10 Female Travel Icons

March 23, 2016

In my last article I argued that travelling as a woman is a feminist act, because If men can travel more easily than women in many parts of the world, then inequality in free movement around the Earth is based on nothing more arbitrary than gender.

It’s horrendous to think this is still going on in 2016, but that shouldn’t put any woman off travelling solo. Throughout history women have been just as intrepid as men and there’s no reason we can’t continue to be.

So, here’s a list of my personal top 10 Female Travel icons, for those women wondering if they’re brave enough to go travelling alone.

Jeanne Baré (1740 – 1807)

Back in the days when women were refused an education and the freedom of a life outside the home, Jeanne, a peasant from the Burgundy region of France, became the first female to circumnavigate the globe. To achieve this exceptional feat she disguised herself as a man and boarded Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s expedition, in the guise of a valet and assistant to Philibert Commercon, the expedition’s naturalist. Although reports about her are contradictory and records of the time incomplete, it’s thought that – despite her background and gender – Jeanne had managed to gain an education before boarding the voyage, and was in fact a noted Botanist in her own right.

Sacagawea (1788 – 1812)

Sacagawea’s tale is a popular one in the American imagination and her accomplishments are not just enthralling because of her time of living and gender. As a Native American woman at the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the Louisiana Purchase, she travelled thousands of miles with the company as a guide and interpreter. There are many reports of her knowledge saving the lives of the travellers and preventing them from starvation, besides which she also succeeded in travelling from North Dakota to the Pacific Ocean in their company. It’s thought that she died of ‘putrid fever’ in 1812 and left behind a healthy daughter, but some American Indian oral traditions claim that she crossed the Great Plains, married again, and returned to her home before dying as an old woman in 1884.

Isabella Bird (1831 – 1904)

When Victorian values were busy demanding that a woman’s place was still in the home, Isabella Bird chose to become an explorer, writer, photographer and naturalist instead, penning letters and books including The Englishwoman in America, and A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains. After inheriting money from her husband late in life she trained in medicine, and at the age of sixty, travelled to India as a missionary. It was there that she worked with Fanny Jane Butler to found the John Bishop Memorial hospital in memory of her husband, and in 1892 she was the first woman in history to be inducted into the Royal Geographical society. Throughout her life she travelled more widely than many do today, including to places like America, Australia, Hawaii, Japan, Morocco, Persia, and Tibet; and all of this at a time when women were still expected to be seen and not heard.

Annie Smith Peck (1850 – 1935)

Early in her life Annie demanded that she be given the same education as her brothers, and at the age of 27 she eventually enrolled in the University of Michigan. After graduating with honours in Greek and Classical Languages she earned a Masters, and moved to Greece as the first woman to attend the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Whilst there she discovered a passion for mountaineering, and from then on she earned her living by lecturing and writing about her travels. Her expeditions saw her scale peaks across Europe, but although she successfully summited the Matterhorn, her accomplishment was overshadowed by the fact that she did so while wearing trousers at a time when women were still being arrested for wearing ‘clothes made for men’. Her subsequent outspoken claims – that a woman climbing in a skirt was not only stupid, but also unsafe – helped to start the debate on whether or not women in the West could choose to wear what they wanted.

Harriet Chalmers Adams (1875 – 1937)

Harriet’s first taste of travel was a three-year expedition around every country in South America alongside her husband. From there, she retraced Christopher’s Columbus’s early discovery of the Americas and was the only female journalist allowed to be embedded with the troops in the trenches of World War I. She wrote widely for the National Geographic Society and also helped to launch the Society of Women Geographers. Writing about her travels before her death, she said:

‘I’ve never found my sex a hinderment; never faced a difficulty which a woman, as well as a man, could not surmount; never felt a fear of danger; and never lacked courage to protect myself.’

Spoken like a true female travel pioneer.

Bessie Coleman (1892 – 1926)

When people think of female aviation pioneers they usually think of Amelia Earhart and her mysterious disappearance over the Atlantic. But Bessie Coleman was the first female pilot of African American descent, the first Native American woman to hold a pilot’s license, and she also earned her wings a year or so before Amelia began to study for hers. At the time, America would allow neither women or ‘blacks’ to study for a pilot’s license, so Bessie studied French in Chicago and then travelled to Paris instead. She returned to the US a year later in possession of her aviation license. Sadly, due to a tragic accident in the air in 1926 she never realised her dream of opening a pilot’s school for African American women, but she was still a pioneer who managed to become a lauded acrobatic pilot, at a time when both her gender and her race were set against her.

Dervla Murphy (1931 – Present)

In 1963, Dervla Murphy set off to cycle from Ireland to India on her own and unsupported. She wrote about her travels through Eastern Europe, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan in the book Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle. Her adventures included using a gun to frighten off thieves and wolves, escaping from a rapist, and meeting all manner of wonderful people who helped her on her way as well. She’s since travelled all over the world in weird and wonderful ways, including a trip across Ethiopia with a mule and a month spent reporting from the Palestinian Gaza Strip in 2011.

Dian Fossey (1932 – 1985)

Dian Fossey is a controversial but worthy addition to my list. Coming from America Dian spent years living with the mountain gorillas in Rwanda, not only conducting the world’s most extensive study of them, but also protecting them from war and poachers. Although there are reports that she behaved cruelly towards the local people and often seemed to think of her gorillas as more human than the humans she worked with, she also inspired generations to try and save these animals, and was ultimately murdered during her desperate endeavours to protect them.

Junko Tabei (1939 – Present)

Junko Tabei is a prolific Japanese mountaineer. In 1975 she became the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest despite losing consciousness in an avalanche during the ascent. In 1992 she became the first woman to complete the “Seven Summits” Challenge, having reached the top of the highest mountains on each continent. In 2008 she had climbed the highest peaks in 56 countries, and at the age of 77, she has no plans to stop climbing any time soon.

Jay Griffiths (1965 – Present)

Jay Griffiths is an advocate for all things wild and believes that modern life is incompatible with our basic humanity. Her book Wild: An Elemental Journey charts the seven years she spent travelling around the world and living with indigenous communities; from Eskimos to the tribes living in the Amazon rainforest, and the displaced people of West Papua.

Who are your female travel icons? Let me know in the comments!




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