Female travellers who inspired a generation

by Kirsten Robertson

Whether it’s business or hiking trips, camping or glamping – women of all backgrounds are exploring all of the globe. With such a high number of women choosing to adventure alone, let’s take a look back at those who forged the path. For more information about travelling alone as a woman, check out the resources here!

Dervla Murphy

Sometimes, all you need is a trusty bicycle and some good ol’ fashioned Irish grit.


credit: blog.nullnfull.com

For her tenth birthday, Dervla Murphy was gifted a bicycle, and a second-hand atlas. Ten years later, Murphy set out to cycle from Ireland to India, facing one of the worst winters Europe had ever seen. Threatened with starvation, wolf attacks and robbery attempts, Murphy ploughed on and reached India successfully, chronicling her adventures in a series of novels.

Her books were extremely accessible to young and old; she was an Irish celebrity rather than a historian or journalist and therefore people felt a personal connection to her writing. Murphy’s writings offered an insight into the politics of each region she visited, as well as vivid descriptions of the unadulterated beauty the wilds of the world had to offer. Murphy later travelled alone with her young daughter, and ultimately created a wonderfully proud anti-stereotype of the typical twentieth-century woman.

There are two phases of enjoyment in journeying through an unknown country – the eager phase of wondering interest in every detail, and the relaxed phase when one feels no longer an observer of the exotic, but a participator in the rhythm of daily life.

Harriet Chalmers Adams

In the early days of National Geographic’s publication, Californian born Harriet Chalmers Adams was a pioneer for female journalism.


credit: Wikimedia Commons

Her first assignment saw her travel to – as the New York Times put it – “twenty frontiers previously unknown to white women”. Adams had a diligent approach to extracting the less than glamourous truths of each country she visited, and this was reflected in her writing.

During her time at Harper’s Magazine, Adams was granted access to the trenches – the only female journalist given permission to do so. Her favourite place, of which she sent National Geographic upwards of 3000 photographs from, was Latin America. Her photos, reports and films from the region explored the day to day life of people living there, and inspired many Americans to explore the region. Tourism is growing faster in Peru than in any other South American countries, but it still has a higher than average amount of crimes directed toward women.

“I’ve wondered why men have so absolutely monopolized the field of exploration. Why did women never go to the Arctic, try for one pole or the other, or invade Africa, Tibet, or unknown wildernesses? I’ve never found my sex a hindrance; never faced a difficulty which a woman, as well as a man, could not surmount; never felt a fear of danger; never lacked courage to protect myself.”

Jean Batten

Jean Batten became one of the most famed and admired pilots of her era. Her solo flights across the world broke numerous records and brought her a wave of attention from international press.


credit: nzhistory.govt.nz

Born in New Zealand, Batten flew from England to Australia in less than fifteen hours, in spite of two crash landings causing her to postpone the attempt.

She was nicknamed the ‘Greta Garbo of the skies’ in relation to her striking looks and tendency to change into a silk dress and apply red lipstick before leaving her plane. A true example of kicking ass in style.

She received aviation’s highest honour when she was the first female pilot to be awarded the Federation Aeronautique Internationale medal.

Every flyer who ventures across oceans to distant lands is a potential explorer; in his or her breast burns the same fire that urged adventurers of old to set forth in their sailing-ships for foreign lands.

Gertrude Bell

Bell’s work as an explorer, political officer, writer and archaeologist perhaps makes her the most influential woman on this list.


credit: gohighbrow.com

She began her international career through map work. She hiked mountains throughout the world, reaching peaks and forging paths that had previously never been discovered. When climbing Finsteraarhorn in 1902, she was trapped, clinging onto a rope for 48 hours before weather conditions improved and allowed her group to carry on.

Her book ‘Syria: The Desert and the Sown’ reached critical acclaim in Britain. The deserts of Damascus and the beauty of Jerusalem were vividly presented to the western world for the first time.

When travelling in Asia she gained the respect of Arabs, and even played a role in establishing the country of Iraq. She was asked by British Intelligence to guide soldiers through deserts, and frequently worked with locals to establish routes and shape imperial policy. Furthermore, as a woman she was able to gain access to tribal areas that men would not be allowed to enter. Controversially, she is said to have unintentionally contributed to the conflict in modern day Iraq, through the Iraqi border lines she mapped for the British. Today, the FCO advise against all but essential travel to the region.

It’s so nice to be a spoke in the wheel, one that helps to turn, not one that hinders.

Nellie Bly

Perhaps one of the most unique travellers on this list, Bly was not only famous for replicating Jules Verne’s around the world trip (in 72 rather than 80 days) but was also a skilled undercover journalist in between her travels.


credit: smithsonianmag.com

Bly wrote from an early age in her native Pittsburgh, and began her journalistic career as a foreign correspondent in Mexico. After travelling extensively in the region, she was forced to flee after writing a series of articles criticising Mexico’s dictatorship.

She returned to America and faced her next challenge in exposing the maltreatment of patients in a famed New York asylum. Posing as a mental patient she wrote truly ground-breaking work about the true conditions surrounding psychiatric care, and this changed public perception. We have her to thank for the numerous mental health support recourses we have today!

But her most famed endeavour was her around the world solo trip. Taking in trains, planes, ships, and a coffee date with Jules Verne himself, Nellie’s solo travel was truly inspiring for young women of her day, and now.

“It is only after one is in trouble that one realizes how little sympathy and kindness there are in the world.”

We have this variety of driven and unique women to thank for making international travel more accessible for women. Unfortunately, even today there is still progress to be made, as crimes against female travellers are still a threat. But with proper research and planning, alongside the Foreign Commonwealth Office’s advice, your journey is bound to echo the excitement, wonder and thrill of the women’s on this list.

Bon voyage!


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