Female Explorers in History Who Inspire Us to Keep Crossing Borders

by Jenna Lee
Female explorers

4 Incredible Female Explorers in History Who Continue to Inspire Modern Women to Keep Cracking the Status Quo

Solo female travel is having a moment. The internet is flooded with women telling their stories and encouraging fellow female explorers to pursue their travel goals. The popularity is no doubt a contrast to the history of difficulty associated with women crossing borders. However, despite the gain in traction and, frankly, the powerful influence of women in travel, going it alone is still a bit taboo. For example, I seldom travel alone but when I do share such plans, I’m inevitably met with a few funny looks and an occasional rebuke. To be clear, this doesn’t come from just men, but women too. I’ll never forget the woman who asked me, “Aren’t you afraid of all those foreigners?”, to which I replied, “Aren’t we all foreigners somewhere?”

To travel is to abandon the known for the unknown

Honestly, I can understand the apprehension others may have toward women who choose to venture into often unknown territory in solitude. Fear of the unknown is real for many people but that is the very essence of travel – abandoning the known for the unknown. Having said that, I don’t believe most negative reactions come from a place of malice, but a place of misunderstanding and fear. This is especially true when the destination has been historically volatile or has been projected as volatile through media. All of these things lead people to perceive the world as a dangerous place for an unaccompanied female; thus, a failure to understand why we would do it and, perhaps, the belief we should not.

It isn’t always easy for women in travel…

It’s true that in some ways and in at least as many places, it still isn’t easy. Some places require extra caution and some of those places are right here in the USA. This is why you also see articles full of tips for women scattered across the internet. Women travelers are not only ambitious and tenacious, we are also deeply altruistic toward one another.

Some may scoff, but the ability to navigate the world alone as a woman is admirable. Right wrong or indifferent, it requires an ability to strike a balance somewhere between bold and cavalier. We recognize the world has not always been exactly what one may call female-friendly but we also bear a realization that we aren’t as incapable as we’ve been led to believe.

So, with that knowledge, we proceed. We take our experiences and adaptations, sometimes our warnings, and we share them. It isn’t to instill fear but to empower our sisters and keep eachother safe. Most of us are connected through large global networks available to provide quick worldwide access to one another. We do what is necessary to make sure women keep traveling to every far corner- solo or otherwise.

Female Explorers Who Inspire Modern Day Women

While the female explorers you are about to read about were controversial in their day, their stories inspire modern-day women in travel to keep cracking the status quo and forging a path to easier travel for all.

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Freya Stark: Bold and Brilliant

Freya Stark was such a badass that if she were alive today, she would likely be just as controversial as she was nearly a century ago. What she wouldn’t be is any less of a legend. She spent most of her childhood confined at home with frequent illnesses. Her brilliance was unaffected by a lack of formal education. Young Freya achieved fluency in English, French and Italian and later in Arabic, Turkish, and many other Eastern dialects. She had a fondness for books and this love of literature translated to authoring two dozen works throughout her life and solidifying her reputation as one of the greatest travel writers of all time.

In 1927, Freya boarded a ship to Lebanon and thus began her love affair with the Middle East. She explored the region in ways that were thought to be impossible. In ways that I imagine would still be difficult in the current day. Her bold journeys were not only the first of their kind made by a woman but by Westerners in general. Even men weren’t willing to take the type of risks she took in the name of discovery.

The boldest adventure

Freya traveled extensively in Turkey and the Middle East as well as Greece and her home country, Italy. However, her most notable explorations were deep within Iran. Intrigued by the description of an ancient fortress by Marco Polo, she set out in determination to discover it for herself. The land was so dangerous and poorly charted that Westerners dared not venture into it.

The daring journey was an inspiration for her first book. The Valley of the Assassins tells the story of the villages and people she encounters along the way. She defies perception as she charmingly describes her accounts of making hostels of harem tents and building social circles including everyone from bandits to sheiks and even the Queen. A skillful woman, she was able to draw the first accurate maps for the region.

Freya endured many physical ailments that would keep many less determined travelers from continuing. Conditions such as a weakened heart, dengue, malaria, dysentery were no match for her passion to discover the unknown. This passion led her, even into her eighties, to lands no man had ever discovered and enabled her to record numerous stories that remain colorful and treasured pieces of travel literature.

Naomi James: Dreamer and Dame

A daydreamer at heart, the habit made her an unlikely candidate for success as it didn’t fare well for her education. There are dreamers and there are doers; occasionally, one is both. Naomi learned to channel her dreams into action giving no regard to obstacles. Growing up on a sheep farm in a land-locked area of New Zealand, she dropped everything and boarded a ship to Europe after turning 23. She had yet to learn to swim and had little experience being in or on the water. Her first adventure on the High Seas was one spent mostly mal de mer.

