Today is International Women’s Day, a day meant for respecting the social, political, and economic achievements of the female half of the global population. Since we’re nothing if not proud feminists, we decided to throw our own little celebration to mark the occasion.
When most people think of travel icons, their minds go straight to the aggressive males throughout history who pushed their way around the world and yelled their stories loud enough for everyone to hear. Our minds, however, like to think of the aggressive females who push through the world and yell their stories. Below you’ll find our list of the five most badass lady adventurers throughout the past few centuries – commit them to memory, and try not to be intimidated, gentlemen.
Born Elizabeth Cochran, Nellie Bly assumed her famous pen name when she joined the New York World paper and thrust herself into the world of “stunt journalism” that had become popular at the end of the 19th century. She is probably most widely known as the woman who pretended to be insane so she could be committed to a women’s lunatic asylum (and the ensuing investigative reporting that led to widespread reforms in mental health care), but we think she earned her badass badge during her daring trip around the world in 1889. With a special passport signed by the Secretary of State himself, Bly set out to circumnavigate the globe in 75 days – 5 days faster than the famous 80-day precursor set by Phileas Fogg. Despite widespread criticism and a bevy of naysayers (including Jules Verne), Bly showed the world that she was the HBIC when she beat her own goal and returned to New York in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes. Oh yeah, and she picked up a monkey in China along the way.
Gertrude Bell was one brainy traveler – apart from circling the world twice, she was also the first woman to receive a history degree from Oxford and the first woman to write a white paper for the British government (we’re not exactly sure what that means, but it sounds like it takes some serious smarts). However, the most impressive item on her resume is the work she did in the Middle East. After visiting her uncle in Tehran, Iran, Bell decided to stay in the region learning local languages and working as an archaeologist. She spent years in places like Basra and Cairo using her deep knowledge of the peoples and cultures of the Middle East to aid British intelligence, and eventually helped Iraq become an autonomous country under King Faisal I. No one ever built a country by staying at home on the couch, folks.
For someone who faced so much physical strife at an early age, Freya Stark really got around. For much of her childhood she was confined to hospitals with various illnesses, and then a freak accident in her young adulthood involving her pony tail and some angry machinery led to multiple skin grafts and yet another prolonged hospital stay. While all that would have given many people a general fear of, well, everything, Stark vowed to make the most of her life by seeing the world and writing about her travels. One of her most notable excursions (and the subject of her second book) was as the first European to ever into the region of Luristan in Iran. After this, Stark published over fifty books on her travels, helped combat fascism using her knowledge of languages during World War II, and founded a pro-democracy group in Egypt. Damn, now that’s a life.
Dervla Murphy is the queen of solo travel, and anyone who tells you otherwise is clearly not very well-versed on her adventures. In 1963, Murphy set out on the first of many long-distance solo bicycle tours, a trip that took her from her native Ireland and across Europe, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The book she wrote about this experience upon returning, Full Tilt: Ireland to India With a Bicycle, is considered by many to be one of the greatest solo travelogues of the 20th century. Despite facing terrible hardships on this first trip – riding exposed on a bike through one of Europe’s harshest winters and being attacked by wolves in the former Yugoslavia, to name a few – Murphy kept traveling and writing, relying on the kindness of locals to get her by while alone on the road. Only rarely did she take a partner on a tour with her, and when she did she kept it in the family – after a short break to give birth, Murphy wrote about her travels with her daughter Rachel through India, Pakistan, South America, Madagascar, and Cameroon. Talk about a working mother.
Kira Salak is a travel writer who wants to show you the world as it is, not through the rose-colored glasses that many adventurers don in the adrenaline-filled moment. With a PhD in literature and travel writing, Salak has taken readers with her through places like Iran, Libya, Mali, Peru, Bhutan and Burma. Her two most notable excursions were throughout Papua New Guinea (an experience that led to the book Four Corners) and into the Congo, where Ukranian gun runners smuggled her across the border so she could show the world a human perspective of both the human problems inside the nation and the plight of the endangered mountain gorillas that call the local jungle home. Salak will forever be our #1 modern-day travel icon, if only due to her ability to keep her cool around Ukranian gun runners.