12 of the Most Inspirational Female Adventurers

Osa Johnson sits in an airplane with a monkey
Osa Johnson created TV's first wildlife series. George Eastman House/Wikimedia Commons
Avis and Effie Hotchkiss in Salt Lake City
A cross-country motorcycle ride was not the easiest journey in 1915, even if you're as cool as Hotchkiss sisters Avis (in the sidecar) and Effie were. Wikipedia

In modern times, deciding to travel is often a matter of agreeing on a destination and finding an affordable flight. Things were different for these women, most of whom traveled in the pre-airplane era when ships, trains and early cars were the only options. This didn't stop them from taking ambitious journeys across the country, around the world or to some of the highest or most remote points on the globe.

These intrepid women may inspire you to go from armchair traveler to real travel, or maybe to turn your next vacation into a trip that has involves more adventure and less pampering. At the very least, they'll help you take your armchair journeys to a higher level.

Nellie Bly

A photgraphic portrait of Nellie Bly
An ambitious journalist, Bly exposed corruption and traveled the world. H. J. Myers/Wikimedia Commons

Nellie Bly, whose real name was Elizabeth Cochran, gained fame in the 1880s as an investigative journalist in Pittsburgh and New York City. She was well known for exposing malpractice in New York jails and asylums and uncovering government corruption. However, she's best remembered in the history books for traveling around the world in 72 days, beating the fictional record of Jules Verne's fictional explorer Phileas Fogg.

The book "Around the World in 80 Days" was published in 1873, and it was still quite popular when Bly started her circumnavigation in 1889. Traveling by ship, train, sampan and even on the back of a donkey, she beat Fogg's make-believe record with an official time of 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds. She set an actual record for circling the globe in the process (though it was broken shortly thereafter). After a stint running her late husband's industrial empire, Bly returned to journalism after World War I, writing stories until her death in 1922.

Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell was an adventurer whose knowledge of the Middle East made her an important figure in the British Empire during and after World War I. After graduating from Oxford with a degree in history, Bell, who was fluent in both Arabic and Persian, traveled throughout the Arab world, writing a number of books along the way.

When World War I broke out, she began working for the Red Cross, but was eventually recruited by the British army to work with the Arab tribes in their fight against the Ottoman Empire. The only commissioned female officer in the United Kingdom's forces at that time, she was a trusted advisory to T.E. Lawrence, though you might better know him as Lawrence of Arabia. After the war, Bell was instrumental in negotiating the agreements and treaties that led to the establishment of modern day Iraq. She focused on archaeology in the later part of her life, starting the Baghdad Archaeology Museum and filling it with artifacts from the Babylonian Empire and other Mesopotamian civilizations.

Mary Kingsley

Portrait of Mary H Kingsley
Despite fostering a formal Victorian-era image, Mary Kingsley was an intrepid explorer who traveled unaccompanied in unmapped sections of Africa. Wikimedia Commoms

Mary Kingsley didn't travel during the first 30 years of her life. However, when her father died, leaving her an inheritance, she decided to set off for West Africa, which was still largely unmapped in the 1890s. Kingsley traveled alone, which was almost unheard of for a female at the time. During her travels, she lived with local people and learned their skills and customs.

Kingsley became quite well known after returning to England. Though she was a supporter of the idea of British colonialism, she spent a lot of time criticizing missionaries for trying to change the traditions of native Africans and urging the British Empire to alter its colonial policies so that they were less invasive. She returned to Africa during the Boer Wars and, in 1900, died of typhoid while helping nurses in a hospital for POWs.

Isabella Bird

A photograph of Isabella Bird
Isabella Bird was the first woman to be elected a fellow at the Royal Geographical Society. Internet Archive Book Images/Wikimedia Commons

Englishwoman Isabella Bird was plagued by illness for most of her life. In fact, she chose her early travel destinations because she was told the local climates would be good for her health. Bird didn't start adventuring until she was in her early 40s. After climbing Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa while in Hawaii — known as the Sandwich Islands in the 1870s — she spent time traversing the Rocky Mountains in Colorado on horseback. Her writings about these early trips earned her recognition in England and helped her lay the groundwork for future adventures.

Bird's books highlighted regions of the world that were not often featured in the media in the 19th century. Despite her illness, she was able to live rough and travel off the beaten path. One of her most challenging trips was to East Asia, where she lived with local people and traveled by horseback (and sometimes by elephant). After the death of her husband, she went to India and the Middle East, even though by this time she was 60 years old. Accounts of her trip to Morocco at age 72 tell of her climbing into the saddle of a horse with the help of a ladder made for her by the impressed local sultan.

