10 of the World’s Most Extraordinary Female Explorers

Léonie Chao-Fong

7 mins

03 Feb 2020

If the story of human exploration has been dominated by the legends of men, it was only because it was written by them.

For centuries, adventure was considered a traditionally male domain. Time after time, however, strong and fearless women defied convention and social expectations to travel the world.

Here are 10 of the world’s most extraordinary female explorers.

1. Jeanne Baret (1740-1807)

Jeanne Baret was the first woman to ever complete a voyage of circumnavigation of the world.

An expert botanist, Baret disguised herself as a boy called Jean to join the naturalist Philibert Commerson aboard the world expedition of the Étoile. At the time, the French navy did not allow women on ships.

Jeanne Barret

Portrait of Jeanne Barret, 1806 (Credit: Cristoforo Dall’Acqua).

For three years between 1766 and 1769, Baret travelled on the vessel with 300 men until she was eventually discovered.

When she returned to France, the navy paid tribute to “this extraordinary woman” and her botany work by giving her a pension of 200 livres a year.

One plant believed to have been discovered by her was the bougainvillea, a purple vine named after the leader of the expedition ship, Louis Antoine de Bougainville.

2. Ida Pfeiffer (1797-1858)

Ida Pfeiffer was one of the world’s first – and greatest ever – female explorers.

Her first trip was to the Holy Land. From there, she trekked to Istanbul, Jerusalem and Giza, travelling to the pyramids on camelback. On her return trip, she detoured through Italy.

Ida Laura Reyer-Pfeiffer

Ida Laura Reyer-Pfeiffer (Credit: Franz Hanfstaengl).

Between 1846 and 1855, the Austrian adventurer journeyed an estimated 32,000 km by land and 240,000 km by sea. She travelled through Southeast Asia, the Americas, the Middle East and Africa – including two trips around the world.

During her travels, often taken alone, Pfeiffer collected plants, insects, molluscs, marine life and mineral specimens. Her bestselling journals were translated into 7 languages.

Despite her overwhelming bravery and success, Pfeiffer was barred from the Royal Geographical Society of London because of her gender.

3. Isabella Bird (1831-1904)

An English explorer, writer, photographer and naturalist, Isabella Bird was the first female to be inducted into the Royal Geographic Society of London.

Despite chronic illness, insomnia and a spinal tumour, Bird defied doctors’ orders to travel to America, Australia, Hawaii, India, Kurdistan, the Persian Gulf, Iran, Tibet, Malaysia, Korea, Japan and China.

Isabella Bird

Isabella Bird (Credit: Public domain).

She climbed mountains, trekked volcanoes and rode on horseback – and occasionally on elephants – across thousands of miles. Her last trip – to Morocco – was at the age of 72.

She wrote her first book, ‘The Englishwoman in America’, in 1854 after sailing from Britain to America.

She became a prolific author, with books including ‘The Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains’, ‘Unbeaten Tracks in Japan’ and ‘The Yangtze Valley and Beyond’. All were illustrated with her own photography.

In 1892, she was inducted into the Royal Geographical Society of London in honour of her contributions to travel literature.

4. Annie Smith Peck (1850-1935)

Annie Smith Peck

Annie Smith Peck (Credit: YouTube).

Annie Smith Peck was one of the greatest mountaineers of the 19th century.

Yet despite the acclaim she won for setting mountain climbing records, her critics repeatedly expressed outrage for her climbing attire of a long tunic and trousers.

She responded defiantly:

For a woman in difficult mountaineering to waste her strength and endanger her life with a skirt is foolish in the extreme.

Besides her work as a trailblazing mountaineer, Peck wrote and lectured about her adventures. She was also an ardent suffragist.

In 1909, she planted a flag that read “Votes for Women!” on the summit of Mount Coropuna in Peru.

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The north peak of Huascarán in Peru was renamed Cumbre Aña Peck (in 1928) in honour of its first climber.

Peck climbed her last mountain – the 5,367 ft Mount Madison in New Hampshire – at the age of 82.

5. Nellie Bly (1864-1922)

Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly (Credit: H. J. Myers).

Nellie Bly is best remembered as a pioneer of investigative journalism, including her undercover work in a women’s lunatic asylum. Her exposés brought about sweeping reforms in mental institutions, sweatshops, orphanages and prisons.

On 14 November 1889, Bly – born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane – decided to take on a new challenge for the newspaper ‘the New York World’.

Inspired by the Jules Verne novel, ‘Around the World in 80 Days’, the American journalist set out to beat the fictional globetrotting record.

When she initially pitched her idea, the newspaper agreed – but thought a man should go. Bly refused until they agreed.

Alone and literally with the clothes on her back and only a small bag, she set off aboard a steamer.

She returned just 72 days later, having travelled 24,899 miles from England to France, Singapore to Japan, and California back to the East Coast – in ships, trains, rickshaws, on horseback and on mules.

Bly set a new world record, becoming the first person ever to travel the world in less than 80 days.

