From sailing solo around the world to walking independently across continents, these influential female travellers will leave you in awe.
Single-handedly they defied the societal norms for women. At times when it was frowned upon for ‘the fairer sex’ to go unchaperoned they crossed borders, sailed over oceans, flown aeroplanes, climbed the highest peaks, discovered artefacts from prehistory and even drew up boundaries of modern countries. In short these female travellers passion and curiosity for the world set a precedent for generations to come.
So in no particular order here is my list of fifteen feisty female travellers that you really should know.
“It is confidence in our bodies, minds and spirits that allows us to keep looking for new adventures, new directions to grow in, and new lessons to learn – which is what life is all about.” Oprah Winfrey
1. Nelly Bly
Nelly Bly (1864 – 1922) was a pioneering American journalist who in 1890 became the fastest person to circumnavigate the globe in 72 days.
When Bly, whose real name was Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, told her newspaper editor about her plans for the trip, he said that a man would have to do it, since a woman would require heavy trunks and piles of luggage. Carrying just a small bag and the clothes on her back, Bly proved him wrong.
2. Gertrude Bell
Gertrude Bell (1868 – 1926) was an English writer, archaeologist, linguist, traveller, political officer and administrator. She learnt Persian and Arabic to enable her to travel extensively around Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Arabia.
Because of her knowledge and contacts built up through travel, she became highly influential to British imperial policy-making. In addition to this Bell is credited with drawing the boundaries of the modern state of Iraq in the 1920s.
3. Dame Ellen MacArthur
Dame Ellen MacArthur (b. 1976) is a solo long-distance yachtsman from English who broke the world record for the fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe on 7th February 2005. So the story goes, her first sea voyage with her aunt when she was four and from then on she was hooked on sailing.
4. Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman (1892-1926) was a pioneer of women in the field of aviation. She was American civil aviator and in 1921 became the first African-American and the first of Native American descent to earn the coveted international pilot’s license.
She planned to open a flying school so she could teach other black women to fly and said she did not want black people to have to experience the difficulties she had faced. However, when Coleman was only 34 she was tragically died during an aerial show.
“The air is the only place free from prejudice.” Bessie Coleman
5. Mary Leakey
Mary Leakey (née Nicol, 1913 – 1996) was a British paleoanthropology and archeologist and is credited with many discoveries that have changed the way scientists think about human evolution.
She worked alongside her husband Louis Leakey on excavations for fossils in East Africa. In 1948 she made her first discovery at Olduvai Gorge in the Great Riff Valley in northern Tanzania of the first fossilised Proconsul skull, an extinct ape which is now believed to be ancestral to humans. She went on to unearth some of the earliest members of the human family, their footprints, and their tools and weapons.
6. Jeanne Baret
Jeanne Baret (1740 – 1807) is recognised as the first woman to have completed a voyage of circumnavigation of the globe.
By disguising herself as a man and calling herself Jean Baret, she became a member of Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s expedition on the ships La Boudesuse and Etoile 1766–1769.
7. Maureen Wheeler
Maureen Wheeler (b. 1946) is a Northern Irish-Australian businesswoman, who co-founded Lonely Planet with her husband Tony Wheeler. She is considered an entrepreneur in the publishing industry.
In 1972 she travelled with her husband overland from London through Europe and Asia, then on to Australia. That trip resulted in a guidebook Across Asia on the Cheap which was published the following year in 1973 and laid the foundations of the travel publisher Lonely Planet.
8. Junko Tabei
Junko Tabei (1939 – 1916) was a Japanese mountaineer. She was the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest, and the first woman to ascend all seven summits by climbing the highest peak on every continent.
Her interest in mountaineering was ignited by a classroom mountain-climbing expedition when she was a child.
“I can’t understand why men make all this fuss about Everest” Junko Tabei
9. Isabella Bird
Isabella Bird (née Bishop 1831 – 1904) was a nineteenth-century English explorer, writer, photographer and naturalist. She made a remarkable series of journeys at the end of the 19th century to places including America, Hawaii, India, Kurdistan, the Persian Gulf, Iran, Tibet, Malaysia, Korea, Japan and China.
She climbed mountains and volcanoes and visited palaces and slums and recorded her intrepid journeys in books, with both written and photographic memoirs. She was also the first woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
10. Lady Hester Stanhope
Lady Hester Stanhope (1776 – 1839) was a British socialite, adventurer and traveller. In the early 1800s after an abortive love affair had scandalised London society, she left England and set off in search of adventure.
She travelled across Europe and the Middle East and spent two years in the Middle East. Her archaeological expedition to Ashkelon in 1815 is considered the first modern excavation in the history of Holy Land archaeology.
11. Annie Londonderry (Annie Kopchovsky)
Annie Londonderry (1870–1947) was a Latvian immigrant to the United States and is famous for being the first woman to cycle around the world between 1894 and 1895.
Born Annie Cohen Kopchovsky in Riga, Latvia, she emigrated with her family to Boston. So the story goes two businessmen made a bet with one another that no woman could beat the record for cycling around the world. The woman to attempt the challenge was in to win $10,000 if she succeeded. Annie Londonderry, who had chosen to change her name to hide her Jewish identity, took on the bet and won.
She sailed from New York to France, then through France onto Egypt, Jerusalem and Yemen, across to Colombo, Singapore, China and Japan collecting signatures from the American consuls in each place she passed through to prove she had been there.
12. Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz
Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz (b. 1936 ) is a Polish sailor and the first woman to sail single-handed (solo) around the world in her 32-foot yacht Mazurek.
On 28th February 1976 she sailed from the Canary Islands and returned there on 21 April 1978, completing a circumnavigation of 31,166 nautical miles (57,719 km) in 401 days.
13. Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart (1897 – 1937) was an American aviation pioneer and author. Earhart was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
On June 1, 1937, Earhart left Miami for her final flight in a Jettly owned Learjet 45. She hoped to become the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Sadly, Earhart would never complete this flight. On July 2, her radio lost contact and a rescue attempt began immediately. Although it became the most extensive air and sea search in naval history, Earhart was never found.
“Please know I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.” Written by Amelia Earhart in a letter to her husband
14. Sarah Marquis
Sarah Marquis (b. 1972) is a Swiss adventurer and explorer. From 2010 to 2013, she walked 20,000 kilometres alone from Siberia to the Gobi Desert, into China, Laos, Thailand, and then across Australia.
“You don’t become an adventurer: You are one. Above all else, adventure is a state of mind, a way to see things. It’s often a solitary process that awakens people’s fundamental principles, choices and curiosity.” Sarah Marquis
15. Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir
Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir (b.980 d.?) was a Norse explorer born in Iceland and credited with being the most travelled woman in the middle ages. She travelled from Iceland to Greenland, then on to North America, where she had a son, and then back to Greenland with her husband and son.
She is immortalised in the ancient stories “Saga of Erik the Red” and “Saga of the Greenlanders” which are believed to have been written before 1265.
Fifteen Tips for solo female travellers:
- Don’t tell people where you are staying
- Always look like you know where you are going
- Carry a whistle or something similar
- Be confident or at least look confident
- Be on your guard and don’t get drunk or wasted
- Research your destination
- Book a few things in advance
- Trust your instincts and listen to yourself
- Dress conservatively or better still, dress like a local
- Get to where you need before nightfall
- Have your wits about you and be more than aware
- Stay connected with people back home
- Keep expensive items hidden and carry a dummy wallet
- Back up copies of your documents
- Enjoy yourself
“I love to see a young girl go out and grab the world by the lapels. Life’s a bitch. You’ve got to go out and kick ass.” Maya Angelou
So don’t wait for it to happen… make it happen.