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Women Traveling: Looking Back We See Ourselves

By Phyllis Stoller, President of The Women's Travel Group, an award winning tour operator for women’s smart tours

Phyllis in India on a women group tour.
Phyllis in India while with one of her groups. Photo courtesy of The Women's Travel Group.

Do women travel today for the same reasons we did 2,000 years ago? For adventure? For charity? For rebellion? For shopping? For money? For love?  

A brief look at a few of the more famous women adventurers says YES.  

The earliest  written information about a woman traveler is that of 4th century Abbess of Egeria, who traveled with her Bible as a guidebook. In the 1500’s women masqueraded as Conquistadors (with all that gold). Later other women were transported overseas by colonial "fathers." In the 18th century there were eccentrics who escaped boring lives with the advent of better ships. The 19th century brought wealthy women leaving husbands and using personal money to travel. 


Women with limited career prospects in the past made their living as travel writers: Freya Stark (died 1993), Dame Rebecca West (died 1983) are classic examples. Many consider West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon the best travel book ever written; West describes firsthand the Nazi incursions into Europe. Contemporary Jan Morris, who became a woman mid life, turns out fabulous travelogues from a unique point of view. A short list of books follows this article. 

There were 19th century women in government — alas not in the U.S. Gertrude Bell (died 1926) escaped Victoriana, took a First from Oxford, then entered the British Foreign Service. Bell was a friend of T.E. Lawrence, was respected as the expert on the Middle East during WWI, and ultimately drew the borders of modern day Iraq. Bell was described as “one of the few representatives of His Majesty's Government remembered by the Arabs with anything resembling affection.”

Change and Charity

Like Angelina Jolie, some famous historical women were known for progressive/humanitarian ideas. Actress Fanny Kemble shocked the public with her 1838 book about slavery. She had married an American planter, seen his plantations, and not surprisingly divorced him.


Even feminists fell in love. Birth Control Pioneer, Marie Stopes, trained as a scientist then followed a crush to his home in Japan in hopes of marrying him. Jane Digby (1807-1881) left her noble husband, and after a series of affairs, settled down with an Arab chief in Damascus. Emily Eden was involved with various Afghan prisoners of the 19th century British Forces in India.


Some 19th century women were shoppers first and foremost. Amelia Edwards bought Egyptian statues and ancient jewelry — much of it residing in museums today. Mary Kingsley moved to W. Africa in 1892 to collect relics and fetishes. Historically traders brought goods directly to women adventurers knowing women buy. Not so different from today’s hawkers in a souk.

Wise words from historical women travelers ring true in 2015: Lady Stanhope who lost her luggage in a shipwreck, then re-dressed in Turkish men’s clothing, tells us when in need to pitch a tent, excuse yourself, go inside, and use your own chamber pot.

For More Information on Women Adventurers

If you wish to know more about women adventurers, here are three new movies: “Wild,” “Tracks,” and especially “Queen of the Desert,” about Gertrude Bell.

Some classic books written by some of the women in this article are:

Phyllis Stoller is President of The Women’s Travel Group and an avid history buff about travel, adventure, and women’s issues.

More by Phyllis Stoller
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