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Travel icons: Four inspirational female travel pioneers

Four inspirational female travel pioneers

On a plane from Portugal a few years back, I got chatting 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 than easyJet. Through the flight she had me gripped by stories of travelling the world in the 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 with a broken arm. Makes travel today look so easy!

Her story got me thinking about other female travel pioneers. The women who not only had 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 four of the inspirational female travellers that paved the way for us all.

Vintage travel

Jeanne Baré: The first woman to circumnavigate the globe

“An unwitting explorer who risked life and limb for love of botany and, in doing so, became the first woman to circumnavigate the world.”

Jeanne Baré was born in Burgundy in 1740 and grew up in poverty. She was always interested in plants and natural remedies, and became housekeeper to naturalist Philibert de Commerson in the 1760s. They worked and lived together and became lovers, despite him being married.

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 for 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 dressed as a man and went by the name of Jean Baret.

The plan worked, and they set sail 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 ended up living and working there for the next few years, with Jeanne becoming an expert botanist. 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, where she lived out the rest of her life in the Dordogne.

Read 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

“In my youth I dreamed of travelling – in my old age I find amusement in reflecting on what I have beheld.”

Born in 1800s Vienna, Ida Pfeiffer was a tomboy who dressed in boy’s clothes, was educated like a boy and travelled to Palestine and Egypt with her father to places. But when he died when she was nine, she was forced to be more ladylike, wear dresses and became a music teacher.

She married an older widower and had children, but when her 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 went on to explore Scandinavia.

Ida 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 trip. 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. Ida sometimes dressed as a man for safety and undertook extreme adventures like 300 miles by camel across the Iraqi desert. She became a bit of a celebrity of her time and by the time she set off on her second round-the-world trip she had offers of free travel and places to stay along the way.

This time she visited South Africa, Borneo, Indonesia, Australia and the Andes over three years. Her third and final round-the-world 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.

Read more about Ida’s story in her book A Woman’s Journey Round the World.

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

“I’ve always had the feeling that nothing is impossible is one applies a certain amount of energy in the right direction. If you want to do it, you can do it.”

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 his book 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 after she said “Very well. Send the man and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him” they relented and let her go.

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 with her. Her minimalist packing list was just made up of a dressing gown, handkerchiefs, spare underwear, a flask and cup, toiletries and her writing materials.

Nelly travelled by boat, train, horse and rickshaw, battling crippling seasickness and a string of suitors along the way. 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, and that included a quick detour to meet Jules Verne.

The public loved her story, with crowds surrounded her train as she arrived back home. But after that she was onto the next challenge and ended up as an inventor and industrialist.

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

“I am a journalist and ‘a new woman’ if that term means that I believe I can do anything that any man can do.”

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! She only took a change of clothes and a pearl revolver with her, and swapped her long skirts and heavy woman’s bike for bloomers and a man’s bike.

She earnt money by turning herself into a mobile billboard, carrying banners and ribbons with the names of her sponsors on. She also did personal appearances, sold photographs and even got her name sponsored – the Londonderry Spring Water Company paid her $100 to change it to Annie Londonderry.

Annie was an amazing self-promoter and was featured in newspapers around the world. She finished her journey in Boston 14 days ahead of her deadline, despite having to ride partway 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.

Read more about Annie’s travels in her great-nephew’s book 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 four inspirational female travel pioneers who took on society's expectations as well as their own fears to explore the world in their own way. #pioneers #female #women #internationalwomensday

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Peter Zheutlin

Wednesday 23rd of June 2021

Hi Lucy....thank you for including my great grandaunt Annie "Londonderry" here. I've just published my 2d book about her, this one historical fiction called "Spin: A Novel Based on a (Mostly) True Story," (Pegasus Books, June 1, 2021.)

Lucy Dodsworth

Monday 5th of July 2021

You're very welcome, she's got such a great story – and congratulations on the book, I will check it out!