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Famous Female Explorers

Updated on August 4, 2015

Other female adventurers

  • Hester Stanhope (1776 - 1839)
  • Gudridur (980 AD)
  • Kira Salak ( b. 1971)
  • Freya Stark (1893 - 1993)
  • Louise Boyd (1887 - 1972)
  • Amelia Mary Earhart (1897 - ?)
  • Beryl Markham (1902 - 1986)
  • Mary Kingsley (1862 - 1900)
  • Ellen MacArthur (b. 1976)
  • Ida Pfeiffer (1797 - 1858)
  • Sacagawea (1788 - 1812)
  • Osa Johnson (1894 -1953)
  • Sally Ride (1951 - 2012)
  • Mary Lacy (1740-1773)
  • Amy Johnson (1903 -1941)
  • Delia Akeley (1875 - 1970)
  • Robyn Davidson (1950 - )

Go On...Explore

Who can resist the feeling you get when you reach the top of a mountain and look out at the view below? The tingle in your core at the sight of a new place and the knowledge that you are here, completely and absolutely present in the moment and the place, experiencing everything, regretting nothing.

A few months ago National Geographic had an issue devoted entirely to exploration; the impulse we have to move, see and imagine. As humans we are unstoppable in our constant propulsion toward the unseen, the unknown.

Perhaps it is the obviousness of this inherently human characteristic that upsets me when I think of generations of women confined to home and corsets while their men explored the world. Don't get me wrong, I see nothing wrong with staying home if that is your desire. But for the restless there is no torture more acute than being forced to stand still.

I love reading about female explorers and adventurers who defied the norm, fought convention and went where they pleased. Below are just a few of the thousands of women who followed their restless souls and in the process made there mark on the world.

Map of Nellie Bly's Trip
Map of Nellie Bly's Trip
Nellie Bly 1890
Nellie Bly 1890 | Source

Nellie Bly (1864-1922)

A writer for the New York World newspaper, Bly decided to challenge Jules Verne's book "Around the World in 80 Days," claiming she could do it in 75. So, on November 14, 1889 she set off on her adventure, going from New Jersey to London and from there to France (where incidentally she met Jules Verne).

Next Italy, Egypt, Singapore, Hong Kong and San Francisco. In the process passing through the Suez Canal, experiencing the cities of Colombo and Aden, visiting a Chinese leper colony and somehow adopting a monkey along the way.

In the end she made it home to Hoboken in 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes, beating even her own proposed time and making history along the way.

Annie Peck
Annie Peck | Source

Annie Smith Peck (1850-1935)

One of the first female professors in North America, Peck was also the first woman to attend the American School of Classical Studies, in Greece. It wasn't until her mid forties that she took up mountain climbing. Once she did she was hooked and became the third woman to scale the Matterhorn though she was more famous for wearing pants on her ascent then the actual climb (shocking!)

She continued to climb well into her 60's, including a first ascent of one of the peaks of Mount Coropuna in Peru at the top of which she infamously placed a “Women’s Vote” banner.


Gertrude Bell (1868-1926)

The first woman to receive a first class degree in History from Oxford and the first woman to write a paper for the British government. The government also used Bell as a consultant (some say spy) for her Middle Eastern contacts and language skills during WWI.

Though she was raised in England and traveled around the world twice, her true place was in the Middle East. She became fascinated with the people and the culture on a visit to Persia in 1892 which influenced her to study archaeology as well as learn Arabic and Farsi and to spend the rest of her life in archaeological and political pursuits there.

Harriet Chalmers Adams
Harriet Chalmers Adams | Source

Harriet Chalmers Adams (1875-1937)

Best known for her explorations and travel writing on Latin America, she spent three years South America, crossed Haiti in horseback and retraced Columbus’ trail. Less known is the fact that she served as a war correspondant during WWI and was the only woman allowed to visit the trenches in France.

When the National Geographical Society refused to accept women as members Adams help found the Society of Woman Geographers in 1925 and served as it's president until 1933.

Helen Thayer (b. 1937)

Thayer is a woman of firsts; she climbed her first mountain at the age of 9; New Zealand's Mount Taranaki, a 8,200 foot dormant volcano. She was the first woman to travel alone to the North Pole, trekking to the Magnetic North Pole without dog sled or snowmobile (at 50). First non-Indian woman to kayak 2,200 miles of the Amazon River and the first woman to walk across the Sahara, from Morocco to the Nile (4,000 miles). She even walked 1,600 miles across the Gobi Desert (at age sixty-three) and lived in an arctic wolf den for a year with her husband.

