A female sailor who cross-dressed to discover the world from a different angle, an African-American aviator who looked past racial and gender discrimination to become a pilot, a fearless investigative journalist who circumnavigated the globe in 72 days, and a housewife who didn’t let age and gender stop her from traveling – these are the different faces of women who toured the globe more than a hundred years ago.
They traveled out of their comfort zones in a time with no booming technology, often alone. They explored the world by foot, on horses, mules, and camels, on trains, planes, and ships, and not to mention while wearing waist-hugging corsets and heavy skirts. Some even managed to disguise in men’s clothing to be able to globetrot.
In an era where racial discrimination and sexist oppression were on the rise, these brave, badass women had to climb more than mountains to reach the peak of their career and dreams.
This International Women's Day we introduce you to a few of the remarkable female explorers we all should take inspiration from.
- Nelly Bly (1864 – 1922)
Nelly Bly was an American investigative journalist who knew no boundaries. She was best known for her fearless expose for which she went undercover to reveal the brutality in women’s asylums and the abuse of women workers in factories. Bly was also renowned for her world-breaking trip around the world.
Inspired by Jules Verne’s classic novel Around the World In 80 days, Bly circled the globe in 72 days in 1890, beating the fictitious globetrotting record in the novel. She embarked on a 24,899-mile journey, raveling in steamships, existing railroad systems, rickshaws, and on mules and horses. She traveled her way from England to France, Singapore to Japan, and California back to the East Coast, carrying only the dress and sturdy plaid coat she wore from day one, and an extremely light luggage.
- Gertrude Bell (1868 – 1926)
Gertrude Bell, dubbed as the “queen of the desert”, was a British explorer, diplomat, writer, linguist, cartographer, archaeologist, and a skilled mountaineer. She had a major role in establishing the modern state of Iraq after World War I.
She explored and mapped the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. She served in military intelligence and civil service, and she was the only woman working for the British government in the Middle East during that time. Her extensive knowledge and her writings brought by her travels became highly influential to the British imperial policy-making. Her books gave the people of Great Britain a clear concept of the empire’s outer territories.
- Jeanne Baret (1740 – 1807)
Jeanne Baret was a French sailor and botanist and was known as the first woman to have completed a voyage of circumnavigation of the globe. Since only men were allowed to sail, she had to dress like a man and join the expedition as “Jean Baret” to avoid blowing her cover.
The ploy kept her close to Philibert de Commerson, a naturalist and her partner, who scored a commission from the French government to sail and conduct research. Commerson was usually ill so he needed assistance from Jeanne. The cross-dressing ruse worked for a year until some islanders uncovered the truth. When Baret returned to France, the navy paid tribute to her and recognized her as an “extraordinary woman” for her work of gathering new species of plants.
- Ida Pfeiffer (1797 – 1858)
Old age and gender shouldn’t be hindrances to traveling – this is what Austrian traveler and travel book author Ida Pfeiffer taught us. She was barred from the Royal Geographical Society of London (UK’s learned society and professional body for geography) for being a woman. She went out of her way to travel alone and she’s now renowned as one of the first female explorers in the world.
After her sons had families of their own, she was finally able to fulfill her childhood dream of traveling to foreign places. She had her first trip to the Holy Land, trekked to Istanbul and Jerusalem, and visited the pyramids of Giza on camelback. Her first trip around the world started in 1846 where she visited Brazil and other South American countries, Tahiti, China, India, Persia, Asia Minor, and Greece. She used to write and publish her writings along the way. Today, her books were translated into seven languages.
- Isabella Lucy Bird (1831 – 1904)
English writer, photographer, and traveler Isabella Bird defied social convention and even her own sickly nature by exploring the world, and often alone.
She traveled to Australia, Hawaii, Colorado, Japan, China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Morocco, and the Middle East, challenging the concept of female propriety. She experienced trekking up active volcanoes Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea and exploring the Rocky Mountains in Colorado on a horse. She was also the first woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society of London.
- Bessie Coleman (1892 – 1926)
Bessie Coleman was an American civil aviator and was the first woman of African-American and Native American descent to hold a pilot license.
She developed an interest in flying but she was banned from flight schools in the US due to her race and gender. Racial prejudice and sexism didn’t stop Coleman from pursuing her dream and becoming a queen in the air. She took a French-language class, saved up money, and traveled to France where she earned her pilot license. Bessie Coleman was among the pioneering aviatrixes who broke multiple barriers and paved the way for Amelia Earhart and other female pilots that came after them.
- Annie Londonderry (1870 – 1947)
Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, also known as Annie Londonderry, was the first woman to bicycle around the world.
A bet challenged her to circumnavigate the world in 15 months or less while earning at least $5,000 along the way. Londonderry accepted the challenge not only for the money but to dispute the concept of women propriety and to prove how a woman can get on in the world on her own.
You may also like to read International Women’s Day 2016