Updated: Apr 30
By Chelsea La Near
In our final installment of inspirational female explorers to celebrate Women's History Month, we look at many female firsts! Learn the histories of an aviator and an astronaut, a gorilla expert, a queer icon, and a legendary cyclist.
11. Annie Londonderry (1870-1947): The first woman to bicycle around the world
In the 1890's, a bicycle craze swept over America and uniquely brought women along for the ride. The bicycle provided a smaller, safer, and more manageable mode of individual transportation than horses, which had historically been reserved for men. Suddenly, women had increased mobility, and they relished in their newfound freedom. Women's clothing even changed to accommodate cycling conditions: skirts got shorter and often gave way to bloomers, arms and necks were uncovered, and corsets were out of the question. Susan B. Anthony claimed in 1896 that the bike “had done much more for women emancipation than anything else.”
This was also the dawn of yellow journalism, sensationalism, and a budding interest in international travel. Jules Verne's wildly popular 1872 novel, Around the World in 80 Days, had inspired others to traverse the globe, including the female journalist Nellie Bly. Bly achieved international attention for circling the globe in just 72 days - a new record. The stories of women defying the confines of their gender to accomplish extraordinary feats had become popular journalism, and a young Latvian immigrant in Massachusetts took note.
In 1892, Annie Kopchovsky accepted an alleged wager that bet no woman could travel around the world by bicycle in 15 months. She was an unlikely candidate for the challenge for several reasons. To begin, her name easily identified her as a Jew at a time when antisemitism ran rampant. Additionally, the 23-year old mother of three weighed just around 100 pounds and had never actually ridden a bicycle. Despite these potential disqualifiers, the daredevil set out in out in search of a sponsor. The Pope Manufacturing Company, who made Columbia bicycles, agreed to give her a 42-pound women's bicycle with an advertisement attached for Londonderry Lithia Spring Water. They also offered her an additional $100 if she traveled under the name of Annie Londonderry. More than likely, the bicycle manufacturer, or perhaps even Annie herself, had devised the wager to add sensationalism to the journey.
In June of 1894, Annie, wearing a skirt and corset, took off from Boston with just one change of clothes and a pearl-handled pistol in tow. On a good day, she averaged 8-10 miles, so it took her until September to reach Chicago. Exhausted and emaciated, Annie was ready to quit, realizing she would never make it across the Rockies before heavy snowfall. However, a Chicago bike company caught wind of the cyclist and offered to take over her sponsorship, gifting her a new, simplified men's bike that was 20 pounds lighter than her Columbia. Encouraged by her shiny new machine, Annie switched to more libertine dress and determined to complete her journey. This time, she circled back East to New York and hopped on a ship headed for France. At this point, it's unclear how much cycling Annie actually did in her journey around the world, but she did make it to many international cities along the way including Jerusalem, Alexandria, Colombo, Bombay, Singapore, Saigon, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Nagasaki and Kobe. In September of 1895, Annie Londonderry, now a celebrity, finally arrived back in Chicago in time to collect her wager prize.
While Annie, a savvy saleswoman and skilled storyteller, certainly exaggerated her adventures to attract media attention, her trip still serves as a symbol of women's independence. She is also considered a pioneer of athletic sports marketing.
12. Bessie Coleman (1892-1926): The first African-American aviatrix
Bessie Coleman bravely crossed gender and racial barriers to become the first African American woman, and the first Native American woman, to receive a pilot's license. She is also the first black person ever to earn an International Pilot's License.
Coleman was among 13 children born to a family of sharecroppers in Texas. She walked four miles each day to a segregated, one-room school where she excelled in academics. At 18, she enrolled at Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University, but had to return home after just one semester when she ran out of money. In her mid-twenties, she moved to Chicago where she first encountered stories from former World War I pilots, most of whom were white men as very few black men were allowed to control a plane. At the time, flight schools in America accepted neither women nor blacks, so Coleman's interest in aviation seemed like a pipe dream. However, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, Robert S. Abbot, was inspired by the young woman's daring determination and encouraged her to learn abroad. He published her story in his paper, which caught the attention of prominent black banker, Jesse Binga, who agreed to sponsor her quest. Coleman made her way to France where she studied with a French ace pilot near Paris before returning home as a media sensation in 1921.
Since there were no wars to fight and commercial flying was still decades away, Coleman realized that in order to maintain her celebrity status and earn money, she would have to become an exhibitionist flyer. She was billed as "the world's greatest woman flier" in her first air show in 1922. It was an event honoring the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I and featured aerial performances by other American ace pilots as well as a jump by a black parachutist. For the next five years, "Queen Bess," as she came to be known, drew large crowds and was universally admired for her daredevil maneuvers.
In addition to Coleman's incredible accomplishments in the face of adversity, she was also fiercely committed to fighting racism at every opportunity. She refused to participate in events that prohibited African American attendance and even refused a a film role that would require her to appear as an impoverished hobo. She didn't want to reinforce negative stereotypes. She lectured around the country to encourage black participation in aviation and began saving money to establish her own flying school. Sadly, Coleman would not live long enough to realize this dream.
