Women Travelers: A Century of Trailblazing Adventures

by Amy Azzarito

I discovered this book during brunch at Community Table in Washington, Connecticut. The food there is amazing, and the decor is a beautiful, modern Scandinavian, but I was completely distracted by the books on the shelf next to our table. (I am known to be a little book crazy.) And one book in particular caught my eye: Women Travelers: A Century of Trailblazing Adventures, 1850–1950. As soon as I turned the pages, I became utterly captivated by the photographs and the women travelers, and I ordered a copy even before leaving the table. The book was published in 2007 and has quickly become a favorite. And seriously, I think everyone needs a copy. It tells the story of women adventurers who traveled through deserts and jungles, crossing all five continents, completely flying in the face of social convention. There’s Fanny Vandegrift, the wife of Robert Louis Stevenson, who traveled from Indiana to Samoa, and American journalist Nellie Bly, who met Jules Verne’s challenge and went around the world in only 72 days. The stories are told through letters, newspaper clippings and the most amazing photographs. I think this would make a fantastic Mother’s Day gift (if you’re shopping early) or a gift for any intrepid traveler friend.

(I’m sure this goes without saying, but I feel it necessary to add that although I love the photographs in this book, I would never condone a modern woman saddling up a zebra as pictured above. I know I’m being crazy here. Thankfully, collective understanding of the fragility of ecosystems has evolved!) — Amy Azzarito

Image above: American travel documentary filmmaker Osa Johnson on a zebra in Kenya, ca. 1930

Image above: English travel writer and explorer Rosita Forbes. From 1920 to 1921, she was the first European woman to visit the Kufra Oasis in Libya.

Image above: Swiss explorer and writer Isabelle Eberhardt at age 18 in Algeria.

Image above: Margaret Fountaine

Image above:
Osa Johnson

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    • @PB Seggebruch – You will not regret! I LOVE this book. I think every woman should have a copy!

      @Christina – I didn’t even know that yesterday was international woman’s day. Perfect!

  • Love it! I wished that I looked like that whenever I travel… unfortunately, it’s a touch of mascara, top bun, and a t-shirt. :)

  • “Song from the Uproar,” Missy Mazzoli’s opera about Isabelle Eberhardt, recently had its official world premiere in New York. Read about it at http://www.songfromtheuproar.com/. I was lucky enough to review it for Time Out New York. If you have a chance to see and hear it, run, don’t walk!

  • This looks great! Definitely on my list. It reminds me of another I read years ago and really enjoyed: No Place for a Lady: Tales of Adventurous Women Travelers

  • Amy, have you read “They Went Whistling: Women Wayfarers, Warriors, Runaways and Renegades” ? (Barbara Holland) There is some great travel in there- amongst other crazy crazy lady capers. I’m definitely going to check out your pick- thank you!

  • i would have no problem saddling up a zebra…..they are sometimes trained to ride!! i have known several zdonks(donkey zebra mix) great fun

  • I’m pretty sure women already lived in all these places. Perhaps the book should celebrate them, too.

  • Phenomenal find! The photographs alone speak so much about the strength of women and their defiance in the face of social and gender norms of their time.

  • I have to say that rather than focusing on the fun and fashionable aspects of these photos, I couldn’t help but see the colonial history of Africa in these images. A history that is most certainly still being lived today– witness the recent Stop Kony campaign. I thought D*S would be a little more sensitive?

    • Maggie –
      I actually have a very strong opinion on this subject. You are most certainly correct that one can see colonial history in these images. It’s history and it is represented in these historic images. I firmly believe that it is important to fully understand the complexity of history and of individuals. I think, in this case, the book is celebrating the achievements of individual women – which certainly doesn’t mean that every interaction they had was positive – For example, Osa Johnson participated in big game hunting – something that I personally find deplorable. But many of these women, often considered freaks to their contemporaries, overcame amazing odds and personal adversity to explore the world in a way that was only available to men. (Many of them learned the language of the remote country/countries they planned to visit.) And they have done their part to contribute to our understand of the world. Karen Blixen wrote “Our of Africa”, Nellie Bly was a social reformer who exposed the brutality in women’s lunatic asylums and proved that a woman could travel was well as a man, and before photography was practical, Marianne North painted plant life all over the world.

