History, we suspect, was written by a man. There are, literally, thousands of books about gritty, bearded men setting off on long voyages. A quick glance at the ‘Explorers section’ of the local library, or history textbook, will confirm this. But hiding innocuously between books about Marco Polo and Magellan, are stories of equally gritty women who did everything their male counterparts did, except, in a skirt. Sangeetha Sampath Pai combs through history to bring you a three-part series about women explorers through three centuries.
The beginning of the 20th century saw the end of Victorian-era skirts and attitudes. But eyebrows still rose and gossip still ensued when the words ‘Woman Explorer’ were heard. But these brave-hearts were on the other side of the world, and didn’t hear a word of it!
Marguerite Harrison (1879-1967): The Spy Who Travelled The World
Marguerite Harrison could well have been the heroine of a thrilling novel—a beautiful woman, a spy, a reporter, a translator, an explorer. She journeyed extensively, sometimes as an intelligence agent, sometimes as a reporter.
Her travels took her across Europe, to Italy, France, Holland, Germany and even to Lubynka, an infamous prison in Russia. Harrison led an unapologetic, colourful and adventurous life. And we are pretty sure, she didn’t regret a minute of it.
Louise Arner Boyd (1887-1972): The Ice Woman
Louise Arner Boyd had a passion for exploring. But she had no interest in plowing through tropical jungles, sailing on Orient seas or watching animals in the African plains. Instead, Boyd headed north, far up north.
Boyd, the ‘ice woman’, held an endless passion for the Arctic Ocean and landscape. She was the first woman to fly over the North Pole. She led scientific expeditions to Greenland. She studied the effects of polar magnetic fields on radio communication deep in the Artic. No wonder, the media dubbed her ‘The Girl Who Tamed The Artic’.
Amelia Earhart (1897-1937): The Flying Queen
As a child Amelia loved to explore her neighbourhood. Perhaps she was preparing for a time when she would be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean solo, a journey that immortalised her.
One of 20th century’s greatest explorers, Amelia was flying at a time when there were only a handful of women.
Her death is tragically poetic. She disappeared over the Pacific Ocean while flying—doing what she loved best, exploring the skies, her neighbourhood.
Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969): The Woman Who Travelled to Forbidden Lands
Alexandra David-Neel expressed an intense desire for freedom and spirituality from a young age.
Little wonder then that she journeyed to Lhasa, Tibet when it was forbidden for foreigners. Alexandra’s fascination with Buddhism and spirituality took her all over the Eastern hemisphere including India, Japan and China.
She has written over 30 books on spirituality and her teachings have inspired many artists, writers and philosophers. And quite a few cubicle-dwellers, as well.
Harriet Chalmers Adams (1875-1937): A Woman Who Travelled A Hundred Thousand Miles
Harriet Chalmers Adams led an action-packed life. Her various avatars included writer, photographer, explorer and war correspondent.
Her travels, if plotted on a world map, would look like the connectivity-maps of airlines, with red lines traversing the length and breadth of the planet. She journeyed extensively through South America, Asia, South Pacific and even retraced Columbus’s route to America and beyond. It is estimated that Harriet covered over hundred thousand miles during her travels.
Delia Akeley (1875-1970): The African Queen
Delia Akeley was born in a quiet little corner of Wisconsin, far away from the golden grass of the African prairies. But Delia had an unconditional love for Africa and made several exploratory trips during her lifetime. She was, by all accounts, completely at home in the bush.
During her travels across the continent, Akeley lived with Pygmies, doing exhaustive research on the then, unknown tribe. Akeley was also the first woman to traverse the entire African continent.
Dame Freya Madeline Stark (1893-1993): The Centurion Explorer
Freya Stark was no ordinary explorer. Where others took a left, she bravely swerved right. She travelled to the remotest corners of the earth, the most inhospitable landscapes. She was the first woman to enter Luristan, Iran. She travelled to Afghanistan at a time when even men were wary of going there.
Her fascination with the Orient and her flair for capturing it beautifully in books, earned her the title ‘The Last of the Romantic Travellers’, one she held for a hundred years, till her death.
Margaret Murie (1902-2003): The Arctic Conservationist
Margaret Murie was a famous author, naturalist and conservationist. Her love for preserving the natural splendour of the world took her to places most of us have only seen in an atlas—Alaska and the Arctic. These rarely-visited lands, often buried under snow even in the height of summer, were no match for Murie. She plowed on through snow, ice and mountains to call the world’s attention to the spectacular wilderness at the roof of the world.
She died on the cusp of the 21st century, trying to make sure the world remained as it was, for 21st century travelers.