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Extraordinary Female Explorers Throughout History

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To chart new paths across the globe, explorers throughout history have journeyed far from their home countries, risking violent storms, wild animal encounters, inhospitable environments, and other unforeseen dangers along the way. While we’re familiar with the stories of countless male explorers, often overlooked are the female explorers from the modern era, even though they faced similarly daunting challenges. These audacious female explorers defied convention, broke gender barriers, and ventured out into the world at a time when it was socially unacceptable for women to do so. In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, discover the stories of 10 incredible female explorers throughout history.

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Ida Pfeiffer (1797-1858)

An engraved portrait of Ida Pfeiffer, an Austrian traveller and travel book author.
Credit: Marzolino/ Shutterstock

Ida Pfeiffer was one of the world’s first solo female explorers and a bestselling travel writer. Born in Austria, she’d always dreamed of traveling, but marriage, motherhood, and lack of money prevented her from heading out until her children were grown. On her first expedition in 1842, Pfeiffer boarded a steamer and cruised down the Danube River to Istanbul, then to the Middle East, where camels became her transportation mode.

Pfeiffer headed to Scandinavia and Iceland next, after which she published her first journal documenting her trip (anonymously, to hide her gender). Pfeiffer made two trips around the world, visiting dozens of countries and continents, including Brazil, Chile, Africa, Southeast Asia, Tahiti, China, Singapore, Madagascar, India, Iran, Russia, Indonesia, Sumatra, and the U.S. Readers eagerly followed her exploits as she later published several journals under her own name. Her books were translated into seven languages and earned her memberships in Paris and Berlin's geographical societies.

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Isabella Bird (1831-1904)  

A Shot of a woman riding a horse on a farm.
Credit: Marco VDM/ iStock

Another intrepid solo traveler, writer, and photographer who began traveling in her 40s, Isabella Bird (also known as Isabella Lucy Bishop) left England’s gray skies and headed to the U.S. in 1854, despite suffering from several medical ailments. Her subsequent adventures took her to Australia, Colorado, Hawaii, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, Morocco, and the Middle East. She trekked through jungles, rode thousands of miles on horseback (and several on elephants), and hiked mountains and volcanoes. Bird published books such as The Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, The Yangtze Valley and Beyond, and Unbeaten Tracks in Japan that detailed her extensive travels. She broke the all-male gender barrier of London’s Royal Geographic Society when she became the first woman inductee in 1892.

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Eliza Scidmore (1856-1928)

National Geographic Magazines.
Credit: Alexander Andrews/ Unsplash

National Geographic magazine might not be the household name it is today if it weren’t for Eliza Scidmore’s influence. Born in Iowa, Scidmore was the magazine’s first female photographer, writer, and board member. She joined the magazine in 1890 after authoring articles about her trips to Alaska and Japan that were published in Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Times, and The Cosmopolitan. Initially, she wrote under the name E.R. Scidmore, so readers assumed she was a man.

Scidmore acquired a camera and documented her travels across Japan, India, China, and Indonesia. National Geographic’s then-president and editor, John Hyde, became an admirer of Scidmore’s work and frequently consulted her for feedback on the magazine. She urged him to print photos, especially color photos, which were just gaining traction. National Geographic’s subscriptions increased sixfold in only two years after it began publishing images, many taken by Scidmore.

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Nellie Bly (1864-1922)

A portait of Elizabeth Cochrane aka "Nellie Bly", 1890.
Credit: Everett Collection/ Shutterstock

Another adventurous journalist, Pennsylvania-born Nellie Bly published a series of articles and later a book, Ten Days in a Madhouse, which chronicled the horrific conditions at a New York women’s mental institution. Bly (whose real name was Elizabeth Jane Cochrane) feigned insanity to get committed, and her exposé resulted in better funding and improved conditions at the institution.

In 1890, Bly convinced her newspaper editor to let her emulate the fictitious globe-trotting record set in Jules Verne’s novel, Around the World in 80 Days. Initially, he refused, saying that Bly would need too many suitcases and a chaperone because of her gender. She persisted and traveled (mostly alone) 24,849 miles by train, steamship, donkey, rickshaw, and horse — circling the globe in 72 days. She did it with one dress, a coat, and a small satchel.

6

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926)

Portrait of Gertrude Bell.
Credit: Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

A linguist, archaeologist, writer, and mountaineer from England, Gertrude Bell (whose nickname was the “Queen of the Desert”) is best known for helping establish the state of Iraq under British imperialism in the 1920s. A colleague of T.E. Lawrence (the inspiration for Lawrence of Arabia), Bell frequented the Middle East, where she developed a passion for archaeology, history, languages, and the local people. Through multiple books, she helped to introduce the Arabian Peninsula to British readers. She knew the region exceptionally well after multiple desert crossings, often on horseback and camelback. That knowledge was invaluable to the British army, and Bell became the first female British officer during World War I. Later, Bell greatly influenced imperial actions in the region, particularly in forming the unified Kingdom of Iraq after the British gained control of the region in World War I.

