We hear a great deal about the men explorers who swaggered their way around the globe, twirling their moustaches and ostentatiously adjusting their pantaloons as they tamed the world with cartography and punching.
It suggests that in the margins of history women remained on the dock, staring wistfully out to sea while a baby dangled from each breast, mopping themselves dry with a crisply starched handkerchief and mentally preparing what to cook upon their husband’s return. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
From the dawn of adventure through to the present day, women have played a vital role in our discovery of the world. They blazed trails, swashbuckled with subjugation, and proved once and for all that facial hair is a frivolous indulgence rather than an expeditionary prerequisite.
You can read more about this in our Brief Visual History of Travel.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, we’ve put together a list of some of the most intrepid women travellers, which, although nowhere near comprehensive, ably demonstrates the irrelevance of genitalia when it comes to bravery.
Lady Hester Stanhope (1776 – 1839)
You’d excuse a lady born into the English establishment in the 18th century for kicking back and enjoying the luxury that being a daughter of the 3rd Earl Stanhope affords. And while she certainly benefitted from it, receiving a generous pension after the death of her uncle (who happened to be Prime Minister Pitt the Younger), she did what any sensible traveller would do and paid it toward seeing the world.
She set sail for Athens, where the story goes that Lord Byron himself swam out to meet her ship, no doubt thrilled by an opportunity to flaunt his ocean-slicked torso. Unimpressed, Stanhope made for Egypt, only to end up shipwrecked on pesky Rhodes. Here she discovered an affinity for Turkish men’s clothes before venturing across the Middle East, fighting off bandits and meeting the ruler of Egypt.
There should probably be a movie about Lady Hester Stanhope.
The adventure eventually went to her head a bit; fortune-tellers convinced her she would marry a new messiah, and she began to think herself queen over the locals. Still, we wouldn’t have argued. By then she’d taken to carrying a sabre.
Nellie Bly (1864 – 1922)
Born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, this New Yorker failed to understand that journalist-superhero hybrids are supposed to adopt monikers that strike fear into the heart. Nellie would have to do.
She made her reputation as a fearless renegade by feigning insanity so that she could be admitted to Bellevue Hospital and subjected to its awful conditions, inedible food, and borderline torture dressed up as treatment, all so she could report the reality to the world.
Nellie’s next big endeavour was to best the famous (and fictional) Around the World in 80 Days. She began on a steamer ship to Europe, where she met a mildly supportive Jules Verne, and from there she travelled the Suez Canal, China, and Japan, stopping along the way to buy a monkey in Singapore (because of course).
She arrived back in New York, having circumnavigated the globe, after just 72 days, a world record, and a gap year that still deserves our admiration.
Amelia Earhart (1897 – 1937)
A true pioneer of American aviation, and known by many as ‘Queen of the Air’ (not a great nickname but better than ‘Empress of Wind’ or something), Earhart was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean.
Before that she was already something of a celebrity, having completed a number of notable flights alongside a career in competitive flying, and was a prominent advocate for women pilots. On the morning of May 20, 1932, she set off from Newfoundland in a single engine plane, aiming to land it in Paris.
After nearly 15 hours she ended up somewhere a little different, a pasture in Northern Ireland, a feat that nevertheless earned her worldwide fame. Earhart followed up with a number of historic solo flights, culminating in an attempt to fly around the globe. She disappeared over the Pacific Ocean, and despite extensive search efforts she was never found.
Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir (980 – ?)
A cast iron sign that you’re a badass is when your exploits are immortalised in sagas. Gudrid made it so by being one of the early Norse visitors to Vinland, a colony on what we now know as North America. Once there she gave birth to the first European child in the New World, but was unable to hold the colony when relationships with the natives, referred to in the Greenland Saga as Skraelings, soured.
There was a fight (which the Vikings won, natch), but they made a tactical retreat to Greenland fearing a larger attack. Gudrid later converted to Christianity and met the Pope to casually inform him of her badass adventures on the other side of the Atlantic.
It would be centuries before that slacker Christopher Columbus officially discovered America.
Laura Dekker (1995 – )
Laura Dekker is guaranteed to make you want to try a little harder. The Dutch sailor was so determined to be the youngest person ever to sail solo around the world that she fought for the right to do so in court, bellowing over the relentless banging of the gavel to fill the hearts of the jury with viscous wanderlust (presumably). She was 14.
There were supposed to be 14 support stops around the globe. She could only afford five. There was never meant to be more than three weeks between stops. Dekker did a pair of six-seven week stints, alone on open water. The entire endeavour took her 16 months.
So next time a petty excuse threatens to scupper a trip, just think of Laura Dekker.
Harriet Chalmers Adams (1875 – 1937)
As well as being curious about the world, Adams was practical too, and achieved what most travellers still dream about today – getting paid to do it. When Adams married her husband they decided to delay the honeymoon until they could afford to go somewhere exciting. They parlayed this into a job offer that would see her husband essentially paid to travel around South America.
You could learn a lot from Harriet Chalmers Adams.
While in South America, still a largely undiscovered continent, she learned photography, which she subsequently combined with natural storytelling ability to enthral audiences worldwide, publish reams of articles, and eventually become a war correspondent. Oh, and when the Geographical Society refused to admit women, Adams just made her own damn society – The Society of Woman Geographers.
Suck that, male explorers.
Honourable mention: Cassie DePecol, who in 2017 became the first woman and fastest person to visit every single country on the planet. Check out our interview.