Updated: Apr 30
By Chelsea La Near
We continue to celebrate Women's History Month by feminizing our historical canon! 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.
6. Sarah Winnemucca (1844-1891): Native American Rights activist
"...In the saddle night and day; distance, about two hundred and twenty-three miles. Yes, I went for the government when the officers could not get an Indian man or a white man to go for love or money. I, only an Indian woman, went and saved my father and his people.” - Sarah Winnemucca
Sarah Winnemucca was born in present-day Nevada to a Piaute family. Her father was a respected Shoshone war chief who married an influential Paiute woman. Sarah's grandfather, Truckee, had helped with US expeditions in the West and fought alongside Americans in the Mexican-American war. Sarah and her sister briefly attended a convent school in California until white parents complained about their children mingling with Natives, so they lived and studied with a Catholic family in the area. The Winnemucca's had always advocated friendly relations with local settlers. However, in 1860, this benevolence became impossible when the settlers, including many former family friends, organized against the tribe for killing two US men who had kidnapped and abused Paiute girls. Then in 1865, after Nevada became a state, US cavalry officially attacked Sarah's people, killing her mother among many others.
More tragedy awaited the Paiutes after they were sent to Malheur Reservation where they encountered racist agent William Rinehart (who would later be elected Senator in Seattle). Rinehart appropriated money and supplies intended for the Paiutes, including food they grew themselves - a common offense from white leaders against Natives at the time. The suffering experienced by the Paiutes as a result of this theft drove Winnemucca into action, and her eloquence in English convinced the government to send additional supplies.
In 1878, Sarah worked as a messenger, scout, interpreter, and negotiator during a skirmish between the U.S. military and the Bannock Indians. Despite her courageous contributions, her tribe was sent to another, even worse, reservation in present-day Eastern Washington. The conditions there outraged Winnemucca, and she began to travel the country giving hundreds of lectures on the plight of her people, even lobbying the government in Washington, D.C. In 1883, she published an autobiography, Life Among the Paiutes, the first known autobiography and copyright registration by a Native American woman. Her book thoughtfully recounts the fraught history of federal lands and injustices against Native Americans.
Winnemucca then spent a year lecturing in San Francisco, prompting Rinehart to publicly denounce her as a drunk, a gambler, and a whore. She returned to Nevada where she and her brother opened a school for Indian children to promote Paiute language and culture. However, the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 forced the school to close as it required Native American children to be educated in English. Despite each setback and tragedy Winnemucca encountered, she persisted in her tireless efforts to bring awareness to the plight of Native Americans across the country. Her success can be found in the sheer number of Americans she reached though her lectures and writings. At the time of her death, her efforts were widely known, and her obituary was published in the New York Times.
7. Aimée Crocker (1864-1941): The Queen of Bohemia
The adventures of Aimée Crocker can at times seem too outrageous to be true. The indulgent American heiress to railroad fortunes defied every convention turn-of-the-century women were to ascribe to: she married five times, was romantically linked to scores of men, traveled all over Asia for fun, followed the Buddhist religion, and sported visible tattoos. In hindsight, Crocker certainly had a problematic penchant for cultural appropriation and was naive in her privilege. Still, she deserves credit for shattering sexist, racist, classist, and colonialist ideologies. Her unapologetic attitude towards her lifestyle continues to inspire a cult following.
Crocker was born in Sacramento where at 10 years old, she inherited what would today be 233 million dollars. Even as a young woman, she had a taste for amorous escapades. In an effort to keep her away from San Francisco sailors and other suitors, Crocker’s parents sent her to complete school in Germany. This didn’t help, and by the time she was 18, she had been engaged twice, once to a German prince, after which she became entangled with Spanish bullfighter. At 19, she married Porter Ashe, whose family had given their name to Asheville, North Carolina. Their marriage fell apart not long following the birth of their daughter, and a brutal, well-publicized custody battle ensued. Crocker’s unconventional past was undoubtedly brought up in the proceedings, and despite Ashe’s gambling and speculation debts (many of which he had bet against his wife’s fortune), likely infidelity, and an attempt at kidnapping his daughter, he was deemed the more stable of the pair and awarded full custody.
The public humiliation motivated Crocker to accept an earlier invitation from King Kalākaua to visit Hawaii. On the islands, she lived in a hut and wore regional dress, raced on horseback with the locals, danced the hula, and indulged in torch-lit Waikiki swimming parties, all of which earned her the chagrin of missionaries stationed there. “It appears that they felt I was setting a bad example to the natives they were trying to convert by not acting superior to them,” she later wrote. The king, on the other hand, was enthralled with the young socialite - he gifted her an island and an official title: Princess Palaikalani—Bliss of Heaven.
