If you took pop culture as gospel, you’d think the only people who take on any pioneering exploits were posh, hairy, white men. But plenty of badass women have grabbed adventure by the horns over the centuries too.
There are two definitions for the term ‘pioneer’ in the modern Oxford English Dictionary. The first description is of a person who is “among the first to explore or settle a new country or area”. The second describes someone “among the first to research and develop a new area of knowledge or activity”.
Judging by these descriptions, it’s abundantly clear that pioneers of adventure travel still exist all around us. And included on that list of pioneers are plenty of women who have been accomplishing amazing feats throughout history—and continue to right up to the current day.
Women who have battled against all odds to show that the impossible is nothing but a mental boundary we create for ourselves. Women who have helped clear the way and made it easier for the rest of us. Women who are inventing technology that’s changing the travel photography industry—and even opening up platforms to continue to lift up the diverse voices of women in adventure travel.
If you asked me to name at least five women who pioneered adventure over time, the very first one that comes to mind is Amelia Earhart, the American aviator. She became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic in the early 1900s and her plane mysteriously disappeared in 1937 during a bold attempt to circumnavigate the earth.
Eighty years later and Amelia’s is still the first name that comes up when I think of women adventurers—mostly because her story has been covered across all forms of media for so long and in so many ways. While Earhart was certainly a forerunner, this also shows how dated our collective views and definition of the word ‘pioneer’ can still be when it comes to adventure and adventure travel. I firmly believe that the spirit of adventure is as diverse as we all are, and shouldn’t be narrowly defined to a single stereotype, be it gender, race or anything else.
In 1921, African-American pilot and pioneer Bessie Coleman became the first black woman to obtain a pilot’s license and fly in the United States. Adding to her badass credits, she specialized in aerial stunts and parachuting, but died in a tragic plane accident in in 1926 during rehearsals for an upcoming airshow.
When I started my research for this piece, I came across even more of these fascinating women pioneers across history and well into modern times. Women who epitomized courage, tenacity, energy. While I wish I could share all their stories here, I’ve picked a few I wanted to highlight.
The proliferation of round-the-world (RTW) tickets can literally take backpackers around the world in a matter of days. The 20th-century American investigative journalist Elizabeth Jane Cochrane, aka Nellie Bly, was inspired by French author Jules Verne’s novel, Around the World in Eighty Days, and set out to match the feat. Except Bly accomplished her goal over a week faster and chronicled the adventure in her book, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days, which was published in 1890.
There are so many jokes I could crack about women getting things done quicker than men. But I’ll refrain (for now).
While we’re on the topic of circumnavigation, in 1985, Tania Aebi, at the mere age of 18, set sail around the world—solo—on her boat Contessa 26 Varuna, covering a distance of 27,000 miles (43,452 kilometers). When I think back to what I was doing at 18 years old, it probably involved a sofa and some chicken wings—not a boat and 27,000 miles.
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I once had lunch with a Swedish friend who was about to embark on a round-the-world cycling trip. At the time, while his feat was certainly impressive, it didn’t seem impossible because so many people have accomplished the very same over the years. But reflecting back on that conversation, it got me thinking about Latvian immigrant Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, aka Annie Londonderry, who was already a mother of three young children when she decided to bike around the world (with a few steam ferry crossings in-between) in 1894.
What intrigued me the most about Annie Londonderry—who changed her name from Kopchovsky for safety reasons while traveling—wasn’t her amazing adventure, but the fact that she also had her young children at the time.
As a mother myself to two small kids, who also happens to love adventure and enjoys working as a travel writer and photographer, it’s inspiring to see role models who have paved the way against a backdrop of judgemental whispering. Londonderry was part of the reason why I penned this ode to traveling mothers.
I was also drawn to ‘Grandma Gatewood’. In 1955, Emma Gatewood was the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian Trail solo—a 2,050-mile-long (3,299 kilometers) feat. What made her story particularly remarkable was the fact that she did this at the age of 67—while a mother of 11 children and grandmother to 23. Sadly, ageism still exists and often, older adventurers—pioneers though they may be—can fade into the background while the young and the rugged are pushed into the limelight.
Another older adventurer was African-American adventurer Barbara Hillary, who trekked to both the North and South Poles in her late 70s—and became the first black woman to do so.
As a lover of husky sledding—I’ve tried it in Sweden, Finland, and Greenland—I’d be remiss not to mention American dog musher Libby Riddles on this list of inspirational women. She was the first woman to win the legendary Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race, a 1,100-mile (1,770 kilometer) trans-Alaska race.
And if space is the final frontier of travel, then Mae Jemison already paved the way for thousands of African-American girls by being the first black female astronaut, flying into space aboard NASA’s Endeavour in 1992.
Back on earth, summiting Everest remains the epitome of human achievement and Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei was the first woman to reach its peak. That iconic black-and-white Associated Press photo of Tabei—taken in 1975 as she held the Japanese flag while kitted up in full expedition gear and an oxygen mask—has since become a a powerful visual metaphor for me.
Looking at that image, you can’t really tell if it was a man or woman behind that mask. And as the women mentioned here are a testament to, adventure truly is for all of us.