Updated: Apr 30
By Chelsea La Near
The Travel Industry Association of America found that 75% of people embarking on nature, adventure, or cultural trips are women between the ages of 20 and 70. According to this data, the average adventure traveler is a 47-year-old female.
This hasn’t always been the case. In fact, up until relatively recently, female travel, particularly solo female travel, was seen as too dangerous or even inappropriate. Even now, male explorers and pioneers are often more celebrated than their equally formidable and often more exceptional female counterparts.
In honor of Women's History Month, we’re giving credit where credit is due by exploring the lives of 15 female travelers whose brave adventures had significant impacts on their communities and the world. In defying convention to forge their own paths, these wanderlusting women challenged gender inequality and paved the way for a future of freedom.
This week, we look at five extraordinary women including cross-dressers, travel writers, and the greatest pirate that ever lived.
1. Jeanne Barret (1740-1807): The first women to circumnavigate the Earth
Jeanne Barret is widely regarded to be the first woman to make a complete trip around the globe, though she had to do so disguised as a man.
Little is known about her early life except that she was likely born to a peasant family in La Comelle, a village in Burgundy, France. She found work as a housekeeper to the botanist and naturalist, Philibert Commerçon, and eventually became his illicit companion following the death of his wife. Commerçon joined the circumnavigation expedition of celebrated French Admiral and explorer Louis Antoine de Bougainville. At the time, women were strictly forbidden from French naval ships, so Jeanne Barret devised a plan to dress as a man in order to serve as Commerçon's assistant on the voyage.
Throughout South America, the expedition's first destination, Barret ended up doing much of the botany leg-work due to Commerçon's waning health. She became well-regarded as an expert in botany in her own right. In Rio de Janeiro, it was Barret who collected specimens from a flowering vine that Commerçon would name Bougainvillea. Barret's true gender was eventually discovered as the ship headed to Tahiti, and she and Commerçon left the expedition upon reaching the French trading post in Mauritius. When Commerçon died there, Barret didn't have the means to return to France, so she ran a tavern and remarried. She eventually made her way back to France likely around 1775, completing her circumnavigation of the globe. Her adventure proved the competence of female sailors long before they were officially allowed to serve alongside men on naval ships.
2. Ching Shih (1775-1844): The most successful pirate in history
Not a whole lot is known about Ching Shih's early life except that she was born in Guangdong province during the Qing Dynasty. We do know that the end of the 18th century found her working on a floating brothel in Guangzhou. At 26, she married the pirate Cheng I, famed commander of the Red Flag Fleet who excelled at uniting rival pirate clans. Legend claims that Cheng I sought out the sex worker for her powerful intrigue and financial savvy, and that Ching Shih demanded equal control over the organization as a condition of marriage. When Cheng I died 6 years into their marriage, his wife quickly took over his leadership position by seeking the support of her husband's family, making herself essential to existing loyalties, and developing personal relationships with rivals. As commander, Ching Shih established a brutal code of laws to maintain her authority and keep the organization united. Violations of this code were punishable by flogging, clapping in irons, quartering, or death. Deserters had their ears chopped off. Those who disobeyed superiors or gave orders that didn't come down from Ching Shih were beheaded on the spot. She did, however, ban rape, one of her few forward-thinking laws.
At the height of her power, Ching Shih had 1,800 pirate ships and around 80,000 men under her command. For scale, during the same century, legendary pirate Blackbeard had just four ships and 300 pirates. The pirate queen invited enmity from multiple maritime authorities by wreaking havoc along the Asian coasts and disrupting important trade routes. But for years, her outlaw armada outsmarted and at times even conquered fleets from the the Qing Imperial government to Chinese, Portuguese, and British bounty hunters. It would take the Portuguese Navy - one of the most revered marine militias in the world - to bring down the Red Flag Fleet at the Battle of the Tiger's Mouth. Always the shrewd ruler, Ching Shih was somehow able to negotiate amnesty for her pirates who surrendered. And they even got to keep their treasures.
After years on the high sea, Ching Shih retired to Macau where she opened a gambling house and got involved in the salt trade. When the First Opium War broke out in 1839, the Chinese military sought her advice to help them fight the British Army. The notorious Ching Shih died of old age surrounded by her family at age 69 as a free woman - a very uncommon fate for a pirate. Though her exploits are certainly not anything to admire, a woman at that time commanding the most successful pirate fleet in history is a feat to reckon with.
