her sights on being the first person to climb Huascaran in Peru, and began seeking sponsors. 
They gave freely at first, but after two attempts failed due to weather and reluctant guides, things changed. She asked a brother for money for a third go; he said, in not so many words, “Get a real job, here’s $5 for Christmas.” 
She sent the $5 back. It took five tries and it cost a Swiss guide his hand (frostbite), but she got to the top, making headlines and money.
Her next project became a race against Hiram Bingham — possibly the inspiration for Indiana Jones; Kimberley asserts that he was, and calls him “possibly even more self-involved than Annie” — to be the first to summit Coropuna in Peru. Bingham was a man who did not think women should be out scaling mountains, so, though he may have gone 250 feet higher in the end (they scaled different peaks), there was a small triumph in Annie’s planting a flag on Coropuna that read “Joan of Arc Equal Suffrage League — Votes for Women.”
The biography winds down with Annie in her 70s, still lecturing but now focused on women’s suffrage and commerce between North and South America. She pitched the idea to some government officials of her being an ambassador to a South American country, but, what with her being female, that idea went nowhere.
Kimberley notes, “Peck wanted to have a book written about her. She wrote her own biographical notes … assuming that her first biographer might use them.” To the reader’s benefit, Kimberley leans more heavily on Peck’s letters and diaries and contemporaneous news reports. This a biography, not a thriller, but it stays lively and relatable throughout. A Lisa Parsons 

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