5

Annie Londonderry (1870-1947)

Women rides bike along a trail.
Credit: GibsonPictures/ iStock

A Latvian immigrant to the U.S., Annie Londonderry (whose real name was Annie Cohen Kopchovsky) became the first woman to bicycle around the world in 1894. Leaving behind a husband and three young children at home, Londonderry was reportedly inspired to make the trip after tales surfaced of two wealthy businessmen making a $10,000 bet that women were incapable of such a journey. (No proof of the wager exists, and Londonderry was known to be quite a storyteller who often embellished or fabricated stories.)

Londonderry needed funding for the trip, so she found sponsors willing to pay her to ride with signs and banners attached to her bike. In fact, she took the last name Londonderry because it was the name of the first business to sponsor her. Londonderry sailed on a steamer ship with her bike to France; from there, she pedaled and traveled via train across Europe. She sailed between ports across the Middle East and Southeast Asia and back to California. Finally, she pedaled and trained back to Boston, arriving about 15 months after she departed. Londonderry likely spent more time onboard trains and boats than on her bike, but she did cycle across much of the U.S., and her journey came to symbolize women’s independence.

4

Emma Gatewood (1887-1973)

Emma Gatewood photographed in Denver.
Credit: Denver Post/ Getty Images

Nicknamed the “hiking grandma,” Emma Gatewood set out alone in 1955, at the age of 67, to become the first woman to hike the entirety of the 2,050-mile-long Appalachian Trail. This mother of 11 (and grandmother and great-grandmother) from Ohio didn’t notify anyone of her plans or carry much gear with her. Starting in Georgia and trekking north to Maine, she made the trip in 146 days, averaging about 14 miles per day — all while wearing a pair of Keds tennis shoes! News outlets learned of her trek mid-journey, so reporters would often meet her on the trail. She returned to the trail a few years later and became the first person to traverse it twice. The 2,000-mile Oregon trail (Missouri to Oregon) beckoned next in 1959. At 75, she tackled the Appalachian one more time (this time in sections instead of straight through).

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Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)

Photo of Bessie Coleman before take off.
Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/ Getty Images

Bessie Coleman overcame gender and racial discrimination and soared into history as the world’s first Black female pilot in 1921. Born in Texas, Coleman was banned from U.S. flight schools, so she learned French and headed to France, where she earned her pilot’s license — two years before fellow famous female aviator Amelia Earhart. Coleman returned to the U.S. and performed jaw-dropping stunts in aerial shows across the nation to raise funds for an African American flying school (and reportedly refused to perform in racially segregated events). Tragically, her life abruptly ended when she crashed during an air show rehearsal, but her contributions to the fight for equality endure.

2

Freya Stark (1893-1993)

Freya Stark, playing solitaire at her home.
Credit: Hulton Archive/ Getty images

Like Gertrude Bell, Freya Start served as a respected member of the British military in the Middle East during the early 20th century. Stark grew up in Italy, although her parents were English. Her fascination with the Middle East began at the age of nine after she received a book of Arabian folk tales, One Thousand and One Nights (also known as Arabian Nights). She studied Arabic and Farsi and ventured to the Middle East in 1927, becoming one of the first non-Arabs to trek through the southern Arabian Desert. She rode camels or donkeys and adopted a scrappier, more daring approach than Bell, relying on her wit and charm to extract herself from sticky situations. She mapped uncharted areas of the Islamic world and wrote more than 24 books (some that became bestsellers), detailing the history and culture of the people she met during her travels.

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Amelia Earhart (1897-1937)

Amelia Earhart (1897-1937), waving, seated outside cockpit on top of an Autogiro.
Credit: Everett Collection/ Shutterstock

American aviator Amelia Earhart is a household name and perhaps the world's most famous female explorer. She fell in love with flying after she watched an airshow and later took a 10-minute flight in 1920. Earhart saved money for flight lessons by working odd jobs and bought her first plane in 1921. She gained fame in 1928 when she flew nonstop across the Atlantic as the first female passenger. In 1932, her fame catapulted into worldwide stardom when she flew solo across the Atlantic, becoming the first female pilot to do so.

Earhart achieved many other “firsts,” including the first solo flight from California to Hawaii, and set several speed and altitude records. Earhart embraced her fame and authored several books, received endorsements, and promoted a line of “active living” clothing. She also left her mark on women’s rights and helped to establish the burgeoning commercial aviation industry. Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared in the South Pacific while attempting her first circumnavigational flight in 1937, leaving behind many unanswered questions about her death, but her legacy lives on.

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