Women Travelers, Adventuresses and Trailblazers
I can't count all the women travelers, adventuresses and trailblazers whose exploits I've dreamed about and admired. Some women stand out more than others, by their courage, perhaps, or simply because they were larger than life, at a time when women weren't supposed to be.
I found this section of adventurous women born before the 20th century (even though they may have done most of their writing later) at www.women-on-the-road.com. This is just a sampling that I hope will whet your appetite for some fantastic female travel reading. There are so many more but I had to choose...
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762)
Author, poet, satirist: she scandalized the world by traveling to Turkey to meet her diplomat husband there - on her own, at a time when this just wasn't done. An early out-of-the-box thinker, she foresaw vaccines by inoculating her own children with smallpox to protect them from the disease, and traveled dressed in Turkish robes. A true tourist, she traveled because she was curious to see the world - and wrote about it through a woman's eyes, venturing into places "that have been inaccessible to other travellers".
Travel Pick: Turkish Embassy Letters
Amelia Edwards (1831-1892)
At a time when there were few roads, Amelia crossed the Dolomites and traveled up the Nile, documenting everything in her path. Such was her scientific prowess that she helped found the discipline of Egyptology, eventually establishing its first chair at London's University College. Not just a traveler - a scientist.
Travel Pick: A Thousand Miles up the Nile
Isabella Bird (1831-1904)
The first woman to address the Royal Geographical Society, Bird became a traveler by accident when her doctor prescribed travel for her health. Her travel bibliography ranges widely, from Asia to the Western Rockies. As a solo 'woman on the road', Bird was a groundbreaker in many ways. "Scaling, not climbing, is the correct term for this last ascent" is how she describes a mountain climb. "The only foothold was in narrow cracks or on minute projections on the granite. To get a toe in these cracks...while crawling on hands and knees...this was the climb - but at last the Peak was won." Travel Pick: Journeys in Persia and Kurdistan
Kate Marsden (1859-1931)
Not the typical travel writer, Marsden documented her year-long missionary journey through Siberia on dogsleds in an effort to find a herb that could cure leprosy (she never did find it). Her report, designed to rebut criticism back home that her trip had only been a stunt, shows rare compassion for the lepers she met along the way. "One of the women had been afflicted with leprosy in all its worst aspects for years; she was almost naked, having only a dirty strip of leather over her. By her side was her husband, who, although free from leprosy, nobly determined to share his wife's exile."
Travel Pick: On Sledge and Horseback to Outcast Siberian Lepers
Ethel Tweedie (1860-1940)
A product of upper-class Britain, Tweedie was the quintessential solo traveler, launching her travel career after all her male relatives had died. She is known among other things for starting a national controversy in Edwardian England by riding astride her horse rather than side-saddle during visits abroad, so much so that much ink was spent debating the pros and cons of this custom. She was also respected as a fine journalist and travel writer, with many Mediterranean and European countries on her 'been there done that' list.
Travel Pick: A Girl's Ride in Iceland
Edith Wharton (1862-1937)
Better known as a Pulizter-prize winning writer of fiction, Wharton exhibited a fine eye for detail and sense of her surroundings in her travel writing as well. Here's how she described the Vizier's palace in Marrakech: "This lovely prison, from which all sight and sound of the outer world are excluded, is built about an atrium paved with disks of turquoise and black and white. Water trickles from a central vasca of alabaster into a hexagonal mosaic channel in the pavement. The walls...are roofed with painted beams resting on panels of traceried stucco in which is set a clerestory of jewelled glass." I'd like to see that.
Travel Pick: In Morocco
Gertrude Bell (1868-1926)
No account of adventurous women travelers and writers can be complete without Bell, whose role in founding modern Iraq and Jordan is as legendary as her acquaintance with Lawrence of Arabia. An erudite archeologist and linguist (she spoke more than half a dozen languages) she traveled extensively around the Middle East, meeting its nomadic peoples and learning from them - not to mention dining with Kings and dignitaries along the way and being awarded the Order of the British Empire for her outstanding work in the region on behalf of the British.
Travel Pick: Persian Pictures
Mary Kingsley (1862-1900)
A good Victorian girl, she spent time in West Africa and recounted her hair-raising misadventures with humor. Have a listen: falling into a spike-filled trap (for which a good, thick skirt is an advantage), or crossing a swamp and emerging on the other side covered with leeches. When she wasn't busy cavorting with cannibals, she became a trader and collector. On one canoe trip, a crocodile tried to board her canoe: "I had to...fetch him a clip on the snout with a paddle, when he withdrew." Certainly wry, and certainly not lacking courage and panache.
Travel Pick: Travels in West Africa
Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904)
Ravaged by drugs and poverty, Eberhardt died at just 28, leaving behind a single work, her diary as a Muslim nomad in North Africa. Dressed as a man, she lived as a partial outcast while immersing herself in the exoticism of Arab society, perhaps as a reaction to her strict Geneva upbringing. I could not put her book down - in it she paints her own tortured inner search as clearly as her fascination with her new surroundings.
Travel Pick: The Passionate Nomad
Vita Sackville-West (1892-1962)
More historian and poet than travel writer, Sackville-West nonetheless penned a breathtaking and exotic tale of travels to Iran during the 1920s and back to Britain overland before the term was ever coined. She rode trains, donkeys, camels and cars - when she wasn't on foot. Perhaps she'll be best remembered not for her travel writing (of which there was unfortunately too little) but for her affairs with other women, despite a strong and happy marriage - with an equally bisexual husband.
Travel Pick: Passenger to Teheran
Freya Stark (1893-1993)
Harking back to Gertrude Bell's passion for things Arabic, Stark was a scholar in Arabic dialects and worked as an expert for the British government during the war. Stark was a true adventuress, venturing not only where no solo women had traveled but to places no Westerner had dared to go, including parts of Iran and the southern part of what is now Saudi Arabia. Named a Dame of the British Empire, she was the prolific author of some 24 travel books, most about Arabian lands, and lived to the grand old age of 100.
Travel Pick: The Valley of the Assassins
Kate O'Brien (1897-1974)
As I grew up in Spain, this Irish feminist (she was a lesbian but didn't come out in the straightlaced Ireland of her day) author's writing about that country speaks to me. More novelist than travel writer, her descriptions of the start of the Civil War are so vivid I felt I was there: "As I write Irun is burning. There is a photograph in this morning's Times of the little plaza with its low iron seats and clipped plane-trees - the commonplace of every Spanish town. The cafe at the corner is a heap of broken stones. A few men stand about dejectedly with guns." Political travel journalism at its best.
Travel Pick: Farewell Spain
These women may have blazed the trails - now it's up to us to walk them!
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