Let's be honest the fields of exploration and adventure have been dominated by men and still are today, though women have closed the gap considerably. The bookshelves of male adventures over shadows the shelves of female explorers. Women did what men did just as well as men - only some did it in skirts and corsets. Yet the achievements of women explorers are conspicuously absent from nearly every history book, as if they did not contribute to geography, sciences, politics, and religion.

The 18th and 19th centuries were not easy ones for women in general and certainly even harder when the woman was unconventional. It was a period in history when women struggled greatly just to break free from the structure of polite society. All women faced challenges unique to them but these women who boldly challenged popular thought, expanded human knowledge and changed the course of history, did it because they wanted to sail the seas, climb mountains, chart the skies, traverse deserts and see the world, not because there was any fame to be had.

As a child I use to love reading the adventures of Thor Heyerdahl, Roald Amundsen, David Livingstone and of course Lewis and Clark. Perhaps because I am much older now, each account was relatively the same to me .... tough journey conquered it, I am a hero. Chest thumping and roaring proceed. There is nothing wrong with that kind of pride in an achievement that was tough to do. It can make for tough reading though, the kind even your mother would struggle to enjoy.

Women explorers seem to write about their travels differently than men or perhaps more accurately, women explorers see their journey differently. The stories were not about achieving a goal but the journey itself - drama, conflict, doubts and personal commitment that bared their soul to the reader. The fact that they may not actually achieve their goal or don't achieve it first, is utterly unimportant. I found the accounts of women explorers more thrilling, inspiring and exciting.

Without female adventurers, I dare say the male dominated world of exploration risks sliding quietly to the side as the same old stories they tell no longer attract new bodies to the field nor hold interest to those in the field. The women though, with their paradoxical nature, cool courage, passionate curiosity and nomadic spirit are all but adventurous sirens calling you to them.

Paradoxical Nature

We are talking about women

I believe it was the paradoxical nature or dual personalities of these women that started the ball rolling on changing the view of women explorers. Women were, more often than not, seen as delicate creatures, needing protection, suitable for chores around the home and subservient to men for the most part. Women did not even get rights till the early twentieth century including substantial property rights in 1900s and the right to vote in the 1920s.

A number of women explorers, in the earlier years particularly, bucked at traditions and society restraints but did so while maintaining proper decorum, as if they sought to prove that women could be a proper lady and an explorer.Gertrude Bell in IraqCredit: Public Domain

Many female explorers did not marry, and many did. Some even maintained their explorer life while starting a family such Arnarulunguaq who was on the Arctic expedition of Knud Rasmussen and quite likely the first female  part of such an expedition. She did the journey first pregnant and then with a child on her back. The caver Elisabeth Casterets swimming in narrow tunnels hundreds of feet below the earth was only limited by her five pregnancies. Even as recently as 1995 climber Alison Hargreaves - who climbed Mount Everest without oxygen or a sherpa - faced criticism for climbing while pregnant.

Mary Kingsley, Mary French Sheldon, Isabella Bird and Lady Hester Stanhope are just a few of the ladies said by many to be articulate, engaging and charming. That the traditional role of a woman was one they excelled at, yet viewed as manly in their determination, boldness and outspoken ways. Mary Kingsley travelled deeply into African Territory, alone or rather unchaperoned, she studied cannibalistic tribes and laughed when people questioned her behaviour that was 'unbecoming a lady'. Yet she detested being called a new women, displayed shock at trouser wearing women and was quite vehement in her claims that she was not a feminist – even though she defended African tribes polygamy habits.

In Gertrude Bells obituary, despite the respect she received for her work it was still said of her:

“No woman in recent time has combined her qualities – her taste for arduous and dangerous adventure with her scientific interest and knowledge, her competence in archaeology and art, her distinguished literary gift, her sympathy for all sorts and condition of men, her political insight and appreciation of human values, her masculine vigour, hard common sense and practical efficiency – all tempered by feminine charm and a most romantic spirit.”[1]

Contenious Topic of Attire

Skirts, Trousers and Hair ... Oh My

Not only did these women have to challenge the societal rule of travelling with a chaperone, they also had to defend their choice of clothing. In some cases, even wearing skirts and dresses was not enough to deflect negative attention. As was the case eventually with Mary French Sheldon, who wore proper dresses and attire that was suitable to meeting chieftains – many writers referred to her as flamboyant. In Marys case many started to question her morals when she took academic stances they did not like or agree with, questioning her ability to stay 'savage-free' when around Africans all the time.

