By Rachael Funk
You probably know names like Amelia Earhart and Gertrude Bell, but there are still so many women who have made history by adventuring. From pioneering journalists to determined botanists, these women packed a bag and chased their passions around the globe. Read up on these brash trailblazers and start making some plans of your own!
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Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir (980ish – 1050ish)
Also known as “Gudrid the Far Traveler,” Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir was the best-traveled woman of the middle ages. A woman of legend, much of her story is a mix of facts and storytelling. Most tales agree that she was the daughter of a chieftain and was one of the few survivors of a voyage to Greenland with him.
She married Thorstein Erickson, younger brother of Lief Erickson, and traveled with her husband until the time of his death. Eventually, she remarried and had a son in Vinland (the northern tip of Newfoundland), possibly making her son the first European born on the North American continent. Gudrid and her husband loaded up their ship with riches from the New World, made their fortune in Norway, and then settled on a farm in Iceland. When she was widowed again, she converted to Christianity and made a pilgrimage to Rome to meet the Pope. She survived shipwrecks, disasters, multiple voyages by sea, epidemics, and is speculated to have lived to a ripe old age.
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Ching Shih (1775 – 1844)
Born in the Guangdong province of China, not much is known about Ching Shih’s early life. Her story begins in the early 1800s, when Pirate Zhèng Yi, spellbound by Shih’s beauty and business acumen, ordered a raid on the floating brothel where she worked. Yi, the fearsome commander of a fleet of ships called the “Red Flag Fleet,” ordered his men to bring her to him so they could be married. Shih agreed to the marriage, on the conditions that she receive equal control over his fleet and an equal share in his plunder. Once the agreement was struck, Shih started her new life as a pirate.
Under the dual command of husband and wife, the fleet grew exponentially from the original 200 ships. About six years into the marriage, Yi died. At that time, the command of the Red Flag Fleet fell to Shih, leaving her in charge of anywhere between 50,000 – 70,000 pirates. Craving the power and glory that came with the job, she took charge of the fleet and unified her fleet by using a strict code of laws.
The Red Flag Fleet was so hard to defeat, Shih earned the nickname “The Terror of South China” and rumors of her harsh capital punishment for lawbreakers and deserters spread. Her fleet took Chinese, Portuguese, and British naval ships. Finally, when they could find no other way to defeat her, the Chinese offered amnesty to all pirates in hopes of eliminating the threat of the Red Flag Fleet. Shih was able to negotiate the terms of her own amnesty to include keeping all of her loot and ended her career as a pirate.
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Lady Hester Stanhope (1776 – 1839)
“Audacious” is not a strong enough word to describe Lady Hester Stanhope. Passed from relative to relative as a child, Stanhope eventually found a happy home with her uncle, Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, who she won over with her intelligence and wit. When he died, he left his niece a pension of £1,200 a year to live on (which, with inflation, amounts to around $100k in 2018).
Exasperated with England’s high society, Stanhope left England at the age of 33, never to return. Instead, she spent her lavish inheritance traveling the world. Her first trip was to Gibraltar, where she collected a group of male travel companions and (scandalously) a lover 12 years her junior. After a shipwreck in Greece that cost the group all their luggage, Stanhope opted for men’s clothes as replacements for what was lost at sea.
Soon, Stanhope had completely abandoned the encumbrances of English attire and instead took up the fashion of Eastern males; boots, trousers (unheard of!), waistcoat, turban, and sword. From then on, she dressed as a man. She even cut her hair and gave up riding side-saddle in favor of riding her horse astride like a man. She continued her travels this way, shocking then charming sheiks and brigands alike. She was such a sensation, rumors spread through the East that she was English royalty – an assumption she never bothered to correct. She was among the first Westerners to travel through the deserts of Syria and Lebanon, and the first Western woman to see the ancient ruins of Palmyra, which was a week’s journey through land controlled by dangerous tribes. She settled in the foothills of Mount Lebanon, feeding and clothing beggars who came to her door and lavishing royal visitors with her wealth until she ran out of money and died as a shut-in.
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Nellie Bly (1864 – 1922) and Elizabeth Bisland (1861 – 1929)
Nellie Bly was a fearless reporter who made her name by posing as a mental patient at Blackwell’s Island in New York City to write an expose on the asylum's poor conditions. Soon after the story ran, New York World, the paper she wrote for, accepted her pitch to take an unprecedented trip. She wanted to see if she could outrun the fictional Phileas Fogg of the popular novel, Around the World in 80 Days and write articles along the way.
A journalist for a new publication called Cosmopolitan, Elizabeth Bisland caught wind of the publicity stunt and decided to join in the race to see if she could beat both the fictional Phileas Fogg and the real Nellie Bly. On the same day, Bisland (who only had six hours’ notice to prepare) took off westward from New York and Bly, unaware of her new competition, left on a ship in the opposite direction. The public took great interest in the sensational coverage of the trip. News of a rival didn’t reach Bly until about a month into the race, when she made a stop in Hong Kong and was informed that Bisland had passed through three days prior and was expected to win.
