A celebration of female travel pioneers

Victorian photos and locket

Flying back from Portugal a few weeks ago I was sat next to an old lady (at 90 I’m sure she’ll forgive me for describing her as that!). She was on her way home from visiting her children, but her first travels were a bit more exotic then easyJet. Through the flight she had me gripped by stories of how she travelled around the world in the early 1950s, working as a doctor. She had a car shipped to the States and drove it from Miami, across Canada and then around New Zealand, across Australia and on to South Africa where she travelled into the Congo, despite being on her own and having a broken arm. Makes travel today look easy! Her story got me thinking about other female travel pioneers. The women who didn’t just have to take on their own fears to see the world but had to battle society’s expectations of how a woman should behave too. Here are just some of the female travellers that paved the way for us all.

Jeanne Baré – the first woman to circumnavigate the globe

Born in France in 1740, Jeanne Baré grew up in poverty in Burgundy. She was always interested in plants and natural remedies, and became housekeeper to a naturalist called Philibert de Commerson in the 1760s. They worked and lived together and despite him being married they became lovers. Commerson was asked to join explorer Louis de Bougainville’s mission to be the first Frenchman to sail around the world and collect plant specimens to use in the French colonies. Jeanne wanted to come with him and although he was allowed to take a servant, women were forbidden on French Navy ships. So she decided to dress as a man and go by the name of Jean Baret.

The plan worked, and she set off on the Etoile in 1766. She strapped down her breasts and worked as hard as any of the men, but the crew got suspicious. She managed to put them off by telling them she was a eunuch until locals in Tahiti revealed her true sex. Jeanne and Commerson left the ship in Mauritius and she ended up living there for the next few years. After Commerson died she married a French navel officer and finally finished her circumnavigation of the globe when she arrived back in France in 1775.

You can read more of Jeanne’s amazing story in the book The Discovery of Jeanne Baret.

Jeanne Barre - first woman to circumnavigate the globe

Jeanne Barre – and a painting of the Etoile landing in Tahiti (source Wikimedia Commons)

Ida Pfeiffer – the first solo female traveller

As a child in Vienna in the 1800s, Ida was a tomboy who dressed in boy’s clothes, was educated like a boy and travelled with her father to Palestine and Egypt. But then after his death when she was nine she was made to be more ladylike, wear dresses and become a wife and mother. When her much older husband died and her sons had grown up she finally got chance to follow her dreams and travel the world. She started off with trips along the Danube to the Middle East and then to Scandinavia. She travelled alone and on a budget, staying with local people and taking local transport. She also collected plant and rock samples to sell back home and wrote a book after each trip to help pay for the next.

In 1847 she did her biggest trip yet, setting off around the world at the age of 50. She travelled through South America, China, India, the Middle East, Russia and Greece. Sometimes she had to dress in men’s clothing for safety and she undertook some extreme journeys, like 300 miles by camel across the Iraqi desert. She became a bit of a celebrity and by the time she set off on her second RTW trip she had offers of free travel and places to stay. This time she visited South Africa, Borneo, Indonesia, Australia and the Andes over three years. Her third and final RTW trip only got as far as Madagascar, where she got involved in a government coup and caught a tropical disease which ended up killing her.

You can still get an anthology of her books as the Works of Ida Pfeiffer.

Ida Pfeiffer - first female solo traveller

Ida Pfeiffer – and dressed up for specimen collecting (source Wikimedia Commons)

Nelly Bly – Around the World in 72 Days

Born in 1864, American journalist Elizabeth Cochrane was better known by the pen name Nellie Bly. This fearless lady was one of the world’s first investigative journalists, going undercover in a sweatshop and spending 10 days in a mental asylum to expose its horrifying conditions. But she was always looking for the next challenge. So after Jules Verne published Around the World in 80 Days, she came up with the idea of trying to beat it in real life. Her newspaper bosses wanted to send a man instead, but relented after she said “Very well. Send the man and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him”.

She set off from New Jersey in 1889 on a journey of 24,899 miles – and all in the one dress. The male newspaper staff laughed that she’d have a dozen trunks so she took just one tiny bag. Her minimalist packing list included a dressing gown, hankerchiefs, spare underwear, a flask and cup, toiletries and writing materials. She travelled by boat, train, horse and rickshaw, battling crippling seasickness and a string of male suitors. But she was determined to make the journey alone. And she did, with eight days to spare and setting a new world record. It took her 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds in the end, even with a quick detour to meet Jules Verne en route. The public loved the story, with crowds surrounding her train back home. But after that she was onto the next challenge and ended up as an inventor and industrialist.