3. Hester Stanhope (1776-1839): The ultimate adventurer and eccentric
It is suspected that heartbreak inspired the beautiful daughter of an English Earl to set off to see the world - an adventure from which she would never return. In 1810, Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope and her entourage set sail for Greece before venturing through the Ottoman Empire and then crashing in a storm en route to Cairo. Shipwrecked and without possessions on the Island of Rhodes, the party borrowed Turkish clothing, with Lady Stanhope opting for male attire as she refused to don a veil. This defiance persisted throughout her travels in the Near and Middle East, even in such holy cities as Damascus and Jerusalem. In the latter, Stanhope's charm and privilege convinced the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to clear its visitors so she could enter.
Stanhope's adventures continued after fortune-tellers prophesied that she would marry a new messiah. This prompted her romantic overtures to the Wahhabis Arab Chief, Ibn Saud who would later lead the First Saudi State. When that relationship didn't work out, Stanhope dressed herself as a Bedouin and enlisted a caravan of 22 camels to carry her crew across the hostile desert to Palmyra, where she became known as "Queen Hester." Somewhere along her route, the "queen" came into possession of a medieval manuscript that documented a valuable gold treasure hidden under mosque ruins in Palestine. Once the ruins were located, the former English Lady spearheaded the first archaeological expedition of the region in hopes of bringing prestige and wealth to the Ottoman Empire. However, her team did not discover any gold treasure, but instead a fragmented, headless statue - the first Greco-Roman artifact from a biblical site. The discovery caused Stanhope to fear that she would be accused of stealing relics to ship to Europe for bragging rights, as was popular during the era of high colonialism. And so in an equally vain act, she had the statue shattered and thrown into the sea. Though the relic was ruined, the expedition is still considered a success for pioneering modern excavation techniques as well as for inspiring future archaeological expeditions to the area.
Following this experience, Lady Stanhope lived in various monasteries around present-day Lebanon where she provided sanctuary to hundreds of refugees from esoteric religious groups. Though this earned her the spite of the Lebanese Emir, she still wielded an unprecedented amount of authority over the area, especially for a women at the time. Her influence was aided by her commanding character and the widely-held belief that she possessed the gift of divination. The former socialite, now wearing a turban over her shaved head, finished out her life in a remote, abandoned monastery on top of a hill.
4. Ida Pfieffer (1797-1858): Travel writer, ethnographer, and naturalist
Ida's father was a wealthy textile manufacturer in Vienna who raised her as an equal to her five older brothers, insisting she receive the same education. During her lessons, she was exposed to contemporary explorers and inspired to be one herself - a dream that would take her around the world twice. Always bold and independent, the 12-year old once protested Napoleon Bonaparte's occupation of Vienna by turning her back towards French generals.
At the age of 45, once her sons were grown and independent, Ida Pfeiffer finally had the opportunity to achieve her childhood dream of traveling the world, so she did. She found success in publishing her travel diaries after her first trip to Istanbul and Jerusalem. In 1946, the writer set out on a trip that took her around the world through Brazil and Chile among other South American countries before routing through Tahiti, China, India, Persia, Asia Minor, Greece, and finally back to Vienna two years later in 1848. The adventures she chronicled in her extensive and successful publications included temple-hopping in Hong Kong, hunting in Singapore, riding an ox cart across India, exploring ancient ruins in the Ottoman Empire, and encounters with foreign royalty. To finance her second trip around the world, Ida sold specimens she had collected to the Royal Museum of Vienna in addition to receiving grants to collect even more. Her second trip took her through parts of Europe and Africa, the Malay Archipelago, Borneo, the United States, Central America, and back to Vienna 4 years later.
It's estimated that throughout her travels, Ida Pfeiffer covered 32,000 kilometers by land and 240,000 by sea. Her best-selling journals, translated into seven languages, continue to educate and inspire travelers today.
5. Isabella Bird (1831-1904): Travel writer and medical missionary
Isabella Lucy Bird Bishop was born a frail child in Yorkshire, England. After a doctor prescribed her an open-air life to cure her ailments, Bird's curiosity and outdoor skills flourished - inspiring the adventures that hallmarked her life and made her a household name. At 18, she sailed to America before finding herself in Australia, Hawa'ii and then Colorado, where an 800-mile journey through the Rocky Mountains inspired her most famous book. She then went through Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, and the Malaysian Peninsula. At age 50, she married a younger Scottish surgeon whose death five years later left Isabella enough disposable income to fund her future adventures.
However, regarding her earlier travels as dilettante, Isabella chose to study medicine before taking her knowledge on missions to Ladakh on the borders of Tibet, Persia, Kurdistan, Turkey, and India. While in India, she opened a public hospital for women in honor of her late husband. Isabella Bird's contributions allowed her to become the first woman to join the Royal Geographical Society of England. Her final trip in 1897 found her traveling among the Berbers in Morocco and using a ladder to mount her black stallion, a gift from the Sultan.
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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