When most people think about the history of global adventure, it’s generally males whose names come to mind. Marco Polo, Ernest Shackleton, Sir Edmund Hillary, and Teddy Roosevelt are all icons, and rightly should be. But what about the female explorers and conservationists who defied archaic cultural mores and boldly dared to go where no women had gone before?
March is Women’s History Month, and March 8 is International Women’s Day. Though it was first celebrated in New York in 1909, it wasn’t celebrated as a popular event in the west until the United Nations declared March 8 the UN Day for women's rights and world peace in 1977.
To honor the occasion, here’s our list of 10 iconic female explorers and conservationists, and a look at how each one changed the world:
Born in Burgundy in 1740, Jeanne Baret is the first woman ever to circumnavigate the planet. But since the French Navy prohibited women on its ships, she had to do it as a man, binding her breasts with bandages and calling herself Jean. She served as valet and assistant to naturalist Philibert Commerçon (with whom she had a child, which was given up for adoption) on a round-the-world expedition led by Admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville. From 1766 to 1769 she traveled on a ship with 300 men, and there are differing accounts of when her gender was discovered. Regardless, the voyage earned her a place in history.
Appointed by President Clinton in 1993, Mollie Beattie was the first female director of the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Her tenure was tragically cut short by brain cancer at age 49, but in three years she oversaw gray wolf reintroduction into the northern Rockies, as well as the addition of 15 National Wildlife Refuges, and fought attempts to gut the Endangered Species Act and cut funding for conservation. The Washington Post lauded her posthumously, praising how she “left a lasting mark on both the physical landscape of the nation and the political terrain of conservation ethics.”
Born in 1868, wealthy Oxford grad Gertrude Bell became one of the most influential writers and archaeologists of the early 20th century. She traveled extensively throughout Asia and Europe, but is best known for her work in the Middle East, where she was a colleague of T.E. Lawrence. Fluid in Persian and Arabic, she was a key figure in the political reinvention of Mesopotamia and pioneered the idea that historical antiquities should be preserved in their home nation. A Werner Herzog-directed film biopic, Queen of the Desert (starring Nicole Kidman as Bell and Robert Pattinson as Lawrence), premiered in 2015.
This American journalist first made headlines with a gripping undercover exposé on abuse at a women’s insane asylum. But today she is most celebrated for an incredible adventure inspired by the classic Jules Verne novel Around the World in 80 Days. In 1889, Bly embarked on a quest to beat the fictional around-the-world record. She traveled by ships, trains, rickshaw, horseback, and mules, making her way across Europe and Asia, from Japan to California, and then back to the East Coast of the USA. And she did it all in 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes!
One of history’s most famous female explorers, Amelia Earhart is also the subject of one of its greatest mysteries. Born in 1897, she took an interest in aviation after seeing a stunt-flying exhibition. She took her first flying lesson at age 23, and bought her own plane six months later. Within a year of getting her pilot’s license she’d broken the women’s world record for altitude (14,000 feet). She went on to break records for speed and solo flight, and co-founded The Ninety-Nines: International Organization of Women Pilots. Sadly, her plane went missing during a 1937 attempt to set a record for flying around the world, and the site of her crash landing remains unknown.
Discovered by paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey, Dian Fossey had no background in primatology before being sent to research mountain gorillas in Rwanda’s Virunga Mountains. But her 18 years of study and habituation laid the groundwork for nearly every aspect of gorilla conservation used today. Fossey created what she called “Active Conservation,” destroying equipment used by poachers, strictly enforcing anti-poaching laws that had been ignored for decades, taking population census counts, and lobbying for the expansion of protected habitat. Without her, gorillas would likely be extinct today.
The first of Louis Leakey’s trailblazing trio of discoveries (who came to be known as “the Trimates”), British-born primatologist Jane Goodall was just as inexperienced as Fossey. Leakey sent her to London to study primate behavior and anatomy in 1958, and by 1960 she was based in Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park. A rare woman in a field dominated by men, Goodall was harshly criticized for giving animals names and interacting with them rather than merely observing. But she ultimately became the world's foremost expert on chimpanzees, spending 50+ years studying their social interactions and becoming a leading authority on wildlife rights and conservation.
Female solo travel is extremely popular these days, but it was practically unheard of back in 1893, when Mary Kingsley started doing it in West Africa at the age of 30. Among her many accomplishments are canoeing up the Ogooué River, pioneering a route to the summit of Mount Cameroon, being the first European to enter remote parts of Gabon, and making extensive collections of freshwater fish for the British Museum. She is perhaps best known for her controversial book, Travels in West Africa, in which she championed the rights of West Africa’s indigenous people and expressed her opposition to European imperialism.
Arguably among the most influential female explorers of the 20th century, this British-Italian author wrote more than two dozen books on her travels in the Middle East and Afghanistan. While based in Baghdad, she extensively explored and mapped previously uncharted areas of the Islamic world. She traveled by foot, camel, donkey, and car, often camping at night and documenting every step of her journey in her writing. During her treks into the wilderness of western Iran (parts of which no Westerner had ever visited), she located the fabled Valleys of the Assassins. Her work ultimately earned her a Back Award and Founder’s Gold Medal from the Royal Geographical Society.
Fanny Bullock Workman
Traveling regularly with her husband, William Hunter Workman, M.D., this respected geographer/cartographer/travel writer’s wealth allowed her to tackle arduous adventures ranging from bicycle rides through Spain to treks in the Himalayas. She’s perhaps best known for high-peak mountaineering: She broke a string of women’s altitude records thanks to her slow, steady pace and resistance to altitude sickness. She was a fierce competitor and shameless in her self-promotion. But her powerful storytelling enabled her to become the first American woman to lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris, and the second female explorer ever allowed to address (and join) the Royal Geographical Society.
Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 24 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.