6. Gertrude Bell (1868-1926)

Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell in Babylon, Iraq (Credit: Gertrude Bell Archive).

Gertrude Bell was a British archaeologist, linguist and the greatest female mountaineer of her age, exploring the Middle East, Asia and Europe.

She was the first woman to attain a first-class degree (in just two years) in modern history at Oxford, and the first to make major contributions in archaeology, architecture and oriental languages.

Fluent in Persian and Arabic, Bell was also the first to achieve seniority in the British military intelligence and diplomatic service.

Her in-depth knowledge and contacts played a key role in shaping British imperial policy-making. She strongly believed that relics and antiquities should be kept in their home nations.

To this day her books, including ‘Safar Nameh’, ‘Poems from the Divan of Hafiz’, ‘The Desert and the Sown’, ‘The Thousand and One Churches’ and ‘Amurath to Amurath’, are still studied.

Her greatest legacy was in the establishment of the modern state of Iraq in the 1920s. The National Museum of Iraq, which houses the world’s largest collection of Mesopotamian antiquities, was born from her efforts.

7. Annie Londonderry (1870-1947)

Annie Londonderry was the first woman to cycle around the world, from 1894 to 1895.

Born Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, the Latvian immigrant was said to have embarked on her journey in order to settle a wager.

Two rich Boston businessmen wagered $20,000 against $10,000 that no woman could travel around the world by bicycle in 15 months. Aged 23, she set off from her home and into stardom.

In exchange for $100, Londonderry agreed to attach an advertisement to her bicycle – the first of her many moneymaking schemes to finance her travels.

Annie Londonderry

An illustration of Annie Londonderry in The San Francisco Examiner, 1895 (Credit: Public domain).

Along the way, she delivered lectures and gave exhibitions, regaling large crowds with tales of her adventures. She signed and sold souvenirs and freely gave interviews to newspapers.

She claimed she had hunted Bengal tigers in India, that she had been shot in the shoulder while on the front lines of the Sino-Japanese War, that she had been waylaid by bandits in France. Audiences adored her.

When she returned to Boston with a broken arm, her adventure was described by a newspaper as:

The Most Extraordinary Journey Ever Undertaken By a Woman

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8. Raymonde de Laroche (1882-1919)

Raymonde de Laroche was the first woman in the world to hold a pilot’s license, on 8 March 1910. At the time, she was only the 36th person to receive a pilot’s license.

The former French actress’s maiden flight came after just one journey as a passenger. She reportedly handled herself with “cool, quick precision”.

De Laroche participated in aviation shows at Heliopolis, Budapest and Rouen. During a show in St Petersburg, she was personally congratulated by Tsar Nicolas II.

Raymonde de Laroche

Raymonde de Laroche (Credit: Edouard Chateau à Mourmelon).

She was severely injured at an airshow, but resumed flying two years later. During World War One, she served as a military driver as flying was considered too dangerous for women.

She died in 1919 when the experimental aircraft she was piloting crashed at Le Crotoy, France.

9. Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)

Bessie Coleman was the first black female pilot in the world. Throughout her tragically brief life and career, she constantly faced racial and gender discrimination.

As a manicurist in a barber shop in Chicago, Coleman would hear stories from pilots returning home from World War One. She took a second job to save money to learn to fly.

Banned from flying schools in America because of the colour of her skin, Coleman taught herself French in order to travel to France on a scholarship to take flying lessons.

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman (Credit: George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images).

She earned her pilot’s license in 1921 – two years before the more famous female aviator, Amelia Earhart. She was also the first black person to gain an international pilot’s license.

After returning to the United States, Coleman became a media sensation – known as “Queen Bess” – and performed aerial stunts in air shows.

She lectured to raise funds for an African-American flying school, and refused to take part in any segregated events.

Sadly, her awe-inspiring career and life came to an end when she died during an air show rehearsal at the age of 34.

10. Amelia Earhart (1897-1937)

Amelia Earhart

Amelia Earhart (Credit: Harris & Ewing).

American aviatrix Amelia Earhart was the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic Ocean, and the first pilot to cross both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

As a young woman, Earhart became interested in aviation after attending a stunt-flying exhibition. She took her first flying lesson on 3 January 1921; 6 months later, she bought her own plane.

She was only the 16th woman ever to be issued a pilot’s license, and soon after broke numerous speed and altitude records.

In June 1928, 7 years after her first lesson, she became the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean on the plane Friendship, flying from Newfoundland, Canada to Burry Port in Wales in 21 hours.

Her first solo transatlantic flight took place in 1932 and lasted 15 hours. Three years later, Earhart became the first pilot to fly solo from Hawaii to California.

As an aviation writer for ‘Cosmopolitan’ magazine, she encouraged other women to fly and helped found The 99s: International Organisation of Women Pilots.

Tragically Earhart disappeared somewhere in the Pacific while attempting to set a record circumnavigate the globe, and was declared “lost at sea”. Her body was never found.