Isabella Bird
Isabella Bird | Source

Isabella Bird (1831 - 1904)

The first woman inducted into the Royal Geographical Society in 1892, her quest for adventure took her all over the world including Persia, Tibet, Japan, Korea and Morocco. In 1872 she embarked on an around the world trip to New Zealand, Australia and Hawaii (where she stayed for six months exploring the islands on horseback) before heading to America to experience the untamed beauty of Colorado.

Later in life Bird rode elephants through the Malaysian jungle, visited Armenian and Nestorian communities in Kurdistan, explored China's Yangtze Valley and traveled among the Berbers in Morocco, riding a black stallion given to her by the Sultan.

Then in isolated Korea, she visited Buddhist monasteries and met the Korean king and his soon to be assassinated queen. Unfortunately during her trip the Japanese invaded Korea and she had to flee to China.

Marianne North (1830 -1890)

An incredibly detailed painter, North began her travels in 1871 when she went to Canada, the US and Jamaica before spending a full year in Brazil painting out of a jungle hut.

In 1875 she began an extended trip that began in the Canary Islands and ended in India, with California, Japan, Borneo and Java in between.

Her flora and fauna paintings are so scientifically accurate that several plant species are named in her honor. Her genius drew others, including Edward Lear, Ulysses S Grant and Charles Darwin. It was Darwin who suggested she visit Australia and New Zealand, which she did in 1880.

She was known for her dogged pursuit of the objects of her art, despite cliffs, weather, swamp or jungle her focus was the flower or plant she sought and little got in her way.

Other Female Adventurers To Explore

  • Hester Stanhope (1776 - 1839)
  • Gudridur (980 AD)
  • Kira Salak ( b. 1971)
  • Freya Stark (1893 - 1993)
  • Louise Boyd (1887 - 1972)
  • Amelia Mary Earhart (1897 - ?)
  • Beryl Markham (1902 - 1986)
  • Mary Kingsley (1862 - 1900)
  • Ellen MacArthur (b. 1976)
  • Ida Pfeiffer (1797 - 1858)
  • Sacagawea (1788 - 1812)
  • Osa Johnson (1894 -1953)
  • Sally Ride (1951 - 2012)
  • Mary Lacy (1740-1773)
  • Amy Johnson (1903 -1941)
  • Delia Akeley (1875 - 1970)
  • Robyn Davidson (1950 - )


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    • brownella profile imageAUTHOR


      4 years ago from New England

      Hi That Grrl, thanks for commenting. I know, there's so many amazing female explorers! I had a lot of fun researching this hub.

    • That Grrl profile image

      Laura Brown 

      4 years ago from Barrie, Ontario, Canada

      Great post. I haven't heard of many of these women.

    • brownella profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from New England

      compu-smart, I'm so glad you enjoyed it, thanks for commenting :)

    • compu-smart profile image

      Tony T 

      5 years ago from London UK

      When I was aged one, the woman that gave birth to me went on an exploration and I, nor anyone has seen her since! We are still searching... Oh well, life goes on...

    • brownella profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from New England

      I had a base knowledge but I had fun doing extra research and learning more about these incredible women. Thanks for the feedback.

    • Au fait profile image

      C E Clark 

      5 years ago from North Texas

      I'm ashamed to tell you I have not heard of most of these women, nor did I know there had ever been female explorers! And I am a feminist who minored in women's studies -- majors in this area of study were not offered at the time.

      A fantastic hub! Voted you up, interesting and useful. Hope you will write more hubs enlightening us all on the many women who never got the recognition they deserved.

    • brownella profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from New England

      Thanks for the feedback, I'm so glad you liked it.

    • mactavers profile image


      5 years ago

      Great Hub on these outstanding women

    • brownella profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from New England

      I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I am tempted to write another one since there are so many more amazing female explorers. Thanks for the feedback.

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      5 years ago from sunny Florida

      Interesting collection of female pioneers. I knew Nellie but learned about the others via your post so am thanking you for that.

      Are you writing more of these? Would love to read of more females and their contributions.

      Sending Angels to you today. :)ps


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