We all know the world’s most daring and well-traveled adventurers: Marco Polo, James Cook, Ferdinand Magellan, Christopher Columbus… They traveled around the globe to discover and claim territories for their countries, traded, and explored. They went with the blessings of their heads of state, and while they achieved fame and sometimes fortune, they did what was expected of them, and they did it with all the help available in those days.
All the while, there were women who did much the same — just without approval or help. They did it for love of adventure and despite the expectations for women in those days. They bucked convention and went out to see the world on their own terms.
Some of these female adventurers are quite well known — think Amelia Earhart. I have compiled a list of those who are not so famous but deserve to be better known. These seven women have inspired me in my own life and travels, and I hope they will inspire you, too.
1. Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir, Iceland (980-1019)
As a traveler and expatriate myself, I would love to know more about how Gudrid lived in Vinland, and how she adapted, but sadly, little verified detail is known.
Gudrid, nicknamed “Gudrid, the Far Travelled,” was born in Iceland at the end of the ninth century and was the daughter of a Viking chieftain. Although Viking women played important roles in their communities, Gudrid seemed to have traveled more than some of her exploring kind. She traveled to Greenland, Norway, and even America when it was still called Vinland, years before other Europeans set foot on its shores. Reportedly she gave birth to a son in America, making him the first European born there.
After an adventurous life, she went on a pilgrimage to Rome and spent the rest of her life as a nun in Iceland.
To learn more: God’s Daughter by Heather Day Gilbert brings the legend to life.
2. Gertrude Bell, United Kingdom (1868-1926)
I lived in the Middle East for 12 years, and I greatly admire Gertrude Bell for traveling through the area’s formidable landscapes, embracing the culture, and being capable on so many levels.
Born into a wealthy family in northern England, Gertrude was a free spirit from the beginning. Luckily, she had an open-minded father who allowed and probably even encouraged his daughter to chart her own course. Gertrude went to Oxford to study history, and after graduating with honors, she traveled to Tehran to spend time with her uncle, a British diplomat.
Gertrude researched local history, learned Arabic and Farsi, and spent the rest of her life involved in Middle Eastern politics. She traveled throughout the desert states creating maps of previously uncharted territories, served as an archaeologist, and worked for the Red Cross during World War I. In her free time, she wrote books and was one of the best-known mountaineers of her time.
To learn more: Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations by Georgina Howell is an easy-to-read biography of Gertrude Bell.
3. Nellie Bly, United States (1864-1922)
I think Nellie Bly could have been my sister! She was a journalist and avid traveler, a fan of Jules Verne, and loved a challenge.
Nellie was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran to a working-class family in Pennsylvania. Through a heartfelt written response to a newspaper article, she landed a job as a journalist for the Pittsburgh Dispatch. She then went to work for Joseph Pulitzer’s paper, the New York World, where she won accolades for her exposé of a mental asylum.
Later on, she took the novel Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne as a real-life challenge and set off on a trip around the world. Not only did she manage to travel around the world in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds — mostly alone — but she also met up with Verne himself when traveling through France.
To learn more: Read Nellie Bly: Daredevil, Reporter, Feminist by Brooke Kroeger and Nellie Bly’s own autobiography, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days.
4. Jeanne Baret, France (1740-1807)
I first heard about Jeanne Baret in France and admired her for her if-there’s-a-will-there’s-a-way attitude.
Not much is known about Jeanne’s early life. She was born in Burgundy to a poor family, but how she gained an education and became the housekeeper, lover, and later wife of royal botanist Philibert Commerson is probably more hearsay than fact.
It is known, however, that Commerson was invited to join an expedition with the Comte de Bougainville, a renowned captain and explorer, and that Jeanne was by then knowledgeable in botany herself. She disguised herself as a man in order to accompany Commerson, and she became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. She and Commerson supplied France with thousands of new species of plants.
While her ruse was discovered when the party reached Tahiti, instead of being punished, she was honored as an exceptional botanist and explorer and received a stipend from the king for her services.
To learn more: Read The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe by Glynis Ridley.
5. Mary Kingsley, United Kingdom (1862-1900)
I first learned about Mary Kingsley when I happened upon a book about her exploits in Africa in a secondhand bookstore. A Victorian lady in the jungle, and as cool as a cucumber!
Mary, the niece of author Charles Kingsley, was the daughter of a well-traveled doctor, but she said she inherited her sense of adventure from her mother. She was particularly interested in traveling to Africa, and when her parents passed away, she spent her inheritance on a solo voyage to that continent. Schooled in medicine, and with a keen interest in fish and insects and the culture and traditions of Africa, she traveled through western and equatorial Africa dressed in traditional Victorian attire.
She had close calls with gorillas, leopards, hippos, and crocodiles, but they did not diminish her love for all things African in the slightest, as her diaries prove.
To learn more: Read Mary Kingsley’s Travels in West Africa and A Voyager Out: The Life of Mary Kingsley by Katherine Frank.
6. Ida Pfeiffer, Austria (1797-1848)
I think Ida Pfeiffer’s story touches many women who dedicated time to raising a family but who reinvented themselves and started traveling once their children left home.
Not unlike Gertrude Bell, Ida was born to a wealthy and open-minded father who allowed her the same education as her brothers and let her enjoy an unconventional upbringing that involved boys’ clothing and sports.
After her father’s death, her more traditional mother took over, and Ida lived a more conventional life. She married, bore two sons, and saw them through school. Once they were settled, however, she traveled extensively — including twice around the world. She was the first woman whose travel journals were translated into several languages, and she became a member of the Berlin and Paris Geographical Societies (not the London one, because women were not admitted at the time).
To learn more: Read Wanderlust: The Amazing Ida Pfeiffer, the First Female Tourist by John van Wyhe.
7. Aimee Crocker, United States (1864-1941)
When I came across Aimee Crocker’s story, I immediately thought that had there been Instagram in her day, she would have been a superb influencer.
Aimee was an heiress, and a controversial one at that. She traveled across continents, social classes, and cultures from a young age, embraced other religions, and got a little too close to some handsome young men on her travels, causing one scandal after another. And then she wrote about it all in the first of many books.
To learn more: Read Aimee Crocker’s autobiography, And I’d Do It Again: The Extraordinary Adventures of an Edwardian Heiress, and Aimee Crocker’s Refined Vaudeville by K.M. Taylor.
There have been so many other formidable female explorers, adventurers, and trailblazers. Honorable mentions go to Isabella Bird, the first woman who did make it into the London Geographical Society; Bessie Coleman, the first African-American and Native-American aviator; Louise Arner Boyd, who explored Greenland and the Arctic; Isabelle Eberhardt, who squeezed an incredible amount of adventure into her brief 27 years; and Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman to venture into space.
To paraphrase a famous quote by Andre Gide: “Woman cannot discover new oceans unless she has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”