Have you ever felt the urge to see something brand new? Some people were just meant to explore. For Women’s History Month, we’re celebrating these famous female explorers and adventurers, who saw the world and broke barriers while doing it.
Jeanne Baret (1740 – 1807)
When Jeanne Baret’s lover, botanist Philibert Commerson, was invited on an expedition by Louis Antoine de Bougainville to circumnavigate the globe, the couple decided that Baret would disguise herself as a man to work as Commerson’s valet. At the time of the expedition, women were prohibited from sailing on French navy ships. Commerson and Baret shared a cabin on the ship, which allowed Baret to keep her secret safe. Baret and Commerson did their botany work together, collecting and cataloguing samples from the different places the expedition visited.
Baret’s secret wasn’t discovered until months into the trip, though there are several different accounts of how exactly the discovery occurred. Baret and Commerson left the ship for good when it landed on Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean. Some years later, after Commerson passed away and Baret married a French Army officer, she returned to France and completed her circumnavigation.
Sacagawea (1788 – 1812)
One of the most famous female explorers, Sacagawea was a Lemhi Shoshone woman who famously aided Lewis and Clark on their expedition when she was only 16. She was invaluable to the expedition as a guide, naturalist and translator as they explored the Louisiana Territory. She even rescued vital journals and documents when they fell into a river (later named the Sacagawea River). Unfortunately, Sacagawea’s story is a bit more complicated than what most people learn in school.
She was the child bride of Quebecois trapper Toussaint Charbonneau, who purchased her from her previous captors when she was just 13. Charbonneau was the one who brought Sacagawea on the expedition. She had given birth just a few short months before, and carried her infant son with her on her back. While Charbonneau was paid handsomely for his part in the expedition, Sacagawea was never compensated. Years after the expedition, William Clark adopted Sacagawea’s son, Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, and after her death, adopted her infant daughter, Lisette Charbonneau.
In the early 20th century, Sacagawea became an icon for American suffragettes, who were searching for historic female figures to attach to their cause and saw her as a symbol of female strength, perseverance and independence.
Isabella Bird (1831 – 1904)
Isabella Bird was a British writer, traveler, photographer and naturalist who was first encouraged to travel by a doctor, who thought it would cure her insomnia and depression. She wrote fondly of Hawaii – where she climbed Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa – and Colorado, where she explored over 800 miles of the Rocky Mountains. Later, she traveled through Asia, seeing countries like Japan, Singapore, Korea and Vietnam.
When her husband, John Bishop, passed away, Bird inherited a large sum of money and traveled to India, where she built the John Bishop Memorial Hospital. She continued to write and travel all her life, and even became the first woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
Nellie Bly (1864 – 1922)
Born Elizabeth Jane Cochran, Nellie Bly was always on the lookout for a good story. In 1885, when The Pittsburgh Dispatch published a misogynistic column titled “What Girls Are Good For,” Bly responded with an infuriated (and extremely well-written) letter to the editor. The Dispatch not only published her response – they offered her a job.
Bly became a pioneer in the field of investigative journalism, reporting on the lives of factory workers and briefly becoming a foreign correspondent in Mexico. After she moved to New York City and began working for the New York World, Bly went undercover as a psychiatric patient to report on the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Roosevelt Island. Her resulting report and book, “Ten Days in a Mad-House,” rocketed her to fame and caused the asylum to implement more humane practices.
In 1888, Bly decided to take a trip around the world inspired by the novel “Around the world in Eighty Days.” The world was hooked as Bly sent short dispatches and longer updates on her adventures throughout her journey. She completed the trip in just over 72 days – a world record at the time, solidifying her place in history as a famous female explorer.
Annie Londonderry (1870 – 1947)
Born Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, Annie Londonderry was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by bicycle. Londonderry’s trip, which lasted from 1894 to 1895, happened during a time when bicycles were all the rage and women’s clothes were finally versatile enough for women to ride them easily.
Londonderry was a Jewish Latvian immigrant to the U.S., and she hadn’t even ridden a bicycle until she decided to take the trip. She also had a husband and three children at home, but that didn’t stop her. She was ready to bike across the world.
Londonderry took sponsorships from bike companies, perfume manufacturers, and Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company – which paid her $100 to adopt their name for her trip. At the completion of the journey, she was awarded a prize of $10,000. Afterward, she wrote stories and gave lectures on her various adventures.
Bessie Coleman (1892 – 1926)
As a Black and Native American woman at the turn of the century, life in America wasn’t easy for Bessie Coleman. She applied to flight schools across the country and was rejected from each one due to her race and gender.
When she learned that French women were allowed to fly planes, she learned French to fill out applications to flight schools, and moved to France. She became the first Black woman and first Native American to earn a pilot’s license and an international aviation license.
Upon returning to the U.S., Coleman started performing in airshows as a stunt flyer. “Queen Bess” became an instant sensation in America and Europe alike. She suffered an accident in 1923 that left her with a broken leg and cracked ribs, but she healed and returned to air stunts in 1925. Coleman was known for standing up for her beliefs, refusing to dress in demeaning costumes or perform for segregated audiences.
In 1926, Coleman was killed when she fell from a plane piloted by her mechanic and publicity agent, William D. Willis. Willis also perished when the plane crashed soon afterward. Bessie Coleman’s memory has continued to inspire the female, Black, Native American and even French pilots who followed in her flight path.
Amelia Earhart (1897 – disappeared 1937)
Ever since she first rode in a plane in December 1920, Amelia Earhart was dedicated to a life in aviation. She first achieved fame when she flew across the Atlantic in 1928 with pilot Wilmer Stultz. Though Stultz did most of the flying, Earhart was the first woman who had ever undertaken such a voyage.
Afterward, she decided to set some of her own records. In August 1928, she became the first woman to fly solo across North America. She also started competing in long-distance air races with other pilots. She became active in the Nintety-Nines, an organization supporting women in aviation, eventually becoming their first president.
In 1932, Earhart became the first woman to complete a nonstop solo transatlantic flight. After racking up several distance, speed and solo flight records, she began planning for her world flight in 1937.
Earhart planned to become the first female aviator to circumnavigate the globe. Accompanied by navigator Fred Noonan, Earhart took off from Oakland, California on June 1, 1937. They stopped in New Guinea from June 29 to July 2 before taking off once more. They were never seen again. Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan disappeared somewhere on their way to their next refueling stop on Howland Island.
Earhart was a trailblazer all her life – not only for women, but for aviation as a whole. She helped popularize the concept of commercial flights and inspired female pilots for generations to come.
Aloha Wanderwell (1906 – 1996)
Born Idris Galcia Welsh, this famous female explorer was a Canadian-American writer and filmmaker who became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe by car when she was just a teenager. She traveled with Walter Wanderwell (who she later married) in a Ford Model T, and soon became known as the “World’s Most Travelled Girl.”
Did we miss anyone? Who’s your favorite female adventurer or explorer? Let us know in the comments below.