Women Travelers: A Unique Route

Personal narratives of women travelers are an important, yet often overlooked, source of information about unique causes of travel and tourism. Historically, women have chosen to travel for different reasons than men. Often, women travelers recorded their journeys with narrative accounts. It is these texts that have shed light on the motivations of women travelers and their adventures. The earliest of these works, written before 1750, are in the form of letters. This style is different from early travel narratives written by men. 

There are relatively few records of women travelers before 1800. At the time, travel, especially adventure travel and exploration, was dominated by men. Women were traditionally expected to manage the domestic sphere, which did not allow much flexibility for leaving home or seeing new places.

During the 19th century, the number of women travelers making trips and publishing narratives increased significantly. Many women traveling during this time were trying to redefine the societal expectations placed on women. Women transitioned from their earlier roles as subordinates during expeditions led by men into travelers themselves, organizing and spearheading their own projects. This evolution occurred simultaneously with increased publicity and awareness of the women’s suffrage movement. Many of the ideals from this first wave of feminism were mirrored in the desire to travel. Women travelers began to plan trips to remote, inhospitable places, radically different from the family tourist locations of the past.

The number of independent women travelers has continued to increase over time. However, when women in the 19th and 20th centuries wrote travel narratives, they were not as widely read as those published by men. Even today, women who accompanied men or completed similar or equivalent adventures are not recognized by history. Women’s routes are often unique and their narratives can shed new light on faraway places and peoples.


Mary Meader (1916-2008)

Rachel Mary Upjohn Light Meader was born in Kalamazoo,Michigan, heir to the Upjohn Company family fortune. At a young age she became a well-known aerial photographer and traveler. After marrying her first cousin, the two set out on an adventurous honeymoon. Meader took flying lessons and learned morse code in preparation for the trip, which took place just a few months after the couple’s first child was born. Their goal was to capture areas of South America and Africa that had never been documented by aerial photographers. They took the first pictures of the Nazca lines in Peru before crossing the Atlantic to photograph areas throughout the African continent. Later in life, Meader donated significant amounts of money to a variety of Kalamazoo charities, as well as Western Michigan University and the University of Michigan.

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Amelia Earhart (1898-1937)

Perhaps an exception in the world of women travelers, Amelia Earhart was a celebrity. Her many record-breaking flights garnered significant publicity and popularity. Earhart was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, first as a passenger in 1928 and then again as a solo pilot in 1932. In addition, she made the first solo flights from Hawaii to California, California to Mexico City, and Mexico City to New Jersey in 1937. Earhart was admired as the model of an independent, adventurous, and modern women. Her travels were covered in many of the top magazines and newspapers of the day. Her planned flight around the world, which was dubbed “girdle the globe,” ended in tragedy when Earhart, her navigator, and their plane disappeared without a trace on the last leg of their Pacific trek. More than 70 years later, her disappearance is still a mystery.


Nellie Bly (1867-1922)

Elizabeth Cochrane, who wrote under the name Nellie Bly, was an American investigative journalist known for traveling around the world. She raced fellow journalist Elizabeth Bisland to complete a circumnavigation of the globe after being inspired by Jules Verne’s classic book Around the World in 80 Days. Bly made the trip in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds, beating both her contemporary rival, Bisland, and Verne’s fictional character, Phileas Fogg. Bly was also well known for her work as an undercover journalist. For example, in order to expose abuses inside an insane asylum, Bly pretended to be an inmate. After several weeks of firsthand observation, she wrote about her experiences for the newspaper, The New York World. This stunt earned her a readership that loyally followed her work, including her travel writing.


Nellie Bly’s trip around the world took just 72 days. She traveled through England, Egypt, Singapore and Japan as well as many others during her record-setting performance.


Fanny Bullock Workman (1859-1925)

One of the foremost names in early female exploration, Fanny Bullock Workman is well known for her travels in the Himalayas and Southeast Asia. She and her husband, William Hunter Workman, bicycled through parts of northern Africa, Spain, India, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia. Their joint work, Through Town and Jungle, includes many photographs and a narrative account of their trip, as well as the maps they created to document their route. Workman was a strong supporter of the suffrage movement, and was famously photographed placing a “Votes for Women” placard on the summit of a mountain in the Karakoram range. Workman traveled extensively at a time when few women did. She was raised with more education and more means than the average woman in the late 19th century. These advantages enabled her to envision the adventures she would later undertake.

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