Grace Lower | Feb 24, 2021
Maybe you’d start with a few historical figures like Leif Erikson, Marco Polo, or the ever-so-controversial Christopher Columbus. Or you might find yourself listing contemporary explorers like Anthony Bourdain, Rick Steves, or Sir David Attenborough. While numerous men have contributed to the world of travel, a less-recognized (but equally ambitious) group of women have also visited the world’s lesser-known corners. Throughout history, these adventurous women have proved that a woman’s place is wherever she chooses to go.
March is Women’s History Month, and what better way to celebrate than by highlighting boundary-pushing female travelers from history? While the list below is far from comprehensive, these five women proved that a traveler isn’t defined by their gender, race, ability, or income-level. Many of these women never had the chance to enjoy the same accolades as their male counterparts, but their accomplishments have left an impact that can still be felt today.
In a time when women were expected to inhabit a “sphere of domesticity,” Isabella Bird was exploring the world’s farthest reaches. Born to a wealthy family in 1831, Isabella Bird was adventurous and outspoken, despite having suffered a series of severe illnesses since childhood. After a doctor suggested travel as a treatment for Bird’s insomnia, depression, and chronic pain, Bird was given 100 pounds (approximately $14,500 in today’s dollars) to travel wherever she wanted.
Bird used that travel fund to visit the United States — an experience which informed her first book: The Englishwoman in America. While traveling through the U.S., Bird hiked volcanoes in Hawaii (which inspired yet another book) and rode hundreds of miles on horseback through the Rockies, among other adventures. Her love for travel wasn’t limited to just the United States. As she gained notoriety as a travel writer and missionary, Bird explored Japan, China, and Korea; founded a hospital in India; studied the Karun river in Persia and Armenia; and was even gifted a stallion by the sultan of Morocco. And that only scratches the surface of Bird’s extensive travel career.
Featured in numerous publications, Isabella Bird became a celebrated household name in her home country of England. As her travel career progressed, she was named the first woman fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, the first woman inducted into the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and was elected into the Royal Photographic Society.
Fanny Bullock Workman was a jack of all trades. At once a cartographer, geographer, author, mountaineer, activist, and suffragette, Workman played a significant role in breaking down the gender barriers in both travel and politics alike.
Born in 1859 to a wealthy Massachusetts family, Workman received an elite education in the U.S. before meeting her husband, William Workman. Fanny and William shared a love for nature, and they spent their summers hiking and climbing in the White Mountains. It was through the climbing community that Fanny Workman connected with other women who shared similar interests in athletics and the great outdoors.
After inheriting large estates from their families, Fanny and William Workman relocated to Germany, where they took advantage of the many bike routes throughout Europe. These cycling trips served as inspiration for the travel books that they would go on to author — meticulously documenting the art, architecture, and history of the region. Fanny would later propose venturing beyond Europe, with trips to India, Algeria, and Southeast Asia. There, she and William would mountaineer in the Himalayas, explore the Hispar and Siachen Glaciers, and hike or bicycle across thousands of miles of terrain. Fanny was a diligent record-keeper. Throughout her travels, she helped create maps for lesser-known regions, took meteorological readings, and photographed key landmarks along the way.
As time passed, Fanny Workman remained a fervent supporter of women’s suffrage and gender equality. In a particularly iconic moment during a visit to the Silver Thorne Plateau, Fanny displayed a newspaper headline reading “Votes for Women”, while her husband snapped a series of soon-to-be-famous photos. In her travel writing, Fanny underscored that women were capable of thriving outside the home — whether in high altitudes, under extreme heat, perched on a mountaintop, or within a voting booth.
American journalist Nellie Bly wasn’t just a traveler: she was able to capture the world’s imagination by bringing fiction to life. In 1888, Nellie suggested to her editor at the New York World that she recreate Jules Verne's famous novel, Around the World in 80 Days, with an international trip of her own. The idea was met with great enthusiasm, and in November 1899, Nellie Bly departed aboard the Augusta Victoria steamer for the first leg of her nearly 40,000-mile journey.
After kicking off her trip in Hoboken, New Jersey, Bly traveled through England, France, and much of the Mediterranean. She made stops in countries like Sri Lanka, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan. While her editors and readers waited back home, Bly sent status reports back to the United States through both telegraph and standard post. After a bout of rough weather in the Pacific, she arrived in San Francisco, then took a private train back to New Jersey. In just 72 days, Bly had broken the world record for global travel while pioneering a new form of investigative journalism. Along the way, she captured the hearts, minds, and imaginations of a global audience.
Bly could also be considered something of a light-packing trendsetter. During her travels, she packed only her dress, a hat, an overcoat, her toiletries, several pairs of underwear, and a small money purse containing a few hundred dollars’ worth of English and American currency.
I’m all for a good study abroad story, and Bessie Coleman’s story may be one of the greatest. Born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, Coleman was the daughter of Cherokee and African-American sharecroppers. Although limited opportunities existed for women and African-Americans, Coleman excelled in her schoolwork, especially mathematics.
After withdrawing from her university due to financial constraints, Coleman went on to take a job as a manicurist in a Chicago-area barbershop. While there, Coleman overheard stories from former World War I pilots about the terrors and triumphs of flying during the war. Those exchanges sparked an interest in flying that would remain with Coleman for the rest of her life.
Since American Flight schools would not accept women or African-Americans, Coleman was advised to study abroad. She immediately took on a second job at a chili parlor to save money for international flight school, and French classes in her down-time. Thanks to financial support from African-American business leaders like Robert S. Abbott and Jesse Binga, Coleman was able to secure the funding she needed to travel to Paris for aviation school.
With the approval from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, Coleman became the first woman of African-American and Native American descent to earn an international pilot’s license. She then returned to the United States to launch a successful career in exhibition flying. Her groundbreaking career went on to inspire a new generation of African American and women pilots.
Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei began climbing at the age of 10 and never looked back. After participating in climbing trips throughout high school and college, Tabei formed Japan’s first-ever all-women’s climbing group, the Ladies Climbing Club (LCC) in 1969. The club’s slogan, "Let's go on an overseas expedition by ourselves," was a direct response to the perceived sexism in the climbing community.
Tabei’s love for climbing continued with trips to Mount Fuji and the Swiss Alps. As the LCC became more established, Tabei took part in an ambitious new endeavor: a group expedition to Mount Everest. On May 16, 1975, with support from her sherpa guide, Tabei became the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Following her achievement, Tabei gained prominence within the global climbing community and beyond — even receiving accolades from the King of Nepal and Japanese officials.
Not content to stop with Everest, Tabei continued scaling mountains throughout the globe. In 1992, she became the first woman to complete all Seven Summits by climbing the highest mountain on every continent.
These days, it’s hard to imagine a world where women aren’t part of the travel community. That reality is thanks in part to the legacy left by women like Nellie Bly, Junko Tabei, and Fanny Workman. Traveling safely is always worthwhile, but sometimes taking risks can open the door for new opportunities.
Grace Lower has a love for all things writing and travel. When she's not exploring new places, Grace enjoys teaching English as a Second Language, making terrible puns, and running incredibly long distances at incredibly slow speeds.