In 1898, a 39-year-old American woman named Fanny Bullock Workman did something that shocked the tiny clique of wealthy British men who had a monopoly on Himalayan mountain climbing.
In a wool skirt and hobnailed boots, she hiked over Himalayan passes as high as 18,000 feet, crashing their exclusive club.
During a life spent exploring exotic places, Fanny Bullock Workman set several altitude records for women. She also published eight travel books with her husband, championed women’s rights and broke the glass ceiling created by British male mountaineers.
Workman, as imperious as her British competitors, set out to prove she could do anything a man could do.
Her life can almost be summarized in a photograph taken in 1912 at 21,000 feet atop the unexplored Siachen Glacier in the Himalayas. Fanny Bullock Workman, wearing a skirt, holds up a newspaper with headlines that read, “Votes for Women.”
Fanny Bullock Workman
She was born Jan. 8, 1859 in Worcester, Mass. Her father, Alexander Hamilton Bullock, had served as governor of Massachusetts. She was raised by tutors and governesses and attended finishing school in New York. Then she moved to Paris and Dresden, where she lived alone and mingled with European society.
She returned to Worcester in 1879. Two years later she married William Workman, a wealthy surgeon 12 years older than she. He brought her along on his climbing expeditions to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Unlike European climbing clubs, American climbing clubs in the White Mountains encouraged women to join and allowed them membership. By 1886, there were sometimes more women than men on New England climbing expeditions.
Mountaineering gave Fanny Bullock Workman an identity as a New Woman. She was vigorous and athletic, unhampered by society’s expectations of her as a wife and mother. She had two children, Siegfried and Rachel, but Siegfried died of respiratory illnesses in 1893. Rachel was raised by nurses and governesses and sent to boarding school. Fanny missed Rachel’s wedding in 1912 while climbing mountains in India.
William Workman in 1889 retired from his medical practice, citing ill health. He recovered quickly though. Both he and Fanny had lost their fathers and gained large estates, which allowed them to move to Germany so they could take in the culture.
A Bicycle, A Gun and A Whip
By then, the pneumatic bicycle tire had been invented and cycling was all the rage. The Workmans interrupted their sophisticated pursuit of the arts with bicycle expeditions to Scandinavia, Italy and France. They began to range farther afield to more exotic places: Spain, Algeria, Indochina and India.
From the lead seat in a bicycle built for two, Fanny carried a revolver and whip to clear a path and ward off troublesome natives who might want money. But she did notice how women were treated in the places they visited. She then included those observations in the travel books she and William published. The books were illustrated with photographs she took with her Kodak camera. The Workmans’ books won a following among readers who overlooked their literary deficiency, confused topography and cultural insensitivity. Through the travel books, Fanny Bullock Workman presented her athletic and organizational capabilities and showed how women were abused.
In 1898, at the ages of 38 and 50, William and Fanny Workman embarked on a 2-1/2-year, 14,000-mile cycling trip through Indochina. They carried few supplies and sometimes slept in railroad waiting rooms. They often stopped to fix tire punctures – as many as 40 a day. Then they got rid of their bicycles in northern India and hiked over mountain passes as high as 18,000 feet. They slept among rats, fought off mosquitos and often went hungry and thirsty.
They returned to the Himalayas eight times. Fanny Bullock Workman set three women’s altitude records, though critics disputed them. The Workmans named two summits after themselves – Siegfriedhorn, after their lost son, and Mt. William Workman. They included scientific observations and maps in their writings, which impressed neither scholars nor cartographers.
Fanny’s greatest mountaineering achievement came in 1906 when she was 47. She climbed to the summit of Pinnacle Peak at 22,735 feet in long skirts with heavy equipment, no freeze-dried food, no sunscreen, no radio and no pitons. She probably couldn’t have done it had she not been immune to altitude sickness – and possessed tremendous resolve, skill and courage.
The iconic photo of Fanny Bullock Workman holding up a “Votes for Women” headline was taken on her last Himalayan expedition. After the trip she produced the best book yet, Two Summers in the Ice-Wilds of Eastern Karakoram. World War I ended the Workmans’ Himalayan adventures, and they spent the rest of their careers writing and lecturing.
Fanny Bullock Workman left a mixed legacy. At her best, she climbed more peaks than anyone else, but by vigorously following in the footsteps of Italian guides. The books she wrote with William were still useful in 1955 for their photographs, illustrations and descriptions of meteorological conditions, glaciology and the effect of high altitudes on humans, according to geographer Kenneth Mason.
At their worst, wrote Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver,
…they were aggressive self promoters who in their eagerness for recognition and honors sometimes exaggerated the originality and significance of what they had done.
They were also stereotypical American tourists: impatient, insensitive, pompous and condescending.
But despite their inaccurate maps and sometimes questionable claims, the Workmans did break the British stranglehold on Himalayan mountain climbing, inspiring the national competition to scale the highest peaks.
With thanks to Fallen Giants: A History of Himalayan Mountaineering from the Age of Empire to the Age of Extremes by Maurice Isserman and Stewart Weaver. This story last updated in 2022.
Image of the Himalayas: By Mount_Everest_as_seen_from_Drukair2.jpg: shrimpo1967derivative work: Papa Lima Whiskey 2 (talk) – This file was derived from: Mount Everest as seen from Drukair2.jpg:, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=18262217.