Winston Churchill, Gertrude Bell (3rd from left), T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) at Giza during the 1921 Cairo Conference.
These ten inspiring women defied convention to undertake awe-inspiring journeys. They positively impacted the travel world and paved the way for travel as we know it.
Jeanne Baret (1740-1807)
Baret is recognised as the first woman to circumnavigate the globe – but she had to do it disguised as a man. She joined the world expedition of Admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville from 1766 to 1769. At this time, France was looking to expand its economy, so the French government funded hundreds of expeditions to travel around the world. The French Navy prohibited women on its ships, but that did not stop Jeanne. She bound her breasts with linen bandages and became Jean Baret. She enlisted as valet and assistant to the expedition’s naturalist Philibert Commerçon and travelled on the vessel with 300 men. Expedition accounts differ on when her true gender was discovered. But, by the time she returned to France, Jeanne had seen the world, defied conventions and earned a place in history.
Lady Hester Stanhope (1776-1839)
A British socialite and adventurer, Stanhope was possibly the greatest female traveller of her age. Born into an eminent political family, she played society hostess for her uncle, William Pitt the Younger. As soon as he died, she took off for the unknown, finding her destiny in the Middle East. “Her Ladyship” did whatever it took to go where she wanted to go – including dressing as a man, carrying a sword and riding an Arab stallion. Crowning herself queen of the desert, Stanhope was the first European woman to cross the Syrian desert and the first to conduct modern archaeology research in the Holy Land.
Isabella Bird (1831-1904)
A daughter of an Anglican clergyman, Bird’s childhood was marked by ill health. On doctor’s orders, she set off for North America on her debut adventure in 1854. The open air suited her well-being as much as travel stirred her soul. She stayed for several months in eastern Canada and the United States. She went on to climb volcanoes, ride horseback through the wilderness, and commune with locals, chronicling her voyages in books about Hawaii, Tibet, Colorado’s Estes Park, Vietnam and beyond. Her travels also saw her cover large parts of Asia, including China, Japan and Malaya. An explorer, writer, photographer and naturalist, Isabella Bird was the first woman to be elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and became one of the 19th century’s most remarkable female globetrotters.
Left: Nellie Bly, circa 1890
Right: Woodcut image of Nellie Bly's reception at Jersey City on the completion of her journey, Feb 8, 1890
Nellie Bly (1864-1922)
No one had ever circled the globe so fast; pioneering American journalist Nellie Bly stepped off the train in New York on January 25, 1890 – and into history. Moving by train, steamship, horse, donkey and rickshaw, she traversed 24,899 miles in 72 days, alone and literally with just the clothes on her back – to “beat” the fictional record set by Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg in Around the World in 80 Days, which had been published 17 years earlier. Her journey took her through England, France, Egypt, the Pacific and the United States. When she suggested the trip to her newspaper editor, he replied that it was a great idea but he would have to send a man. After all, as a woman, Nellie would need a chaperone and dozens of trunks. When she told him she would take her idea to another paper, he relented and off she went with only two days’ notice and one small bag. Bly was also a pioneer of investigative journalism and paved the way for many other female reporters. Her stories brought about sweeping reforms in asylums, sweatshops, orphanages and prisons.
Gertrude Bell (1868-1926)
Born into a wealthy family in 1868, Gertrude Bell studied Modern History at Oxford University and spent several years travelling around the world, trading upper-class comfort for desert forays by camel. She developed a passion for Arabia – its people, languages and history, and travelled extensively in Persia, Syria and Mesopotamia. Thanks to her unrivalled knowledge and firsthand experience, during World War I she was recruited by the British Intelligence service in Cairo. This is where she met the famed T. E. Lawrence and worked beside him supporting the Hashemite dynasties. Arabia’s “uncrowned queen” helped draw the borders of modern Iraq in the 1920s, advised on the writing of its constitution and established the Iraq National Museum. She made major contributions to archaeology, architecture and oriental languages, and was also the greatest mountaineer of her age.
Louise Arner Boyd (1887-1972)
A self-taught polar scientist and photographer, the heroine of the high seas led and financed several scientific expeditions into the Arctic wilds, where she mapped uncharted regions of Greenland, completed covert missions for the U.S. government, and was one of the first women to soar over the North Pole in an airplane. 'Far north, hidden behind grim barriers of pack ice, are lands that hold one spell-bound', she wrote in 1935. Her photographs provide critical information to climate change researchers today.
Left: Bessie Coleman and her plane in 1922
Right: Bessie Coleman in 1923
Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)
The daughter of an African-American maid and a Native American sharecropper, Bessie Coleman flew in the face of race and gender discrimination to become the first black woman pilot in the world. Banned from flying schools in her native America, she taught herself French and travelled to France where she earned her pilot’s licence in 1921, two years before her more famous contemporary, Amelia Earhart. Coleman flew all over the U.S., performing aerial tricks and lecturing to raise funds for an African-American flying school. She refused to participate in segregated events. Tragically, her life and dream ended when she died during an air show rehearsal at the age of 34.
Freya Stark (1893-1993)
A British explorer and writer, Stark grew up as part of an artistic family in Italy before joining the Red Cross during WWI – an experience which, coupled with the premature death of her sister, inspired her to take a carpe diem approach to life. Stark went where few Europeans, especially women, had ever been before. Her travels led her into remote areas of Turkey and the Middle East. While living in Baghdad, she explored and mapped uncharted areas of the Islamic world. Hers were some of the first accurate maps of the region. She moved on foot, on donkeys, on camels and by car – camping along the way. Stark is the author of more than 24 travel books, covering local history, culture and tales of everyday life. In spite of age and illnesses, she never stopped travelling.
Lady Grace Drummond Hay (1895-1946)
On August 19, 1929, wealthy aristocratic widow Lady Grace Drummond Hay boarded the LZ 127 Graf Zeppelin, the first airship to circumnavigate the world. When the airship landed 21 days later, the British journalist had become the first woman to travel around the world in a zeppelin. Her reportage of the pioneering flight was published in leading newspapers and helped cement her career as a writer and aviation specialist. Drummond Hay spent the next 10 years travelling the world and writing about her experiences. She was a foreign correspondent in Ethiopia and China and during the second world war she was interned in a Japanese camp in the Philippines where she became ill. She died shortly after her release.
Left: Amelia Earhart
Right: Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Vega 5B 2 © Tony Hisgett
Amelia Earhart (1897-1937)
Record-breaking aviator Amelia Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, in 1932. She was first inspired to take up flying after a plane ride at an air show in California, then worked to save the money for flying lessons. Earhart bought her first plane in 1921 and got her pilot’s license two years later. After her nonstop Atlantic flight catapulted her to fame, she followed up with record-setting altitudes and timed flights, all while advocating fiercely for female independence and representation within the aviation industry. In 1937, Earhart embarked on her most difficult mission: to fly around the world, departing from Miami, Florida on June 1. She left New Guinea on July 2 for the last leg of her journey, and headed for Howland Island, but the aircraft never arrived. By July 19 Earhart was declared lost at sea. Earhart's remarkable achievements, as well as her memorable charismatic and tomboyish personality, cemented her place in the aviation hall of fame, as well as one of the greatest female adventurers in history.
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