Her next date with the sea led to a first date that mapped a historical route for her life. As she strolled the docks of St. Malo before boarding a ship to England, she met the man she would marry. Rob James, a yacht skipper for Chay Blythe, caught her attention. Though unappealed with boats, she found much appeal in Rob. During their courtship, Naomi began learning the ropes from her nautically savvy beau.

Dame of the Sea

Why mention her husband’s employer, Chay Blythe? Well, it’s hard not to imagine he is somewhat the inspiration behind one of Naomi’s greatest achievements. Blythe, with next to no sailing experience, was the first man to circumnavigate the globe westward non-stop, single-handedly. To prove a woman could garner as much nautical courage and strength as her male counterpart, Naomi expressed her desire to accomplish the same journey. It was Chay Blythe who lent her the 53 ft yacht on which she successfully accomplished this goal.

Despite a very limited background in sailing and navigational abilities, Naomi set sail in 1977. Setting her apart from others, she chose a notoriously dangerous route through Cape Horn. In June 1978, she completed the voyage in 272 days beating Sir Francis Chichester’s record by 48 hours. In recognition of her achievements, she was given the honor of being named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire. This honor is similar to that of knighthood.

Beryl Markham: Ambitious and Adventurous

For some, a sense of adventure is not necessarily acquired along the way. It is simply part of the code in your DNA. This seems to be the case for Beryl. Born in England, she chose a life in Africa with her father. Her family moved to Kenya in 1902. Her mother, unable to bear the pioneer lifestyle, soon returned to England with her brother.

Beryl spent much of her childhood exploring and learning to hunt with the natives while her father worked the farm. She became fluent in Swahili and became incredibly talented with a spear. She also enjoyed working with her father to train horses. As a result, developed her own passion in the field. This eventually led to reknowned achievements in the equine world, particularly in Kenya, during an era in which women’s success was notably suppressed. At only 19, she received a trainer’s license in Kenya. She was the first woman to do so in the countries history. Throughout her career, she worked brilliantly to secure victory for six horses in the Kentucky Derby.

Becoming one of the greatest pilots in history

Horses weren’t the only passion for Beryl. She also enjoyed aviation and worked as a bush pilot. In addition to becoming the first woman to receive a horse training license, she was also the first woman in Kenya to receive a commercial pilot’s license. Her adventurous soul guided her to two more firsts. She was not only first as a woman but as a person to cross the Atlantic solo and non-stop, flying East to West. Those 21 flight hours defied odds, shook the status quo, and earned her name a place on the path toward the future of Atlantic air passage.

The historic flight that proved perilous to many who had gone before her began in London and finished in Nova Scotia. Her accounts are documented in West with the Night, a mesmerizing book that fell flat at publication. Several years later, a lost letter from Ernest Hemingway was discovered in which he says, “she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer.” Hemingway’s insight into Markham’s gift as a writer resulted in a re-release allowing her final years to be full of much-deserved praise.

Amelia Earhart: Pilot and Pioneer

Amelia might be the most well-known woman in the history of aviation. What you might not know is that, in her youth and despite her father’s best efforts, she couldn’t care less about planes! From an early age, she seemed destined to challenge expectations. Biographies often describe her as a “tomboy” who spent most of her time outdoors getting dirty and having fun. Unconventional for the time, her mother fostered a spirit of freedom and adventure in lieu of raising prim and proper little girls.

It wasn’t until Amelia was 23 that her father finally convinced her to ride on a plane with Frank Hawks at an airshow in Long Beach. One flight was all it took. She spent the next several months learning to fly and received her pilot’s license in December of 1921.

From 1921 until her presumed death in 1937, Amelia made her mark in history by setting a number of records and paving the way for women in aviation. She was the first female to fly solo above 14,000 feet, to fly solo and nonstop across the USA from LA to Newark, and to fly solo from Hawaii to the mainland. She was also the first woman and second person (Charles Lindbergh being the first) to fly across the Atlantic. Unfortunately she was unable to complete her final mission, to be the first to circumnavigate the globe. Amelia and her crewmate mysteriously disappeared somewhere near New Guinea.

A pioneer for future female pilots

Much like she defied expectations as a young girl, she defied them as a grown woman. She was raised during a period when women were generally expected to be home-makers and still grappled with limitations that were both legally and socially imposed. Women’s Suffrage came only one year before she received her pilot’s license, something only about 200 women had been able to procure at the time. While the war and the industrial revolution helped evolve women’s role in society, opportunities remained sparse and often difficult. Amelia’s bold and independent lifestyle certainly fell outside the norm.

In spite of challenges, Earhart was successful in her pursuit to build a career around flying. Moreso, she sought to inspire women to be more independent, to encourage society to view them more equally, and to pave a way for women interested in aviation. In addition to breaking many speed and distance records, Amelia traveled the country to speak publicly and offer women insight into the field and opportunities. She is also remembered for serving as the first President of the Ninety-Nines, an organization formed to support women in aviation and continues to serve female pilots to this day.

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