Bisland lost her lead when she was told she’d missed the high-speed ship she had planned to take from England to complete the race and had to take a slower moving ship that departed from Ireland. It’s uncertain whether Bisland was intentionally misled or not, but the change of plans cost her the race. Nellie Bly crossed the finish line first, with a total travel time of precisely 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes.
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Aimee Crocker (1864 – 1941)
A polite person would tell you Aimee Crocker was known as an American socialite, Bohemian, poet, and author. Someone who actually knew her would tell you that Aimee Crocker was an eccentric heiress who unapologetically found scandal everywhere she went and delighted in making San Francisco’s high society extremely uncomfortable. Whispers of her wild lifestyle detailed her collection of husbands and lovers (a lengthy list which includes a warlord, a toreador, an English officer, a variety of princes, and many more), various tattoos, outlandish parties, and the performances she gave to earn her nickname, “Entertainer of Entertainers.”
After a divorce that included a turbulent custody battle that she lost, Crocker decided to travel. First, she went to Hawaii where she held séances in the dead of night and won the favor of King Kalākaua. He decided to modestly demonstrate his affection for her by gifting her an entire island and naming her a princess. Next, she traveled through Asia. In her autobiography, aptly titled And I’d Do it Again, she recounted her experiences with knife-throwing Chinese servants, Bornean headhunters, and the time she spent in a harem, among other outrageous escapades. During her stay in Asia, Crocker converted to Buddhism and upon her eventual return to the states, opened a Buddhist temple in New York City. Her travels took her through the United States, Asia, Europe, and India. Fiercely defiant of the status quo and never swayed by the opinions of those around her, Aimee Crocker’s adventures often made headlines and built the inspiring legacy she left behind.
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Ynes Mexia (1870 – 1938)
Ynes Mexia began her career in 1925 and eventually became the most accomplished botanical collector of her time. Beginning her pursuits in her mid-50s, her passion for botany was sparked when she joined an expedition with a Berkeley paleontologist. On an expedition to Mexico, she fell off a cliff which led to fractured ribs and an injured hand, but she still managed to return with over 500 specimens for research. She traveled through Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Alaska, and the continental United States to collect specimens.
One of her most impressive feats during her expeditions was canoeing the Amazon River from its delta to where it was fed in the Andes, covering almost 3,000 miles in less than three years. Her specimens were widely distributed in the United States and Western Europe. In addition to finding new specimens, Mexia also wrote articles and lectured about her explorations. In total, she collected 145,000 specimens. 500 of those were new species and 50 of the new species were named in her honor.
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Bessie Stringfield (1911 – 1993)
Known as “The Motorcycle Queen of Miami,” Bessie Stringfield owned 27 Harleys in her lifetime and rode them all over the Americas, defying expectations of what a black woman in the early 1900s was capable of. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Stringfield and her family immigrated to Boston when she was a child. She was orphaned at five years old and adopted by a wealthy Irish woman. On Stringfield's 16th birthday, she received her first motorcycle. Wasting no time, she immediately taught herself to ride and made plans to see the world.
Her initial trips were determined by flipping a coin onto a map of the United States and planning a trip to where it landed. She made several trips from Boston to get familiarized with her preferred mode of transportation, then expanded her travels from there. She became the first black woman to ride through each of the 48 contiguous United States and took trips on her motorcycle through Brazil, Haiti, and parts of Europe. To earn money while she was traveling, Stringfield would perform death-defying stunts at fairs and carnival sideshows. She also participated in motorcycle races disguised as a man, but was often denied the monetary prizes when they found out who she was.
During a time where segregation was rampant and lynching was still common and legal, Stringfield gained notoriety for her daring travels. Since most motels and hotels would not allow black people in, Stringfield would either stay with other black families she met while traveling or would sleep on her motorcycle at gas stations. Despite being a civilian, she worked as a motorcycle dispatcher during World War II and eventually made a permanent move to Miami, where she continued riding past the age of 70.
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Junko Tabei (1939 – 2016)
The first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest, Junko Tabei funded her climbs by teaching piano lessons. In 1957, she joined the Japanese Women’s Everest Expedition along with journalists, cameramen, support climbers and about 500 porters to carry luggage and gear. During the climb, an avalanche buried Tabei and the two other climbers in the tent with her. Though her face was smothered by her fellow climber's hair, Tabei was able to reach out of the snow to hand a support climber a penknife as she blacked out. Thanks to her quick response, the support climber was able to slash through the tent and pull Tabei out by her ankles.
The avalanche forced the expedition to an end, but Tabei was back on the mountain two weeks later, undeterred, with another team. Though it was believed the route was too challenging for a woman, she was able to clear a treacherous stretch on the South Summit known as the Hillary Step. When she reached the top and her success made headlines, it was noted that her determination and constant cheer could have been key factors in her success. In later years, Tabei became an advocate for the conservation and protection of the mountain. By her 70th birthday she had written seven books and climbed to the highest point in 56 countries.