Hawaii instilled Crocker with even more wanderlust, so she took off for the Far East. She recounted extraordinary adventures including a three-week stint in a harem outside of Bombay, a mystic search for liberation in a Maharashtran cave, and two bizarre sensual experiences - one with a boa constrictor and another with a Chinese violin. She wrote of murder attempts by knife-throwing servants in Shanghai and another by headhunters in Borneo, who suspected their prince was trying to take the Western woman as his bride. The Bornean prince was just one of Crocker’s well-documented romances with powerful Asian men.
Back in America, Crocker started a Buddhist colony in Manhattan where she met her third husband, songwriter and showman Jackson Gouraud. The power couple dubiously contrasted “slumming” tours of lower New York City with their lavish and eccentric parties. Examples of Crocker's entertainment extravagance include arriving atop an elephant, gifting chameleons as party favors, and presenting her pet boa constrictor, Kaa (sound familiar?), as the guest of honor. Though much of New York Society shunned her outrageous antics, the media and the Bohemians were spellbound. Her legendary appeal could bring together such diverse guests ranging from opera prima donnas, maharajas, senators, and academics to Broadway showgirls and Bowery rogues - even just for an informal afternoon tea. When her husband died in 1910, the devastated heiress retreated to Paris where she lived on and off for the next 27 years, continuing her life of hedonistic excess. During this time, she was romantically linked to high-profile musicians and composers, diplomats, a legendary French film star, and even Tantra master and occultist Aleister Crowley, who claimed to propose to Crocker each time he saw her. She married twice more, both to Russian princes decades her junior: her fifth and final husband was just 26 when he married the 61-year old. In 1936, five years before her death, the eternally unapologetic life-enthusiast published her memoir, aptly titled And I’d Do It Again.
8. Gertrude Bell (1868-1926): England's greatest diplomat
You've probably heard of T.E. Lawrence, more commonly known as Lawrence of Arabia, the British desert warrior who became a legend for his efforts in the Middle East, but largely written out of history was his equally influential female contemporary. Gertrude Bell was a woman of firsts: the first woman to chart a path through Arabia, the first woman to complete a first-class degree in Modern History at Oxford, and the first woman to become an intelligence officer to the British Military. During her time as an officer, Bell was crucial in advocating for Arab self-determination in British imperial policy. She is most remembered for her work helping define the borders of present-day Iraq. She was also an archaeologist, a cartographer, a mountaineer, a writer, and a photographer who would leave behind upwards of 1,600 letters and 7,000 photographs.
At the turn of the century, Bell was traveling the world as one of the most accomplished female mountaineers of her time: she scaled La Meije and Mont Blanc, and blazed 10 new paths and first ascents in the Swiss Alps. However, Arabia had most captured her imagination following her first visit to Tehran in 1892, so she quickly returned to sojourn across the often forbidding landscapes of the region. It was a trip she would make six more times over the next 12 years. Along her excursions, she became fluent in Arabic and Persian, and assisted in the excavation of ancient ruins, often insisting that the artifacts remain in the place where they were unearthed. The daughter of wealthy English industrialists had traded her debutante life for the desert, and there was no going back.
The unparalleled knowledge Bell acquired of the region combined with her astute political acumen resulted in an official appointment by the British government. She was the first woman to achieve such status. For her expeditions and assignments, the insatiably curious and savvy explorer traveled with local guides and made a point to cultivate close relations with tribe leaders. As a woman, Bell had exclusive access to their wives' living quarters, which provided her with unique perspectives and insights that were denied to her male counterparts. In Damascus, Bell witnessed the Armenian Genocide and wrote of the Ottomans selling Armenian women in the open market.
After WWI, Bell became disillusioned with Western betrayal of the people of Mesopotamia. The British government had offered independence and self-determination to Arab tribes in exchange for allegiance against the Ottoman Turks, but broke these promises out of self-interest. Bell presciently warned of blowback from attempts to replace millenia of tribal history with Western political systems. Despite her frustration, she resolved to hold up as much of the promise of self-determination as she could when she helped define a border between what would become Iraq and the territory controlled by Ibn Saud, the founder of future Saudi Arabia.
It's easy to criticize Bell for her role in carving up this region of the Middle East, but her writings testify that she was earnest in her attempts to tip the scales in favor of the locals as opposed to governing foreign powers. Bell knew the idiosyncrasies of the region and its competing tribes from Persia to the Levant. She knew that if she didn't exert her influence over the impossible task, someone else with considerably less knowledge and concern would, with even more disastrous results. When Bell died in Baghdad, where she had been organizing the new Iraqi national museum to commemorate the region's history, the entire country mourned. She remains one of the few Western diplomats remembered affectionately by the Arab people.
9. Ynés Mexía (1870-1938): Late-blooming botanist
“I decided that if I wanted to become better acquainted with the South American Continent the best way would be to make my way right across it." - Ynés Mexía
Ynés Mexía challenged ageism, and particularly the notion that a woman's worth lies in her youth, by starting a new career in her fifties. From this brave and unorthodox pivot, the botanist would go on to become one of the most renowned plant collectors in her era.
