Becoming an Unstoppable Woman

Alaskan pioneer should inspire all women to go after what drives us.

In the summer of 1928, a yacht called the Stella Maris carried three travelers up the Taku River in Southeast Alaska. Their destination was the remote Taku Lodge, an isolated log-and-stone hunting and fishing retreat 40 miles south of Juneau, which sits between two glaciers and can only be reached by boat or sea plane.

The owner of the yacht, the wealthy Mrs. Erie Smith, had bought the lodge because she was seeking a haven where her son, Hack, could recover from a morphine addiction. She had engaged a maid to accompany them, to manage the chores and help care for Hack.

The maid — who would become the most important person in this story — was a bold and well-traveled single woman. Her name was Mary Joyce.

Mary often lied about her age, but historians believe she was likely in her mid-thirties when she arrived in Alaska. She was born in Wisconsin and earned a nursing degree in Chicago. Immediately prior to setting off North, Mary had been living in L.A., where she was rather a daredevil, racking up a half-dozen speeding tickets in a two-month period in her Chrysler Roadster. She worked at Paramount Studios as a first-aid nurse, and even acted in a feature film.

When she arrived at the Taku Lodge, its solitude was a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of her city life. She fell in love with Alaska and took up an interest in sled dogs, and began raising her own. Mary soon discovered she was an entrepreneur; her Taku River huskies were well-bred and expertly trained, and word of their quality began to spread throughout Alaska and Western Canada.

In 1934, Hack passed away suddenly while hunting, and his mother decided to leave Alaska for good. As a parting gift, Erie Smith gave the Taku Lodge outright to Mary Joyce.

The following year, Mary was invited to participate in the Fairbanks Ice Carnival, set for March of 1936, and she decided to arrive in style.

She decided to become the first woman ever to make the 1,000-mile trip from Juneau to Fairbanks by dog team.

In the journal about her trip, published by a relative in 2007, Mary describes how her plan was received:

“‘You can’t do that! There are mountains, or something you can’t get over. Anyway, it’s no place for a woman.’ Older men, more polite, simply shook their heads and remained silent.”

But the opinions of others had little effect on her resolve:

“If a man announced his intention of taking a thousand-mile mush, certainly no one would think it strange, nor would his statement be greeted with roars of laughter. I as a woman resent the fact that men seem to think they should have the monopoly on all the fun. I had planned on this vacation all summer, and it looked attractive to me…I thought no more of going to Fairbanks by dog team than you’d think of driving your car through the states, or taking a jaunt to Europe, except perhaps, I’d have more fun.”

Yes, Mary referred to a 1,000-mile mush in frigid Alaskan temperatures — in December — as a vacation.

Self-doubt is a constant companion to most women. But to Mary Joyce, naysayers were just noise.

What was it that gave Mary the willpower to ignore the defeatists around her? She paid no attention to what other people thought of her idea, and carried right along with her preparations.

When I visited Taku Lodge this past summer, I was struck by her story because it contained more stubborn confidence than I could find among my wide circle of highly accomplished professional women put together. More times than I care to count, female colleagues and friends have explained the reasons they can’t try something new, why they don’t qualify for a job.

Women have internalized the notion that unless we meet every checkbox, we shouldn’t bother.

I was in awe of Mary — and embarrassed for us. If she did all that in 1935, 21st century women hardly have an excuse for not changing how we talk to ourselves.

Mary was inexperienced as a long-haul dogsled musher, yet she was impervious to the cynicism of her critics. In fact, she was gleeful about it. I imagine her cackling as she packed the powder, rouge, and lipstick she carried in her backpack for the 1,000-mile mush, and wrote:

“A woman thus fortified should be able to conquer even the wilderness.”

Everybody believed she would eventually wind up in Fairbanks — with her dogs dragging her dead body out of the woods.

The trip was not perfect. There were lonely and uncomfortable nights. She miscalculated several important details. It got very cold, with temperatures sometimes reaching 50 below zero. There were only a few hours of daylight each day. More than a few times, Mary questioned why she attempted it in the first place.

But on March 25, 1936, after almost 100 days on the trail, Mary rode into Fairbanks with her five huskies. She was met by the mayor and scores of local townspeople, and was made an honorary member of the Fairbanks Lodge of the Pioneer Women of Alaska. In 2013, she was posthumously inducted into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame.

Mary celebrated her return and turned the Taku Lodge into a vacation destination, ran it for several years, then sold it and opened two bars in town. She became the first female radio operator in Alaska, too.

From start to finish, her life was fearlessly lived and completely unpredictable.

Why, 80 years after Mary Joyce’s journey, are most of us still afraid to go for what we want?

According to my former professor Linda Babcock, author of Women Don’t Ask and James M. Walton Professor of Economics at Carnegie Mellon University, it’s because, for most of us, those external voices eventually convince our internal ones to sing the same old tune. She reflects in a past interview:

“As a society, we teach little girls…that it’s not nice or feminine or appropriate for them to focus on what they want and pursue their self-interest — and we don’t like it when they do… their reluctance to ask for what they want is a learned behavior, and one that can be unlearned.”

Let’s follow Mary’s example and leave self-doubt in the dust, shall we?

We can’t go on silently wishing others would grant us permission to accomplish and become what we want. It’s time to start telling ourselves that we are entitled to try things, do things, ask for things, speak up.

And it’s all going to be very uncomfortable. But when we condition ourselves to stop being afraid of everything we think could stop us, and respectfully ignore those who tell us we’re out of our element, we’ll become the authors of the story about women’s place in the world.

Because in the end, Mary Joyce proved to herself (she didn’t care to prove it to anyone else) that she could undertake an activity traditionally reserved for men simply because it was interesting to her. A cousin once said of Mary: “There wasn’t much she didn’t try.”

There will be times when things don’t go our way. Take a deep breath, wake up the next day and come back for more. When we do that, we’ll come out on the other side better mothers, daughters, sisters, colleagues, and friends for having ignored the naysayers and showed up anyway.

Because when you go upriver to visit the Taku Lodge today, there is no picture of the architect, or the original owner. And nobody tells the story of one horrible winter, a beloved sled dog, a sea plane pilot or a famous boat.

It’s her portrait on the wall. They tell you the story of Mary Joyce.


Like what you read? Give Sara Levinson a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.