We Need to Talk About Women Explorers


Women explorers: I am obsessed with them. My obsession originally came from reading books written by Victorian travellers such Nellie Bly; a pioneer of world exploration when blank spaces still existed on the map, waiting to be filled. 

Nellie Bly, journalist, inventor and industrialist worked for a paper called The New York World in 1888. It was during her time working for this paper that she decided to try and beat the fictional record of Jules Verne’s famous protagonist Phileas Fogg and travel around the world in less than 80 days. The editor of the paper said it was a nice idea, but that he’d have to send a man to do it instead. “It’s impossible for you to do it”, he allegedly said. “You would need a protector... and you’d want too much baggage. No-one but a man could do this.” Nellie’s response was, “Very well. Start the man and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.”

It took a year for the newspaper to finally agree to publish the story, but eventually Nellie wore them down - and aged just 25 - set sail. She took a single suitcase. She could carry her own ‘baggage’. Needless to say, she succeeded in her challenge and actually completed the journey in a mere 72 days. Although this is her most well-known feat, she was a groundbreaking investigative journalist right from her early days as a writer, reporting on slum-life and the domestic abuse of women. She also purposefully got herself admitted to an insane asylum to report on the appalling conditions and inhumane treatment of the patients, writing a book about her ordeal titled 10 days in a Mad House.

Nellie Bly. Source: Getty Images
Reading about Nellie Bly gave birth to a hunger in me to read about as many women explorers as possible. Looking back, I’m ashamed to admit that the reason I loved the story of her life so much upon discovering it was because I was surprised by it. I’d never heard of a woman of her time being so outspoken and exploring the world independently. Yet, when I did some research I realised that there were dozens of Victorian women explorers. I became fascinated with smashing the prevailing stereotypes of women of that era, still conveyed in many pastiche novels and period dramas, characterised by chaperones and etiquette and the refusal to lift a skirt above the knee - representation that is incorrect and fails to represent the resilience of human beings to rebel against convention.

"After so many years there’s still a lack of tales about daring, gutsy, even reckless women. Yes, reckless. Why not? Show them being reckless! I’m not suggesting that they’re perfect. I’m suggesting that they’re interesting and their ability, as characters, can inspire in young girls the realisation that life is for living; risks, mistakes and adrenalin-inducing bravery included."


It made me question, why had I not heard of these women explorers before? Especially when these true life stories of real women’s adventures were much more exciting, victorious and ground-breaking than the fictional tales about male adventurers that dominated my childhood bookshelves? I’d always loved the adventure genre more than any other, perhaps because we couldn’t afford holidays when I was little, so to read about far-off places and daring escapades was my version of travel. But there was a shocking lack of women explorers in these stories, as well as in film. Where were all the women? 

This is not a new conversation. It’s been discussed time and time again about how we need more thoughtful, complex women characters, but my shock lies in the fact that there’s so much inspiration to be drawn from real life history that I don’t understand how after so many years there’s still a lack of tales about daring, gutsy, even reckless women? Yes, reckless. Why not? Show them being reckless! I’m not suggesting that they’re perfect. I’m suggesting that they’re interesting and that cinemas and libraries everywhere are missing out on spell-binding characters and more importantly on their ability, as characters, to inspire in young girls the realisation that life is for living; risks, mistakes and adrenalin-inducing bravery included. 

It makes me wonder whether the reluctance to showcase the adventures of true life women explorers stems back to the Victorian explorers and the topics they would write about. The tales of male exploration during the colonial times were chiefly about invasion, warfare and domination, whether through taking possession of countries, or later - as history moved on and the land owned by the British Empire expanded - hunting.

"To travel outside of these oppressive traditions surely must have given women a sense of incomparable empowerment and escapism. They no longer fit the model of hearth and home, wife and mother. Because of this, it could be said that their take on what they discovered while abroad was often much different to that of men."


For women at the time there is an argument that they were travelling not for domination, but for freedom. They needed liberation from the stuffy social limitations placed on them by Victorian society, where scandal and damaged reputation was only too easy. To travel outside of these oppressive traditions surely must have given women a sense of incomparable empowerment and escapism. They no longer fit the model of hearth and home, wife and mother. Because of this, it could be said that their take on what they discovered while abroad was often much different to that of men. 

Freya Stark produced some of the first accurate maps of Baghdad. Mary Kingsley wrote about her opposition to imperialism and championed the rights of the indigenous people. Bessie Coleman was told she wasn’t allowed to train as a pilot in America, because she was a black woman, so spent a year learning French so that she could go to France to train, going on to become the first black woman pilot in the world. Unfortunately, women of the time were encouraged to write about their travels in ways that championed the "positive effect" of colonialism and there were many white women philanthropists that travelled to invaded countries, projecting the empirical image of the "civilised white woman" as they carried out patronising roles as teachers and missionaries.

Bessie Coleman. Source: Getty Images

There are far too many books written by these women and they're not always the most enlightening read. But the rebels who didn't conform to this notion did exist, and through rebelling against the very concept of the domesticated middle class wife, rebelled against imperialism also. This counteracts the existing cliché that adventure stories always need to include violence, theft, conflict and trickery, suggesting that a whole new adventure story could be possible that includes themes of protest, documentation, liberation and understanding. 

Despite all these accounts of solo women travellers, it is still considered a dangerous venture for a woman to travel alone. India, for example, is repeatedly classed as too risky a destination for solo travel, whilst Gloria Steinem’s portrayal of trains in India as talking circles of women sharing stories and advice paints an entirely different picture.

"When we paint the idea of a woman being out in the world relying on her own resources and initiative as more dangerous than the risks that she is exposed to at home in her family, work and relationships, we are contorting the big picture to fit the patriarchal notion that women are here to be domesticated."


Of course, we have to acknowledge the fact that women are most definitely targeted, and being alone in an unfamiliar place with a sensitive political situation is an undeniable risk. To quote Margaret Atwood, "Send a woman out alone on a rambling nocturnal quest and she’s likely to end up a lot deader a lot sooner than a man would." However, what are we comparing this to? Statistics show that a woman is actually more likely to be abused, sexually assaulted or kidnapped at home and most commonly by someone that they know. The persistence of TV and film portraying sexual assault, for example, as a circumstance where an unsuspected woman is seized down a dark alley at night or naively gives that hot stranger too much personal information in a seedy bar is more than annoying. It suggests that the women are to blame for not being cautious enough.

I don’t know any woman who’s not cautious. I don’t know any woman who is a victim. Women are street-smart and savvy and tough because they have to be and the same approach likely applied to travelling. When we paint the idea of a woman being out in the world relying on her own resources and initiative as more dangerous than the risks that she is exposed to at home in her family, work and relationships, we are contorting the big picture to fit the patriarchal notion that women are here to be domesticated.

We are also suggesting that if something does happen to a woman while travelling it was her fault for putting herself at such risk, that she should have known better than to go there alone. This is not doing justice to the intelligent, resilient nature of women everywhere and is also not addressing the root causes of the problems that are causing the risks in the first place, all the risks, at home and on the open road. 

To finish by returning to Gloria Steinem’s My Life on the Road, “Perhaps the most revolutionary act for a woman will be a self-willed journey – and to be welcomed when she comes home.”