10 Women Who Changed Travel: How Many Have You Heard Of?

By Pamela MacNaughtan / Savoir Faire Abroad

Female travelers have been kicking butt and taking names for years, even if bank notes and passports don’t always recognize their contributions. They’ve circled the globe, climbed mountains, explored space, and inspired movies — and in many cases they were the first of their gender to do so. But how many have you heard of?

It’s time we hear more! As a female traveler, I’ve done a little research into my fellow women of gumption, and am happy to introduce you to these ten amazing female travelers.

1. Jeanne “Jean” Baré


An artist’s rendition of Jeanne Baré dressed as a sailor, dating from 1817, after her death. (Photo: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

Jeanne Baré was the first woman to circumnavigate the world; however, when she embarked on her journey back in 1766, she did so dressed as a man. Jeanne went undercover on Louis Antoine de Bourgainville’s ship Étoille with her employer, botanist Philibert de Commerson, and she managed to stay undiscovered until the expedition arrived in Tahiti, where it’s said that the locals were quick to realize that she was a woman. What went down onboard after that is a bit of a mystery, but she was put in seclusion, and had a baby nine months later. Jeanne and Philibert were left on Mauritius, but after giving the baby up for adoption, she eventually returned to France, completing her round-the-world journey. It’s a fascinating story. This is a great book about Jeanne Baré.

2. Alice Huyler Ramsey


Alice Huyler Ramsey with her auto. (Photo: Bain News Service/Wikimedia Commons

Alice Huyler was the first woman to drive across the United States. On June 9, 1909, 22-year-old Alice, along with three of her girlfriends (two sisters-in-law, and another friend, none of whom could drive), drove 3,800 miles from Hell’s Gate in Manhattan to San Fransisco. It took them 59 days. You can read more about her here.

3. Baroness Elise Raymonde de Laroche


Portrait of famous French aviatrix Baroness de la Roche on July 1, 1919, taken after she broke the world’s record for altitude reached by a woman. (Photo: Bettmann/Corbis)

Baroness de Laroche, born Elise Raymonde Deroche to a plumber, was the first woman in the world world to receive a pilot’s license. Dubbed the Baroness by aviation press of the time, she received license number 36 of the International Aeronautics Federation, issued by the Aero-Club of France. In 1913 she won the Femina Cup for the longest non-stop flight. It was more than four hours in length and awarded by Aero-Club of France.

4. Freya Stark


British explorer and travel writer Freya Stark (1893–1993) at her home in Asolo, Italy, circa 1950. She is wearing traditional Persian dress and holding a dagger acquired on her travels in the Middle East. (Photo: Graphic House/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

In the early 1930s Freya Stark traveled into Persia (now Iran), exploring remote villages and interacting with locals, her book The Valleys of the Assassins: and Other Persian Travels was published in 1934, and immediately captured the hearts of readers. Dame Stark was by far one of the best travel writers of her time, and when she passed away at 100 years of age, she merited a three-column obituary in The New York Times.

Related: Explore Now: Practical Tips for the Solo Female Traveler

5. Gertrude Bell


Circa 1900: English archaeologist and traveler Gertrude Margaret Lowthian Bell (1868–1926). (Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A world traveler, Gertrude Bell had a knack for languages and during her adventures she become fluent in Arabic, Persian, French, and German. Gertrude was also a mountaineer, and she conquered a number of peaks in Switzerland. During World War I she played a role in guiding troops through the desert, creating maps of the safest route for them to take, and enabling the British to capture Baghdad. Gertrude is an absolutely fascinating and inspiring woman. I read a book on her life a few years ago, and I have loved her ever since.

6. Isak Dinesen, a.k.a. Karen Blixen


Baroness Karen Blixen (aka Danish writer Isak Dinesen) (1885–1962) shows off a stylish hunting trophy in Copenhagen, January 2, 1958. Her new coat has the skin of a leopard she killed during a visit to Africa some years ago. (Photo: Bettmann/Corbis)

Out of Africa was made famous by Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, but the film wouldn’t have been made had it not been for Karen Blixen, the woman who wrote about her life in Kenya after arriving in 1914 to look after a coffee plantation. Blixen (who used the pen name Isak Dinesen) had married her cousin, Baron Bror Blixen-Finecke, but shortly after arriving in Africa they separated and she ran the coffee farm for ten years before returning to Denmark around 1931. This is one headstrong and gutsy woman!

Related: The Unofficial Solo Female Traveler’s Manifesto

7. Junko Tabei


Mrs. Junko Tabei (L), 35, stands against the background of the southern wall of Mt. Everest with Nepal’s Sirdar Ang Tsering. Two weeks after the picture was taken, the two reached the summit of Mt. Everest. (Photo: Bettmann/Corbis)

A Japanese mountaineer, Junko Tabei was the first woman to climb Mount Everest; she reached the summit on May 16, 1975. The climb was not without its perils: While camping at 6,300 metres there was an avalanche, and Junko and her team were buried alive. Thankfully, Junko was dug out by her Sherpa guide, and a week and a half later she became the first woman to summit Everest.

8. Barbara Hillary


Barbara Hillary © with some Russian friends at Borneo Ice Camp. (Photo: Barbara Hillary)

If you’re looking for a travel pick-me-up look no further than Barbara Hillary, the first African-American woman to travel to both poles. When she skied to the North Pole in 2011, Barbara was 75. Seventy-five! Four years later when she journeyed to the south pole, she was 79. This is one inspiring lady. Did I mention she is also a cancer survivor? Yep, she is.

Related: I’m Crazy Enough to Bike to the South Pole

9. Robyn Davidson


Portrait of traveler and writer Robyn Davidson. (Photo: Daily Mail/Rex / Alamy Stock Photo)

In 1977 Robyn left Alice Springs, Australia, with a dog and four camels. Why? She had decided to walk 1,700 miles across Western Australia. The journey, as you may imagine, was not an easy one, but she did it. I’ve watched the movie about Robyn’s trek, as well as read her book, Tracks, and I love her defiant strong nature. She is an inspirational female traveler.

10. Valentina Tereshkova


Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman in space, in front of the Vostok capsule, June 1963. (Photo: Sovfoto/UIG via Getty Images)

Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman — and civilian — to go to space. Selected out of hundreds of applicants, she piloted Russia’s Vostok 6, solo, into the stars in June 1963. She was 26 years old. Valentina orbited the earth 48 times before returning to earth three days later. After her foray, Valentina earned a doctorate in engineering, and later went into politics. Valentina carried the Olympic flag at the opening ceremonies of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.

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