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Untold Stories: 6 female globetrotters who made history

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Countless numbers of pioneering female adventurers have stories to tell; from the incredible and profound to the heartbreaking and damn-right crazy.

But so many of these tales have become lost in time. So, today seems a good a day as any to tell a few of them. 

Freya Stark (1893-1993)

Born on the 31 st January 1893 in Paris, Freya Stark was the young prodigy of Flora, a Polish/German artist, and Robert, an English painter from Devon. Much of her early life was spent reading about the Middle East, teaching herself Latin and relishing in French literature.

As she grew up, she decided to venture where very few Europeans, particularly women, had ever been before. A champion of travel and literature, Stark found herself in remote areas of Turkey, destitute regions of Baghdad and the wilderness of Iran, documenting her journeys as she went. She moved by car, on camels, and by foot, but eventually settled down to her Grandmother’s hometown of Asolo and passed away a few months after her 100th birthday.

On her passing, she had been honoured as Dame Freya Stark and had authored more than 24 extraordinary travel books, containing some of the most accurate maps of the Middle East at the current time.

Bessie Coleman (1892-1926)

Just two years before her famous counterpart Amelia Earhart broke onto the scene, a young woman named Bessie Coleman became the first black female pilot in the world. After facing swathes of gender and racial discrimination in 1920s America, Coleman taught herself French and travelled from the States to attend piloting school in France. In 1921, Coleman got her licence and took to the skies; refusing to take part in any segregated events, she flew all across Europe and America, performing aerial stunts and teaching to raise funds for the African-American flying school. 

Her life as a flying traveller was tragically cut short when she died during a practice run for an upcoming air show at the age of 34.

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926)

A woman of many firsts, Gertrude Bell let her expertise and sheer determination get her to the top of her profession, but also to the top of the world.

Gertrude was the first woman to achieve a first-class degree in Modern History at Oxford University. She was also the very first woman to bring vital research and feedback to archaeology, architecture and foreign languages. Oh, and she was the first woman to achieve seniority in the British military and diplomatic services.

An acclaimed archaeologist, linguist, and mountaineer, Gertrude shared her in-depth knowledge and numerous contacts from her long treks through the highs and lows of (then) Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Arabia, to truly help shape British policy making and contribute to scientific and linguistic research.  

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960)

Starting at the ripe old age of 14, Zora Neale Hurston began exploring with her travelling drama troupe. At this stage, travelling was a way to explore and soak up new aspects of our grand world.

Not long into her mid-teens, she became infatuated with literature and anthropology, which sparked a deep passion for black folklore. In the mid-1920s, Zora moved to a permanent base in New York City and began travelling through the Caribbean collecting black music, poetry, and literature. She documented the literary culture of countries like the Bahamas, Jamaica, Honduras, and Haiti, where she later penned her novel Their Eyes Are Watching God.

Nellie Bly (1864-1922)

Riding solo in a man’s world, American journalist Nellie Bly raced across the world in just 72 days, beating the fictional record set by Phileas Fogg in Jule’s Vernes Around The World in 80 Days. With only the clothes on her back, Nellie refused a male companion despite her editor’s persistent requests, and came back absolutely victorious.

Not only did she prove a woman could travel the world alone, but that she could produce insightful and integral investigative reports on issues across the globe. In 1887, Nellie feigned insanity to be committed to the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now known as Roosevelt Island). Here, she produced a series of investigative articles which exposed the brutality and neglect women faced within its walls. The pieces were later put together for Nellie’s novel Ten Days in a Mad House.  

Annie Cohen Kopchovsky (1870-1947)

Never one to back out of a bet, Annie "Londonderry" (a young mother of three), stood before an expectant crowd of 500 friends, family, suffragettes, and curious onlookers and declared she would circle the globe alone. In front of the Massachusetts State House, she clambered onto a £42 Columbia bike and peddled into the distance.

Months before, Annie had decided to settle a wager between two rich Boston businessmen, who bet her to ride around the world in 15 months, and earn some serious dollar while doing it. Not only did it test the limits of Annie’s physical and mental capabilities, but at the time, it was also a huge test of female strength in a patriarchal society.

Annie abandoned the role of wife and mother to flip archetypal Victorian stereotypes completely on their head. She rode in a man’s bicycle suit, sold photographs of herself to pay her way and turned herself into a mobile tourist attraction. She mastered self-promotion and public relations to carve a space in the history books as one of the most daring globetrotters and adventurers the world has ever seen.

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