Throughout history, female explorers have ventured into unknown territories, accomplished physical and intellectual challenges, and broken barriers for both their gender and for humans in general.
Not all of them have received the notoriety or credit they deserve, and many of them don’t demand it. But the ones who have made their way into the spotlight of international attention have offered inspiration and motivation to women around the world.
In honor of International Women’s Day, let’s take a look at a handful of female explorers who’ve made a sunstantial impact on their communities and the world. Some of these stories of their adventures might be familiar, while others are more obscure. But each of them demonstrates the reality that EVERY woman has the potential to achieve greatness!
Amelia Earhart was the first female pilot to cross the Atlantic Ocean, making her one of the most celebrated American female explorers.
She was only the 16th woman ever to be issued a pilot’s license, and eventually went on to become the first pilot to cross both the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans. Tragically, Earhart mysteriously disappeared somewhere in the Pacific attempting to circumnavigate the globe.
But her untimely death ultimately heightened her mystique in the hearts and minds of all who dared to take risks. Despite having her life cut short, Earhart’s legend has lived on, providing countless females with inspiration to tackle adventures previously dominated by men.
Sarah Winnemucca was a Native American born in Nevada in 1844.
Her aptitude for languages allowed her to become a translator between Native American communities– including the Piute tribe to which she belonged– and members of the U.S. army during times of conflict.
Winnemucca traveled extensively to speak and write on behalf of Native American tribes, forcing crowds to acknowledge the mistreatment of her people.
Known for her hard-hitting investigative reporting, Nelly Bly broke barriers by refusing to abide by the “boy’s club” mentality of the newspaper industry in the late 19th century.
She made a name for herself with her daring expose on the horrifying conditions at Blackwell Island insane asylum in New York City, which required her to feign mental illness to gain access. The critically-acclaimed article that resulted was titled “Ten Days in a Mad-House.”
Facing skepticism from peers at the New York World, Bly later pitched a story about attempting to break the fictional record for traveling around the world, as detailed in the Jules Verne novel Around the World in 80 Days. Her editor agreed, and she succeeded, completing her trip in 72 days.
Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner has been climbing mountains since she was just thirteen years old.
In adulthood she became a nurse, but kept climbing as often as possible: She was always working to save up for her next climbing trip. She eventually became the first female to climb all of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks (and above) without the use of oxygen.
While climbing is often a solitary sport, Gerlinde also has a passion for people and culture. She continues to travel the world and climb, while seeking to experience the essence of the places she visits.
Dian Fossey is best known for her groundbreaking work with primates. In 1963, she spent her life savings plus loans on a trip to Africa. This trip would be a pivotal moment in her life, introducing her to prominent archaeologist Louis Leakey.
Leakey’s second prominent protege after Jane Goodall, Fossey went on to become the world’s leading expert on Mountain Gorillas. She was a passionate voice for the species, arguing that they were highly social, gentle creatures that should be protected. And she wasn’t shy in her conservation efforts, developing many anti-poaching techniques that are still used today.
Fossey detailed her experience in her book Gorillas in the Mist, which became a popular movie starring Sigourney Weaver. She eventually lost her life in the battle to protect gorillas, and her brutal murder in Rwanda has never been solved.
Bessie Coleman faced both race and gender discrimination in her quest to become a pilot. But she conquered misconceptions and showed the world what bravery looks like, becoming the first black female pilot in the world.
To do so, she had to travel to France for flying lessons: She was banned from taking lessons in the U.S. due to the color of her skin. She eventually returned home, where she performed in aerial shows and championed for an African-American flight school. Coleman refused to participate in segregated events, and became a voice for female and black Americans who were facing discrimination.
Coleman was tragically killed in a flight accident at the age of 34. But not before stirring up hope and progress for black women to continue breaking barriers into the future.
Most of the female explorers on this list come from the United States or UK, but Valentina Tereshkova was born in Russia. She blazed trails as an astronaut, piloting the Vostok 6 back in 1963 and becoming the first woman in space.
Tereshkova had been a sky diving enthusiast since the age of 22, which helped her beat out hundreds of candidates in the selection process. Due to extreme secrecy surrounding the Soviet space program, Tereshkova told her family that she was simply going to attend a parachuting competition.
But her space trip wouldn’t remain a secret for long. Tereshkova eventually became a global celebrity after completing her historic three-day mission. She turned 80 this year.
Chronic illness couldn’t hold back this early English adventurer. Often traveling to the United States, Australia, and Hawaii solo, Bird fought insomnia and a spinal tumor in order to explore the world and write about it.
She wrote her first book in 1854 after sailing from Great Britain to America with her second cousins to visit family. Doctors recommended sea travel to help Bird bounce back from her illness. She made the most of it, detailing her adventures in letters to relatives back home, which were later compiled in her book, The Englishwoman in America.
Bird was the first of the female explorers to ever be inducted into the Royal Geographical Society of London, in honor of her contributions to travel literature.
Back in the late 18th century, French explorer Jeanne Baret became the first woman ever to circumnavigate the Earth. Unfortunately she had to do it in the guise of a man, since the French Navy didn’t allow women on its ships.
Baret had been in a relationship with renowned naturalist Philibert Commerçon, with whom she had a child that was later given up for adoption. When he embarked on a round-the-world expedition led by Admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville in 1766, she bound her breasts, called herself Jean, and came aboard as his valet and assistant.
For three years she traveled on a ship with 300 men, and her gender was ultimately discovered during the voyage. Still, the brave adventurer earned her place in the history of early female explorers.
Gertrude Belle was a British writer and archaeologist who explored the Middle East, Asia, and Europe, producing books that are still studied today.
A peer of T.E. Lawrence, she brought unknown foreigns lands to the libraries of Great Britain, connecting people, cultures, and the intimate details of places that most would never see. Some of her books include Safar Nameh (1894), Poems from the Divan of Hafiz (1897), The Desert and the Sown (1907), The Thousand and One Churches (1909) and Amurath to Amurath (1911).
Belle championed the idea that relics and antiquities should be kept and preserved in their home nations. Her work eventually led to the establishment of the National Museum of Iraq, which houses the world’s largest collection of Mesopotamian antiquities. –Britany Robinson
BIO: Britany Robinson is a freelance travel and culture writer based in Portland, Oregon. Her works appears in BBC Travel, Mashable, The Daily Dot and more. Her blog, Travel Write Away, shares advice and musings on travel writing. When she’s not planning her next big trip, she’s scoping out Portland craft beers and local hikes.