Victorian Dresses of 1852Credit: Fashion-eraMary Kingsley, a paradoxical nineteenth century woman in her own right, laughed at the questions of why she would travel  without a chaperon, yet expressed shock at women wearing trousers and is quoted as saying she would rather “perish on a public scaffold” than “wear you know what”. Even while she was in the jungles of Gabon and for all her African travels, she never stopped wearing a good thick skirt. On one occasion she credited wearing a (good thick) skirt with saving her life when she fell into a pit of stakes.

Jeanne Baret may have been the first woman to circumnavigate the globe as a member of the Louis Antoine de Bouganville expedition in the 1770s. But she had to do it dressed as a man with her lovers help. It was just over two years before she was found out and then had to appeal to the very Frenchmen she deceived for help when she was found out in Tahiti.

Jane Dieulafoy was from a wealthy family, educated in a convent and had a conservative life. That ended when she married at 19 years of age and promptly followed her husband when he enlisted in the army. She cut her hair off, dressed in a mans uniform and fought right by his side. Even later in life she had to defend her choices – not of fighting in the war with her husband or their worldly travels, but of her choice to wear pants and keep her hair short. She responded “I do this to save time”.

Annie Smith PeckCredit: http://anniesmithpeck.org/Annie Smith Peck was a trouser wearing respected explorer and climber who was often annoyed at the attention her trousers received and not her achievements. Quoted in the Outing Magazine in 1901 saying:

Men, we all know, climb in knickerbockers. Women, on the contrary, will declare that a skirt is no hindrance to their locomotion. This is obviously absurd… For a woman in difficult mountaineering to waste her strength and endanger her life with a skirt is foolish in the extreme.”[2]

Then there were the explorers like Isabella Bird who found some middle ground between decorum and practicality by creatively creating hybrid garments: she rode through the Rockies wearing a split skirt with hidden trousers underneath. Or the Lady Stanhope who often wore the garbs of Arabian men and Bedouins.  

Cool Courage

Ruffled Feathers ... Never

Say what you will about these women, their moxie is certainly not something to question. In situations where many may have resorted to violence or ran home with their tail tucked between their legs, these women displayed courage and quick thinking.

Mary Kingsley's advice for those souls that may encounter a crocodile while out boating was to hit it hard on the head with a paddle and strike out for deeper water. When invited to stay with a West African chief, she discovered bags of human body parts at the foot of her bed. True to form she returned to bed and made polite excuses in the morning.

Even cannibals rarely ruffled the feathers of these ladies. In the 1850s Austrian explorer Ida Pfeffer found herself surrounded by knife wielding cannibal Battas in Sumatra. She calmly turned to the leader and said “Surely you wouldn't eat an old lady like me”. Osa Johnson spent her entire honeymoon trying to film the cannibals of Solomon Islands with her husband.Mary KingsleyCredit: Look and Learn

Mary French Sheldon is known for the weapons she carried including a leather whip, Winchester rifle and two loaded colt revolvers. In her book Sultan to Sultan she wrote that it gave her “31 chances to shoot without having to reload”. When her porters threatened to walk away during one of her expeditions, she simply unholstered her colts and downed a passing vulture in one shot and ordered the porters to return to their duties. They complied.

Gertrude Bell usually purchased her safety with her independent wealth but even she found herself the victim of a raid while on a trek from Baghdad to Hayvil. Luckily one of her porters recognized one of the raiders and shamed him, thus saving her.

In 1769-70 Isabel Godin des Odonais famous for her long, arduous 3000 mile journey from Western Peru (Ecuador today) to the mouth of the Amazon River. She was the lone survivor of a 42 person expedition. It is without equal in South American history. And interestingly she never set out to be a explorer or adventurer, she simply wished to be reunited with her husband after a twenty year separation.

One of the more stunning tales told in Isabelle Eberhardts journal was that of when she found herself attacked in a mosque in Algeria and her arm was nearly removed. She forgave the man and kept him from being put to death. She even settled in Algeria dressed as a man, created a male identity and was initiated into a secret Sufi brotherhood. Many a person would have scuttled home after such an encounter. Not surprisingly she's quoted as saying:

“A nomad I shall remain for life, in love with distant and uncharted places”[3].  

Contributions of Female Explorers

The Last Word

Female Tradition

A fair number of female explorers died young and often tragically, but I honestly do not think they would have had it any other way. I do not believe they would have traded in their experiences Compass and MapCredit: wallpaperherefor a quiet and demure life, they were simply too honest in their character. 

These intrepid women are intriguing, intelligent and inspirational. They certainly deserve as much respect as any male explorer in the history books (or otherwise). Their thirst for knowledge contributed to the sciences, world politics and in our understanding of other cultures, among other things. They broke barriers with their passion for travelling and opened paths for other women to follow.

Mothers, sister, explorers, writers, teachers and role models, these women followed their dreams no matter what the obstacle was.