Age and gender weren't the only prejudices Mexía overcame in the largely male, white field, but also race. She was born to a Mexican diplomat in Washington D.C., but spent most of her early life in Texas and Mexico. In her late thirties, a mental breakdown caused her to relocate to San Francisco for treatment. There, she joined the Sierra Club's mountain excursions and found her calling in the nature and solitude of botanical collecting. In her mid-fifties, around the time she became a US citizen, Mexía enrolled at the University of California, Berkeley.
At the age of 55, Mexía went on her first botanical collecting trip to Mexico with Stanford's Assistant Herbarium Curator, Roxanna Ferris. Once in Mexico, Mexía's fierce independence caused her to abandon the group in hopes of accomplishing more. She went on to travel the country for two years and collect more than 1,500 specimens including one named in Mexía's honor, Mimosa mexiae. She spent the next thirteen years on botanical excursions, with three additional trips to Mexico. In 1928, she was hired to collect plants in Alaska. The following year, she went to South America and traveled by canoe down the Amazon River, covering 4,800 kilometres in two and a half years to its source in the Andes. On that trip, she collected in remote areas of Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. Slight in stature, Mexía shocked many people with her solo travel, her horseback riding in knickers, and her preference for sleeping outdoors even in the presence of a bed.
Over the course of her career, she collected nearly 150,000 specimens, described about 500 new species, and discovered two new genera. A remarkable 50 plants were named in her honor. Today researchers still actively use her collections, which reside in museums and universities all over the world.
10. Isabelle Eberhardt (1877-1904): Anti-colonial gender bender
“A subject to which intellectuals never give a thought is the right to be a vagrant, the freedom to wander. Yet vagrancy is deliverance, and life on the open road is the essence of freedom.” - Isabella Eberhardt
While Isabella Eberhardt liked to make up stories about her parentage, we do know that she had an unconventional upbringing. Her mother was the illegitimate child of a Russian Jewish aristocrat and a German scholar. Her father was likely the eccentric Armenian tutor, Alexandre Trophimowsky, with whom her mother ran away to Switzerland, where Isabelle was born. Trophimowsky taught Isabelle and her siblings multiple languages, including Arabic by way of the Quran. This among other things resulted in Eberhardt feeling a deep, almost mystic, connection with North Africa. When her brother was stationed in Algeria, Eberhardt created remarkably accurate stories about Arabia based on details from their frequent correspondence. Even early on, her writing carried an anti-colonial theme which would make it difficult to publish throughout her life. For unknown reasons, Eberhardt was raised primarily as a boy. She learned to ride and shoot, and was only allowed to venture out in male disguise. With her cropped hair and trousers, she delighted in sharing beers with sailors around Geneva before they discovered her secret. This inclination towards cross-dressing became a prominent feature of Eberhardt's history and helped her more fully realize her vagabond desert dreams.
At age 21, Eberhardt arrived in Maghreb where she quickly earned a reputation as a heavy drinker and hashish smoker, but it was her permissive attitude towards sex that placed her furthest from convention. She embraced and epitomized the "être à part" idea posited by Lady Hester Stanhope - that a woman could be treated as a man in every respect and still enjoy them sexually. Eberhardt's numerous and impersonal trysts with (mostly) Arab men caught the eye of French authorities, who mistrusted her affinity for the company of Arabs over Europeans. They even suspected she might be an English spy sent to sow resentment towards France.
Eberhardt finally did meet a man with whom she felt a deep romantic attachment. Slimène Ehnni was a handsome cavalry soldier posted in Algeria. Though he was Muslim, he was considered évolué, the retrospectively racist French term for Algerians who were committed to French rule and held French citizenship. The two spent many nights riding through desert sunsets and were eventually living together openly, which further unsettled French authorities. Despite France's legal attempts to keep the interracial couple apart, they eventually married in France.
Eberhardt's love of Islam prompted her to become a member of Qadrya, a Sufi brotherhood and secretive religious cult that wielded substantial power among the still unconquered Arabian tribes. In 1901, Eberhardt survived an assassination attempt when a Qadriya rival thrust a saber towards her head. The blade deflected to her arm by a wire clothes line, saving her life and leaving her arm nearly severed. In the perpetrator's trial, Eberhart pleaded for his mercy, even though he repeatedly said he would try again if he regained his freedom. Her bravado at the trial made her somewhat of a celebrity in the Maghreb, enabling her to find work as a correspondent in Algiers. Though she was paid poorly, she had access to plenty of otherwise off-limits opportunities including interactions with religious mystics and trips to cities where no Europeans had ever been.
In 1904, Eberhardt met up with her husband in a small Saharan village after eight months apart. After just one happy night, the village was flooded with a torrent from the mountains, obliterating a quarter of the town. Ennhi survived, but Eberhardt's body was found pinned under the house, her muddy manuscripts (that were fortunately preserved) surrounding her. The "Androgyne du Desert" as the French called her lived to be just 27, but her lifestyle inspired a lack of fear towards "the other," and her writings continue to provide a vital criticism of imperial rule.
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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