On April 30, 1926 in Jacksonville, Florida, Coleman and her mechanic lost control of a poorly-maintained Curtiss JN-4 during a practice run. Both died on impact as the plane burst into flames. Her death received little attention in mainstream media, but was widely carried by African American press. Ida B. Wells led a funeral ceremony in Chicago that drew 10,000 mourners. It's impossible to measure Bessie Coleman's exact impact on the black community, but she likely inspired thousands, including William J. Powell, the celebrated World War I pilot who founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in 1929.
13. AnneMarie Schwarzenbach (1908-1942) - Tormented traveler, writer, and photographer
The troubled life and tragic glamour of Annemarie Schwarzenbach is a powerful reminder of the adversity members of the LGBTQ community continue to face. Her story began in Switzerland, where she was born to a wealthy businessman and an allegedly bisexual German aristocrat. From an early age, she showed in interest in dressing in male clothing and preferred to wear her hair cropped. She retained this androgyny throughout her life and was often mistaken for a man. As a young adult, Schwarzenbach lived a fast life in the decadent artists' mecca of Berlin. There, she met gay German writer Klauss Mann, and had a brief, disappointing affair with his sister. Mann purportedly introduced Schwarzenbach to drugs, leading to her lifelong struggles with addiction. Her lifestyle ended in 1933 when Bohemian Berlin disappeared after the Nazi takeover.
Though much of her family were Nazi sympathizers, Schwarzenbach was a committed anti-fascist with friends that included political refugees as well as Jews. This vast ideological rift strained an already contentious relationship with family, and the turmoil led to her first suicide attempt. Like many lesbians at the time who were regularly dehumanized, Schwarzenbach was driven to self-harm and haunted by drug addiction throughout her life.
In 1932 and 1933, Schwarzenbach traveled to Italy, France, Scandinavia, and Spain. Shortly thereafter, she married a gay French diplomat so she could travel more freely with a diplomatic passport. The marriage also conveniently covered up each other's homosexuality. The two lived together in a small village outside of Tehran, and the isolation further fueled Schwarzenbach's drug addiction. She returned to Switzerland and rented a house in the Alps that became something of a refuge for her and her artist friends. She was very prolific there and wrote many of her successful books. In 1937 and 1938, the journalist photographed the rise of European fascism in Austria and Czechoslovakia before traveling to America to capture those affected by the Great Depression.
In 1939, in an effort to kick her drug addiction and escape the impending violence in Europe, Schwarzenbach embarked on an overland trip to Afghanistan with the daring ethnologist Ella Maillart. Two years earlier, Maillart had "lorry-hopped" from Istanbul to India and had fond memories of her travels. They set off from Geneva in a small Ford car and headed to Kabul. They were in Afghanistan when World War II broke out, and Schwarzenbach soon fell into old habits. A frustrated Maillart moved onto India, leaving Schwarzenbach in the care of two French archaeologists. During the war, Schwarzenbach returned to the US where she reunited with Klauss Mann and volunteered with his committee to assist refugees from Europe. After a difficult relationship with the wife of a wealthy man, she again attempted suicide, which saw her hospitalized and released only under the condition that she leave the USA.
In 1941, Schwarzenbach briefly arrived back in Switzerland, but was soon on the move again, traveling as an accredited journalist to the Free French in the Belgian Congo. In 1942, she met up again with her husband in Morocco before returning again to Switzerland to make new plans. On September 7, 1942, while cycling near her refuge in the Alps, she fell and sustained a serious head injury. As a result of an incorrect diagnosis, Schwarzenbach died on November 15. While she was in the hospital, her mother refused all visitors, and upon her death, destroyed all of her letters and diaries. A friend was able to salvage some of her writings and photographs, which have been published by the Swiss Literary Archives in Berlin.
14. Dian Fossey (1932-1985): Celebrated wildlife conservationist
Dian Fossey became the world's most renowned gorilla expert. Her relentless work in wildlife preservation and conservation continues to inform and inspire.
Fossey was born in Los Angeles where she developed an early passion and talent for equestrian studies. This eventually led her to Kentucky in 1955. A year later, she started working as a occupational therapist as a children's hospital, where she found success connecting with children. There, she became close with a family that lived on a farm where she helped out and continued to pursue her love of horses in her free time. The family invited her on an African tour, but Fossey initially turned them down due to lack of finances. However, in 1963, she borrowed money, took out her life savings, and went on a seven-week trip in Africa that included Kenya, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Rhodesia. At the end of her trip, she met Louis and Mary Leakey, who talked to Fossey about about the work of Jane Goodall and the importance of extended research on the great apes. This information piqued Fossey's interest, and despite a broken ankle, she made her way to a hotel in Uganda that advocated for gorilla conservation. It was here that she first encountered wild mountain gorillas.
