How the '60s Media Covered Male and Female Explorers Differently

Antoine Senni (wearing a helmet) and Josie Laures at the entrance of the cave on Nov. 30, 1964. (AP) ( )
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I published a story today about two avid cave explorers who emerged from months-long stays underground in 1965, 50 years ago this year, as part of a study on the effects of isolation. Josie Laures stayed in her cave for 88 days, and came back to the surface in March 1965; Antoine Senni stayed in his for 126, and returned aboveground in April.

More than one of the archived news articles I read about the experiment referred to Senni as “the forgotten man.” Because, as The Chicago Tribune put it, “for much of the time he spent underground, the main interest centered on pretty Josy Laures.”

“She got all the publicity,” another article put it more bluntly.

Whether Senni was actually salty about this, I don’t know, but the news media was certainly salty on his behalf. Of course, they were the ones giving her the publicity in the first place, and I don’t think they were focusing on her for her bravery or her contributions to science.

Take this description of the pair from an AP article: “a blonde, dark-eyed girl of 26 and a 35-year-old furniture manufacturer.”

Laures was a midwife, but not every article saw fit to mention that. Most of them mentioned that she was blonde, though. Another article was titled “Blonde Cave Dweller Out of Hospital.”

After Laures spent some time in Paris getting medical tests, the Tribune reported that she had “fully recovered from her ordeal, tho she has not yet lost extra weight she put on while in the cave.” And if you’re thinking “Well, that’s rude, but maybe it’s relevant, since the experiment was to test the physical and mental effects of isolation,” another article reveals that the “extra weight” she put on was a mere four pounds. No word on the fluctuation of Senni’s weight in the cave.

While I imagine that many 50-year-old articles contain similar, if not worse, sexist depictions of women, it was particularly jarring to see the stark difference in how reporters treated these two explorers working on the same experiment. Not that sexism in media or in science has gone away, but I feel like comments so blatant would at least provoke some kind of backlash today.

This summer, when the Nobel-Prize-winning biochemist Tim Hunt accused women scientists of crying and causing romantic drama in labs, he ended up resigning from his position at University College London and getting a sound walloping by the media. But as I wrote then, most of the sexism that persists in science today is more subtle and more insidious, but no less harmful.

A video news report on Laures’s return to the surface ends with a statement that exemplifies the sad difference between how women would like their contributions to the world to be perceived, and how the world often actually perceives them:

“If the resulting data helps astronauts, Josie will be proud to have been a guinea pig in space exploration. Her boyfriends hope it’ll be for the last time.”