      And, in no way, do I find my post on a book of women travelers to condone the horrific activities of Joseph Kony. I find your implication extremely offensive, upsetting and utterly unproductive. -Amy

  • Re Women Travelers & International Women’s Day: an excerpt from a great post about Amelia Earhart, who’s quote below still resonates across time & space regardless of status or state:

    In a letter she wrote to her husband in case a dangerous flight proved to be her last, Earhart said: “(…) I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”

    The post found here: http://irenebrination.typepad.com/irenebrination_notes_on_a/2012/03/amelia-earhart.html

  • Amy, do you know (or have any suggestions) about where to find some wall prints that might resemble the pictures in the book? Even if the prints are small, that’s fine…I just have a gallery wall in my apartment with a few empty frames — I saw the Osa Johnson picture and about fell over, I loved it so much. Thanks!

  • Seriously this looks amazing!! I’m also going to have to check out Becca’s recommendation for ‘They Went Whistling: Women Wayfarers, Warriors, Runaways and Renegades.’

  • these pictures are amazing – thanks for sharing! it seems women are still controversial – we must learn to speak our minds, follow our hearts, and pursue our given passions.

  • If you like this, you should definitely get “I Married Adventure” by Osa Johnson–and get the old one with the zebra cover!

  • What a fabulous book you’re sharing here. Yes, women of all ages and all times need to be celebrated for pushing the frontiers of their own times. These women probably suffered immensely when they returned back to their own social contexts…It was in a sense freedom at a price. Yes, these photographs have to be put into context of their time…and the key theme is that they are women who were challenging the norms of THEIR time, not ours. For some modern day explorers who are women check these articles out:









    There’s lots more on this blog …these are just a few examples! Enjoy..

  • Amy, I hopped into the comments to see if someone was going to complain about colonialism, and I wanted to say that I was very impressed with the way you handled those comments. I think that colonialism was a horrific thing, as is big game hunting, but the spirit of the post doesn’t promote those things. I interpreted it as a celebration of women breaking the mold, and I appreciate the information!

  • What a great find to stumble upon! I would have been glued to it as well. Travel is very important to me so seeing all of these kindred souls is extremely cool. I need to find a copy! :)

  • i have to say i’m kind of disappointed that the conversations taking place in the comments aren’t MORE critical. yes, it is important and great to celebrate these women who were breaking the mould and living wonderful adventurous and uncommon lives, but at whose expense?

    amy’s comments address hunting and the treatment of animals as having evolved greatly since the turn of the century, but what about the treatment of the people who lived in these countries, in theses deserts and jungles? yes, these female adventurers faced certain challenges in following their dreams of travelling around the world – but notice how they are all white? and most likely, all from a certain social standing i.e. really wealthy?

    colonialism was a horrific thing, but it is not a relic of some long-forgotten past. there are still lingering effects of white people from wealthier countries coming and telling the people (including women who probably had some fantastic adventures of their own) who had lived there for generations how to live their lives. obviously i haven’t read the book so i don’t know how much the book addresses those concerns, but based on this post and the response to the two slightly critical comments, i must say i’m quite alarmed.

    in fact, i think this comment says it best: “I’m pretty sure women already lived in all these places. Perhaps the book should celebrate them, too.” just something to think a little bit more about.

    • garconniere

      you’re welcome to disagree, but i take issue with the idea that you cannot celebrate achievements made by one group without hurting another (or that you cannot be concerned about two causes- animal rights and human rights- concurrently). i think this book has set out to celebrate the great achievements these women made by choosing to explore and educate themselves in a time when that was incredibly difficult to do. in celebrating these women, the book is in no way attempting to celebrate colonialism or downplay its presence during that time period.

      as you mentioned, you have not read the book. amy and i have. we would not post this if we felt the book was in any way seeking to glamorize colonialism. traveling and exploring are not the same thing as settling and exploiting a native population. i hope that if you stumble upon this book you’ll take a deeper look before making assumptions based on a single image.


  • “And, in no way, do I find my post on a book of women travelers to condone the horrific activities of Joseph Kony.”