You can read more about Nelly’s journey in her book Around the World in 72 Days.

Nelly Bly – Around the World in 72 Days

Nelly Bly – and in her travel outfit complete with tiny bag (source Wikimedia Commons)

Annie Londonderry – the first woman to cycle around the world

Latvian-born Annie Cohen Kopchovsky emigrated to America as a child in the 1870s and ended up as the unlikely first international female sports star. Aged only 23 she took on a high-stakes wager which meant she had to cycle around the world within 15 months and earn $5000 on the way. It was a shocking thing for a Victorian woman to do, especially as she left a husband and three children behind and had only just learnt to ride a bike the day before. Annie packed only a change of clothes and a pearl revolver, and quickly swapped her long skirts and heavy woman’s bike for bloomers and a lighter man’s bike.

Annie earnt her money by turning herself into a mobile billboard, carrying banners and ribbons with the names of sponsors. She also did personal appearances and sold photographs and even got her name sponsored – the Londonderry Spring Water Company paid her $100 to change it to Annie Londonderry. She was an amazing self-promoter and was featured in newspapers around the world. She finished her journey back in Boston 14 days ahead of her 15 month deadline, despite having to ride part of it with a broken arm. Her journey was called “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman” by newspapers, but her celebrity faded and her story was forgotten for years.

Her great-nephew has published a book about her travels, Around The World On Two Wheels.

Annie Londonderry - the first woman to cycle around the world

Annie Londonderry – and at the start of the journey (source Spokeswoman Productions)

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 Celebrating the earliest female travel pioneers who took on society's expectations as well as their own fears to explore the world in their own way – On the Luce travel blog


  1. says

    I really like this article I think sometimes we think about why we can’t do something, but these woman did it and seems like they found freedom in travel especially coming from times periods where women did not have a lot a freedom they seem like they did it because they did not except the limitations around them and I refuse to do the same I will definitely be making travel plans.

    • says

      Thanks – yes it certainly makes you think how much more difficult things were for women back then and that we are in an amazing position of being able to to travel – must make the most of it!

  2. says

    Kudos to these women! So inspiring and really love the courages especially like @sophisticatedsparkle mentioned they came from times periods where women didn’t have the freedom like todays.

  3. says

    Fabulous post on women travelers from the past. I’m always so impressed to read about these adventurous women. I also love Freya Stark, another adventurous woman well ahead of her time.

  4. says

    Amazing post!How brave of these women to overcome the societal norms and just start their travel adventures. I can’t believe they travelled all by themselves…how dangerous that must have been at that time. Even today I would hesitate to go to some of these exotic countries all by myself. I was so proud when I travelled to South East Asia with only 8 kg in my backpack, but I guess Nelly Bly was even better than me with only one dress 😉

  5. says

    Fantastic post! I remember reading about a woman (I can’t remember her name, how awful) who was the one to make the Milford Track in NZ famous. I was hiking it in modern boots, with modern equipment and huts to stay at along the way, and it was hard – I couldn’t imagine doing it in 19th century boots and a dress! These women were amazing. Thanks for sharing!

    • says

      I think the clothes must’ve made a huge difference – anything from cycling or hiking to sports would’ve been so much harder in those huge dresses and layers or petticoats and girdles!

  6. says

    Inspirational women, Lucy. Oh to be made of tougher stuff! Annie sounds way ahead of her time. Think what she could have done with social media!
    Interesting post 🙂

  7. says

    Very cool stories! I can’t believe these women aren’t more well known. What a shame. All I can say is, I’d love to be included in this illustrious list. 🙂 But my travels are far too easy in comparison.

    • says

      It’s true, the male explorers seem to get more publicity but these are all such great achievements! Travel is a lot easier these days and there are so few really unexplored places that it’s tough to be quite so adventurous.

  8. says

    Great examples of pioneering women. There was such a different set of hurdles for women from these times, though I feel like some of the prejudices are still lingering towards solo female travellers. Do you know much about Mary Kingsley? I wrote my dissertation on her at university. She’s a really incredible female Victorian explorer who spent a lot of time around the Congo. She wasn’t a feminist, and travelled in a full skirt and hat, but I still think she was an inspiration just through what she achieved and the way she travelled with such limited funds.

    • says

      Yes I agree that it’s still not as easy to travel as a women as it is as a man. I’d not heard of Mary Kingsley before so will have to read up about her story too, love discovering these women, it’s just a shame they’re not so well known as a lot of the male explorers.

    • says

      So true, it’s a shame that so many have been forgotten – will look into Beatrice Grimshaw though, it’s always good to discover great new stories!

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