Women Who Travel: 8 Women Travellers Who Made History

By: Makda Mulatu

Did you know that Sunday, March 8th, 2020, is International Women's Day? Every year on this day, a celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women takes place in countries all over the globe. To commemorate the occasion, we here at the University of Alberta International Education Abroad wanted to highlight 8 women throughout history who overcame both structural and personal barriers on their path to becoming travel pioneers.

Harriet Adams

1. Harriet Chalmers Adams

Widely regarded as one of the most prominent explorers of all time, Harriet Chalmers Adams rose to fame for her work as a photojournalist during World War I. Despite having no formal education or training as a geographer, Adams was the first female journalist permitted to photograph the French trenches. Having caught the travel bug following a nearly 3-year trek across Latin America with her husband, Adams endeavoured to visit every country that was or had been a Spanish colony, following the route used by Christopher Columbus. After being denied entry to New York's men-only Explorer's Club, Adams and four other women adventurers banded together to form their own association. In 1925, the Society of Woman Geographers was born, and Adams was appointed its inaugural president, a role she retained until the year before her death in 1934. Throughout the course of her travels, Adams penned 21 articles chronicling her experiences for National Geographic, more than any other woman had published in the first fifty years of the magazine's history.

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Freya Stark

2. Freya Stark

Freya Stark had a knack for language, a gift that would lead her all over the world. A polyglot fluent in seven languages, the France-born Anglo-Italian explorer, spent the pre-war era journeying trekking alone across a number of remote locations in the Middle East. During World War I, Stark served as a nurse in Italy. Come World War II; however, she was recruited by the British Ministry of Information. The U.K. government department, created specifically for the purpose of monitoring publicity and propaganda during wartime, dispatched Stark to places like Yemen, Egypt and Iraq. It was there that she made a name for herself by expanding British influence and countering Nazi propaganda. In 1953, Stark was awarded a Cross of the British Empire in and even went on to be named a Dame of the British Empire two decades later. At the time of her passing in May 1993 at the age of 100, Stark had produced an impressive body of travel literature, having written 24 travel books and autobiographies as well as eight volumes of letters.

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Bessie COleman

3. Bessie Coleman

All Bessie Coleman ever wanted to do was fly. Inspired by the Wright brothers and the famed stories of American World War I pilots, Coleman was determined to make it to the skies. At the time, flight schools in the U.S. admitted neither women nor African Americans. However, with the funding and support from Robert S. Abbott - the founder and publisher of the Chicago newspaper Chicago Defender - Coleman was able to enroll in flight school in France. On June 15th, 1921, Coleman graduated from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, becoming the first woman of African-American descent, and the first woman of Native American descent, to earn her pilot's license. Before her tragic passing at the age of 34, Coleman made her living by performing in airshows as a "barnstorming" stunt flier where she gained notoriety for her both the technical skill and boldness of her moves.

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Dervla Murphy

4. Dervla Murphy

After being gifted a hand-me-down bike and an atlas for her 10th birthday, Dervla Murphy vowed that she would one day cycle to India. After the loss of her ill mother, whom Murphy had taken care of for the entirety of her adolescence and early adulthood, she was able to fulfill her promise to herself by setting off for Delhi at the end of 1962. The experience from her travels in the region would go on to become the focus of her first book, Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle, which remains regarded by many as one of the best books on both cycling and travel. This sparked a long career as one of the most prolific (and political) travel writers of the 20th century. To date, Murphy has published 26 travel books detailing her adventures in over 50 countries. Preferring to make her way from location to location overland - whether on foot, on wheels, or otherwise - Murphy has been a passionate advocate of the "slow travel" movement.

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Valentina Tereshkova

5. Valentina Tereshkova

For many of us, the idea of space travel is nothing more than a childhood dream. Valentina Tereshkova turned that dream into a reality. While employed at a textile factory near her tiny home village of Bolshoye Maslennikovo, Tereshkova trained as a skydiver and parachutist. At the height of the space race between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union, skydiving and parachuting were considered crucial skills for astronauts to possess, making Tereshkova a perfect candidate for the Soviet space program. On June 16th, 1963, at 26 years old, Tereshkova became both the first and the youngest woman in space. After her successful 2 day, 22 hour and 50 minute flight (during which she orbited Earth 48 times), Tereshkova embarked on a political career that led her all over the globe. Today, at 82-years-old, she remains an active member of Russia's State Duma.

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Junko Tabei

6. Junko Tabei

Standing tall at a lofty 4 feet and 9 inches, Japanese mountaineer Junko Tabei never cut a particularly intimidating figure. Despite her small and slender stature, Tabei became the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest in May 1975. This would be the first of many "firsts" in Tabei's climbing career. Almost twenty years after conquering Everest for the first time, she became the first woman to scale the Seven Summits, the highest mountains in each of the seven continents. Prior to her death in 2016 at the age of 77, Tabei had made it to the highest peaks of over 70 different countries and founded Japan's historic Ladies Climbing Club.

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Laura Dekker

7. Laura Dekker

When most people think back to what they were doing as teenagers, travelling the world by boat - one that they captained themselves, no less - probably doesn't come to mind. New Zealand-born Dutch sailor Laura Dekker, however, literally grew up on the water. Despite legal objections from Dutch authorities, the then 14-year-old Dekker embarked on a 518-day journey to circumnavigate the globe solo in August 2010. When she eventually completed her voyage in January 2012 at the age of 16, she became the youngest person to have ever achieved the astonishing feat. While at sea, Dekker consistently published a blog in order to update the world about her progress and later encapsulated her experience as both a documentary (Maidentrip) and an autobiography (One Girl One Dream).

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Jessica Nabongo

8. Jessica Nabongo

No social media account is more inspiring of wanderlust than that of travel influencer Jessica Nabongo. In October 2019, the 36-year-old Ugandan-American became the first black woman of African descent to travel to every country recognized by the United Nations. A seasoned traveller well before she decided to take up this Herculean challenge in 2017, Nabongo's beautiful photos and wealth of knowledge has amassed her a sizeable following online, particularly on Instagram (@thecatchmeifyoucan) where she documents her experiences in each of the 195 countries she's visited for her 185 000 followers. In addition to being a record-setting globetrotter, Nabongo is also the founder of Jet Black, a boutique travel agency specializing in travel to Africa, Central and South America and the Caribbean.

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