    I like these photos of the brave women who traveled against the wishes of the patriarchal society that they lived in. But I thought it should be pointed out the OP wasn’t making this point. She was saying, rightly so, that the latest wave of outrage based on the video about Kony is couched in a kind of paternalistic, white-savior racism that was prevalent during the colonialist days of Africa. Her point was that the colonial mindset that prevailed then is still alive and well, much to our discredit.
    However, it’s important to remember the women pictured overcame great odds to have the adventures they did. It being Women’s History Month, this is a great post in my opinion, when seen through that lens.

  • grace, thanks for responding but you are indeed correct, i think we’ll have to agree to disagree. i wouldn’t have commented in the first place if i hadn’t seen amy’s (what i perceive to be) defensive reaction to maggie’s criticism, even if it isn’t necessarily the most apt critique. no, these women haven’t necessarily committed horrible acts of genocide, but it isn’t unfair to assume/address that some of them held racist, imperialist views, and i’d be hesitant to put some of their stories up on a pedestal – whether they challenged gender roles, or not.

    i’m not making some wild assumption based on a single image, i’ve studied history in some african countries, am engaged in post-colonial theory, and definitely have a passion for women’s histories. i don’t know about the others mentionned in the post, but osa johnson for one definitely did some things i’d characterize as worth looking at with a critical eye – i’ve seen the film Simba her and her husband starred in/co-produced, and it is cringe worthy to say the least. dehumanizing, or worse, treating the locals as zoo animals. if anyone is interested in reading more about that, catherine russell deconstructs it quite wonderfully in her essay “zoography, pornography, ethnography” http://www.dukeupress.edu/Catalog/ViewProduct.php?productid=592

    i don’t feel i have much more to add as i haven’t read the book, but i think it something important to keep in mind and i’m glad the folks at design*sponge are at least responding. i think angela’s comments addresses the issues i was trying to bring out more concisely and on point than mine.

    • garconniere

      i’m going to leave this alone after this, but i wanted to respond to two things:

      “…but it isn’t unfair to assume/address that some of them held racist, imperialist views”

      i think it actually is unfair to discount any achievements made by these women based on colonialism is general. just because these women existed during that time doesn’t mean they necessary believed that world view, or participated in it. to me, it feels like that logic would necessitate discounting any achievements or advancements made by people living in the south pre-civil war. terrible time periods and behavior unfortunately happen, but sometimes there are still good people, good stories and interesting achievements being made despite the bad behavior happening around them.

      also, you mentioned that you aren’t making wild assumptions based on one image. i’m not suggesting your thoughts on colonialism in general are based on assumptions, but your thoughts on this book are indeed an unfounded assumption if you haven’t actually read the book. while osa johnson may be an example of the behavior you (and all of us) take issue with, she does not characterize the entire book, or its message.

      i hope that anyone curious about reading these women’s stories won’t be deterred by this discussion and will take a look at the book to make their own decisions. i really hate seeing the achievements of the brave women in this book discounted because of an assumption or issue with one of the people featured.


  • while we disagree on larger issues that are bigger than one small post on design*sponge, i don’t think it’s helpful to get into that.

    i just want to clarify one final point: i don’t think anyone raising concerns in the comments here hoped that they would be deterring people from reading the book. if anything, it piques your curiosity to know more, and to know for yourself.

    the only issue being challenged here was how amy’s original post makes ZERO reference to racism or colonization (while it does make reference to how bad hunting was at the time?), and reacted quite defensively when challenged on that.

    it is essential to keep in mind the attitudes held, as much as the lives of these adventurers, when reflecting on the past and women’s histories a century ago. that’s all that was being challenged here, not the validity or quality of the book or the importance of the stories.

  • Margaret Mee, Marrianne North and Maria Sybilla Merian were all artists traveling to paint their books are fantastic reading. I’m fascinated by these coragous women who traveled on their own into the Amazon, India and Africa
    as early as the late 16th century.

  • Read Dervla Murphy (20th century). She walks with a horse or mule, by herself, across any number of countries. Often very difficult terrain but she must be the most determined woman alive. Still with us at 80.

  • I’m jumping on this horse a year late, however I would like to make a suggestion. What drives learning forward for all is a look at both sides of any story. It would have been great if someone had posted info/links about adventurous women of the past who were sensitive to colonization issues. If some who loved the book at first glance, actually heard the other “side” and said, I never thought of it that way…I think I’ll check it out. I know that I have learned a lot from these posts. I had 2 great feminist theory professors.Smile.