Women Adventurers

Deanna Raybourn, a historical novelist, says:

Among my favorite half-dozen topics is the field of … female explorers, the intrepid women who packed up their parasols and petticoats and roamed the world in search of adventure. Some were scientists, some artists, some unabashed curiosity-seekers who simply went out to see what they could see.

Women explorers and adventurers have been wandering around the globe since humans were first civilized, up to modern times.

Aren’t we all adventurers, in this great experience called life? Some of us just go on physical and global adventures. Even if we can’t travel to exotic and dangerous locations, we can find inspiration in those adventures and we can learn from the insights and experiences of the adventurers.

For many years I have been collecting books by and about women adventurers – Mary Kingsley, Beryl Markham, and others. Now I’m on a mission to bring you their stories for fun, learning, and inspiration.

Who are these women? I have created my own list for study and writing. The women on this list:

  • Each had some kind of literal adventure, traveling somewhere outside the boundaries of her own country.
  • Each broke out of the mold of normal behavior for women of the time. Jeanne Baret, a woman in the 18th century, traveled as a man because single women weren’t typically allowed on ships as crew. Alexandra David-Neel explored Buddhism and traveled around India, China, and even into Tibet, the most hidden country in the world at that time.
  • Each risked something. Some left husbands and families, some traveled with disabilities and illnesses, and some literally risked their lives. Isabel Godin is a good example: She set out in 1769 over the Andes and down the Amazon to meet her husband, after they were separated for over 20 years. She was the sole survivor of the ill-fated expedition.
  • Many traveled or had other kinds of journeys alone. Those that traveled with someone else (most commonly a husband) were in danger or their travel companions died.
  • Many of these women tallied up firsts, like Beryl Markham, one of the first bush pilots or Narcissa Whitman, the first white woman to travel across the country to Oregon.
  • Many of these women tallied up firsts, like Beryl Markham, one of the first bush pilots or Narcissa Whitman, the first white woman to travel across the country to Oregon.

Adventurers vs. Travelers vs. Explorers

Annie Smith Peck

As I started thinking about who to include in my list, I came up against some categories that were initially confusing. What’s the difference between an adventurer, an explorer, and a traveler? As I researched the terms, I found they were fairly synonymous, with some overlap, so these are my definitions for the purpose of this study.

Traveler we can easily define; it’s someone who makes a journey, typically abroad, out of their own country. All the women in this series have taken a trip outside their own country or outside the bounds of the civilized part of the world. You could say we’re all travelers, taking trips of the body and of the mind. But that’s too broad a definition for my purpose.

Explorer also seems on the surface to be fairly easy to define. An explorer is someone who travels for the purpose of discovery. Explorers can include those who explore by traveling (mountain climbers, for example) or those who explore the world of science.

Adventurer covers both travelers and explorers and adds something more – an element of excitement and danger. Many of the women I have been reading and writing about went out in search of experience, the joy of traveling, exploring new places, and finding deep meaning and thrills as they go.

Sprinkled through the writing of Alexandra David-Neel, for example, are descriptions like this one of mountains in Tibet:

…Quite suddenly an awe-inspiring landscape, which had previously been shut from our sight by the walls of the valley, burst upon us. 

Think of an immensity of snow, an undulating tableland limited far away at our left by a straight wall of blue-green glaciers and peaks wrapped in everlasting, immaculate whiteness….Words cannot give an idea of such winter scenery as we saw on these heights. It was one of those overpowering spectacles that make believers bend their knees, as before the veil that hides the Supreme Face.” 

(My Journey to Lhasa 1927)

My List of Women Adventurers

My basis for selecting women for the list started with a Wikipedia page on Women Explorers. As I went through the list, I found some names I recognized (Izak Dinesen/Karen Blixen, Beryl Markham). Others I had never heard of but who intrigued me, like Alexandra David-Neel and Hester Stanhope.

My list includes:

  • Scientists, particularly naturalists and botanists and those who study the natural world, like Jeanne Baret, Maria Sibylla Merian, and Mary Kingsley
    Gertrude Bell in Iraq 1909
  • Archeologists, like Hester Stanhope and Gertrude Bell
  • Pilots, like Beryl Markham
  • Spies like Marthe McKenna
  • Warriors like Weetamoo and pirates like Grace O’Malley
  • Mountain climbers like Annie Smith Peck and Dervla Murphy (who did it on a bicycle!)
  • Travelers in difficult times, like Louisa Adams (wife of U.S. President John Quincy Adams)
  • Those who journey for the sheer pleasure of it or to fulfill some inner need, like Sorrel Wilby, who traveled 1900 miles across Tibet alone.
  • Those who endured hardship, discrimination, or some deprivation, like Isabel Godin, who traveled alone through the Amazon rainforest with no food or water.

Many of these women traveled or explored in spite of the condemnation of men and they flouted the social stigma of their times. (Imagine climbing the Himalayas in a skirt or riding a camel side saddle!)

I didn’t include:

  • If there was nothing available by or about a woman I didn’t include her. If there were no books readily available on Amazon or elsewhere about a woman, or I couldn’t find somewhere you could find out more about this woman, I had to leave her out of the list.
  • Women who were very wealthy and traveled in luxury didn’t get included. Aimee Crocker could be considered an adventurer, but she had the Crocker fortune behind her and she endured no hardship (although I might add her later). I did include Louise Arner Boyd, who had a personal fortune but who was a true explorer. It’s my list, so I get to decide.

Some of the women on my list had authored books or articles or both. My discussions about these authors will include descriptions of their writing.

By its nature, my list is ever-growing and changing, as I add women and maybe take someone off.

Wondering where to start? 

You might want to read my post on 10 Amazing Women Adventurers and Explorers You’ve Never Heard Of

Or wander through the categories on each page. It’s kind of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” thing.


Jean Murray