These days, we probably follow a lot of notable and inspiring women who travel the world, on social media. It’s hard to imagine a time when it was uncommon (or even unacceptable) for female travellers to embark on solo journeys, let alone travel to the most remote parts of the world in the name of exploration.
And yet, 19th and early 20th century women like Ida Pfeiffer, Nellie Bly, Isabella Bird, Gertrude Bell, and Freya Stark—just to name a few—defied societal norms of the day and explored, in every sense of the word. Besides being naturalists, archaeologists, ethnographers, writers and photographers, they were explorers first and foremost.
4 female explorers who paved the way
Let’s take a look at 4 inspirational women in more recent times, who were among the first to conquer the air and seas, climb the highest peaks, and even travel to outer space.
“Queen Bess” was the first African-American woman, as well as the first Native American, to hold a pilot’s license. Born in Texas, she dreamt of becoming a pilot and decided to chase that dream in her early 20s. At the time, aviation schools in the US didn’t admit women or black applicants, so she travelled to Paris to obtain her license. She went on to become a pioneer of aviation, and her efforts to overcome racial and gender barriers established her legacy.
An accomplished Japanese mountaineer, Junko was famous for being the first woman to reach the summit of Mt. Everest, at the age of 36. Back in 1969, she formed the Ladies Climbing Club in college—the first of its kind in Japan—in response to the sexism she faced among the male-dominated mountaineering community. Perhaps her most impressive accomplishment, Junko was also the first woman to ascend the highest peak on every continent—known as the “Seven Summits”.
Krystyna was the first woman to sail single-handed (solo) around the world, sailing from the Canary Islands in Spain in March 1976. Her 57,719 km circumnavigational voyage lasted 401 days at sea, taking her through the Atlantic, then the Panama Canal, the Pacific and Indian Oceans, Cape Town, and back. To this day, she’s still considered somewhat of a hero in her home country of Poland.
At the age of 26, Valentina became the first woman in space. She orbited the Earth 48 times while aboard the Vostok 6 on a solo mission in June 1963. As a politician, engineer, retired Air Force major general and former cosmonaut, Valentina has amassed many awards and honours throughout her storied career. Among them, she was named ‘Hero of the Soviet Union’—the highest distinction awarded by the former Soviet Union.
These 4 are just a handful of female trailblazers throughout history, who have journeyed beyond the frontiers of human exploration in their own ways, inspiring generations of travellers—both women and men—to do the same. Have a favourite female explorer who’s inspired your travels? Share their story in the comments below!