Fossey returned home to repay her loans, publishing three articles detailing her visit to Africa in the process. She met up again with Leakey when he went through Kentucky on a lecture tour. Leakey suggested Fossey undertake a long-term study like Jane Goodall had been doing with the chimpanzees in Tanzania. He secured her funding, and Fossey studied Swahili and primatology before relocating to Africa. Upon her arrival, she visited Jane Gooddall to observe her research methods before officially starting her own field studies in the Virunga mountains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. She initially struggled to get close enough to the three distinct groups she had identified, but eventually found success mimicking their behavior and making grunting sounds. She later attributed her success with habituating gorillas to her experience working as an occupational therapist with autistic children.
Times were turbulent in the Congo, and Fossey and her researchers were kicked out during intense political upheaval. She restarted her studies on the Rwandan side of the Virungas, despite warnings from the US Embassy not to. There, she established the Karisoke Research Center, and became known by locals as Nyirmachabelli, roughly translated as "The woman who lives alone on the mountain." One of the biggest obstacles to Fossey's work, and to gorilla conservation efforts, was poaching. Infant gorillas were often captured and sold to Western zoos. Since gorillas will fight to the death to protect their young, kidnappings could result in up to 10 adult gorilla deaths. Fossey and her team destroyed nearly 1000 traps in the research area's vicinity and assisted in the arrest of several poachers. In 1978, Fossey's favorite gorilla, Digit, was killed by poachers. He was found decapitated with his hands cut off - gorilla hands could be sold as delicacies, magic charms, or to make ashtrays. Fossey subsequently created the Digit Fund to raise money for anti-poaching patrols. In addition to her anti-poaching efforts, Fossey also criticized wildlife tourism, especially for gorillas, who are susceptible to human diseases like influenza for which they have no immunity.
In 1985, Fossey was brutally murdered by machete in her cabin at a remote camp in Rwanda. It has been theorized that her murder was linked to her conservation efforts, probably by a poacher. Her work with National Geographic and the film about her life, Gorillas in the Mist, continue to have powerful impacts on animal rights and conservation efforts.
15. Mae Jemison (1956 - present): The first black woman in space
Mae Jemison traveled further than any black woman before her when she entered space as a NASA astronaut in 1992. She continues to have a prominent and fruitful life in the sciences in addition to her work as a dance choreographer.
Jemison was born in Alabama to an elementary school teacher and a maintenance supervisor. From a young age, she knew she wanted to pursue science and someday travel to space. Her interest was further inspired by an African American character in the TV show, Star Trek. Often, when she expressed her interest in a scientific career to her teachers, they assumed she wanted to be a nurse. Jemison was frustrated with the lack of female representation in the sciences, and particularly noted the lack of women astronauts. Jemison was also a dancer, and studied several styles such as African, Japanese, ballet, jazz, and modern dance.
Jemison became a student at Stanford university at just 16. As one of a small minority of black students, she experienced discrimination, and claimed that her youthful arrogance may have helped her overcome it. She asserted that some arrogance is necessary for women and minorities to be successful in a society dominated by white males. At Stanford, Jemison studied a variety of subjects and was active in the dance scene before earning a B.S. in chemical engineering and a B.A. in African-American studies. The classes she took related to her childhood interest in space did cause her to consider applying to NASA, but her toughest choice was between going to medical school or pursuing a career as a professional dancer after graduation.
Ultimately, Jemison chose the medical field and enrolled at Cornell Medical School. Her studies took her to Cuba and and to Thailand, where she worked at a Cambodian refugee camp. She continued to pursue her love of dance at the famed Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater before working as a general practitioner in Los Angeles. She joined the Peace Corps in 1983 as a medical officer serving Liberia and Sierra Leone. Among her many accomplishments there as a medical professional, she wrote self-care manuals, developed and implemented guidelines for health and safety issues, and contributed to vaccine research for the Centers for Disease Control. After her work in Africa, she opened a private practice in Los Angeles while completing graduate level engineering courses. The space missions of Sally Ride and Guion Bluford inspired her to apply to the astronaut program in 1985. However, after the Challenger disaster in 1896, NASA suspended their selection of new candidates. Jemison reapplied in 1987 and was chosen to become one of 15 in the first astronaut group following the destruction of the Challenger. She immediately received media attention as the first black female astronaut. She made her first and only mission into space in 1992. On her flight, she took with her a poster from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, a West African statuette, and a photo of pioneering aviator, Bessie Coleman.
Since her resignation from NASA in 1993, Jemison has thrived in her scientific endeavors. She founded a technology research company, started a non-profit educational foundation, has served on many esteemed international boards, and holds several honorary doctorates. She continues to advocate for science education and minority students in the sciences.
It's important to remember that then just as now, the ability to travel was often the privilege of the wealthy, particularly the wealthy from imperial powers. This week, we begin by recognizing the extraordinary journey of a Native American woman who was rather the victim of such colonial efforts, who traveled tirelessly to fight for the dignity of her people. We also learn about a late-blooming Mexican botanist, an unbelievable American socialite, and two European women who used their privilege to advocate for others.
Chelsea La Near, M. Ed., is a writer, wanderluster, and language education professional from Missouri who spent the past 9 years teaching abroad in East Asia and is currently based in Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @chelsealanear and Instagram @thenearsea for more.
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