Fanny Bullock Workman

Fanny Bullock Workman sitting on a log
Professional mountaineer Fanny Bullock Workman also campaigned for the women's suffrage movement. Bain Collection/Wikimedia Commons

Fanny Bullock Workman came from a wealthy American family, but rather than live the life of leisure that was common among the upper classes during the Victorian era, she used her money to fund her travels. She toured and climbed with her husband, but was outspoken about her viewpoint that a woman could do anything that a man could do. It seems like one of her main goals in life was to prove this.

After bicycling through Europe, often sleeping rough, the Workmans traveled through South and Southeast Asia. Eventually they found their way to the Himalayas where Fanny made her name by scaling 20,000 foot peaks. She was an outspoken champion of women's rights, but also received criticism from her peers for allegedly mistreating the local porters that she hired to support her ascents. When she died, Workman willed her wealth to universities, some of whom used the money to set up endowments to give scholarships to female students.

Avis and Effie Hotchkiss

This daughter and mother team were the first women to travel from coast to coast by motorcycle. Not only did they ride from New York to San Francisco on a Harley Davidson with a sidecar (Effie did the driving), but once they got to the West Coast and attended the Panama Pacific International Exposition, they turned around and rode all the way back to New York.

The journey was not an easy proposition in 1915. Roads were very poor, pavement was rare and Effie often had to push the motorcycle uphill and build makeshift bridges so she could get the unwieldy bike and sidecar across streams. Because of these difficulties, the journey took three months.

The Van Buren Sisters

Augusta and Adeline Van Buren on their motorcycles
Augusta and Adeline were descended from Martin Van Buren, the eighth president of the United States. Wikipedia

A year after Effie Hotchkiss guided her Harley across the country and back again, two sisters attempted another cross-country motorcycle trek. Augusta and Adeline Van Buren had more media coverage during their 1916 journey. Their goal: to prove that women could act as military dispatch riders (females were not allowed to enlist in that particular service at that time).

The Van Burens made the trip in 60 days, contending with the same difficulties that Effie and Avis encountered a year earlier. However, they had to put up with one additional issue. The sisters dressed in clothing similar to what real military dispatch riders wore. Because this was considered "men's clothing," the pair were actually arrested more than once during their trip for cross-dressing. This didn't stop them from not only reaching the coast but also becoming the first women to make the now-famous run up Pike's Peak on their bikes.

Osa Johnson

Osa Johnson sits in an airplane with a monkey
Osa Johnson created TV's first wildlife series. George Eastman House/Wikimedia Commons

Osa Johnson grew up in rural Kansas but spent most of her life exploring and filming in the farthest corners of the globe. She and husband Martin first gained fame in 1917 when they filmed unvisited islands in Micronesia and encountered cannibals. They spent much of the next 20 years in Africa. The footage they filmed on this continent earned them worldwide fame. (She even appeared on a Wheaties box!)

Johnson continued to travel after Martin was killed in a plane crash in 1937. She published a best-selling book about her adventures and added her name to the world’s first wildlife television series: "Osa Johnson's The Big Game Hunt." Johnson continued to work until her death in 1953.

Barbara Hillary

Barbara Hillary became the first African American woman to reach both the North and South Poles. Her feat was impressive for more than one reason. First of all, when she tagged the North Pole in 2007, she was 75 years old. She was just shy of 80 when she crossed the South Pole in 2011. Hillary decided to undertake the expeditions after surviving lung cancer. Her cure included aggressive surgery that caused her to lose 25 percent of her lung capacity.

Now a motivational speaker, Hillary’s decision to travel to the poles was hardly a spur of the moment one. She had a lifelong fascination with the Arctic and had already traveled in the region to photograph polar bears before her pole treks.

Eva Dickson

Eva Dickson leans against an airplane
Eva Dickson was a close friend of literary legends Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn. Agence de presse Mondial Photo-Presse/Wikimedia Commons

Eva Dickson, born in Sweden as Eva Lindstrom, broke a number of driving records in her short lifetime (she died when she was 33 years old). She became addicted to travel at an early age, and she often funded her adventures by making bets about whether she could complete a given expedition. She won one such bet when she traveled by car from Nairobi, Kenya, all the way to Stockholm, Sweden. While doing this, she became the first woman to drive across the Sahara Desert.

She also participated in research expeditions and worked as a war correspondent. Dickson was killed in a car accident as she tried to complete a trip along the Silk Road from Europe all the way to Beijing, China. This was supposed to be her last adventure before settling down to farm in Kenya with her second husband (she divorced the first when he disapproved of her travels).