Lady Explorers

It took a lot of gumption and even more courage for women of the Victorian and Edwardian eras to pack their trunks and set off for parts unknown. Despite the sharp edge of colonialism’s knife for the oppressed, the movement of European and American powers into Asia, Africa, South America, and the islands dotting the Pacific Ocean created opportunities for both men and women, but for women, it served to push them beyond the typical spheres of the domestic hearth and home and equally challenged notions of femininity. Though a few women penned their observations of non-European societies prior to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (most notably Lady Wortley Montagu), this new wave of lady explorers traveled globe not as mere appendages to their male kinfolk, but as scholars in their own right. They purposefully observed the customs and people of foreign lands with the eye of an early anthropologist, took note of the land and foliage like a botanist, and detailed the past inhabitants of the land like archaeologists. Far from adhering to the long-held horror of a woman publishing under her own name, these brave and intelligent lady explorers knocked at the doors of the overwhelmingly masculine Geographical societies to demand their findings be presented and taken just as seriously as a Livingstone or Burton.

Further Reading:
Spinsters Abroad: Victorian Lady Explorers by Dea Birkett
Victorian Lady Travellers by Dorothy Middleton
Unsuitable for Ladies: An Anthology of Women Travellers by Jane Robinson
Maiden Voyages: Writings of Women Travelers by Larry O’Connor
Women Travelers: A Century of Trailblazing Adventures 1850-1950 by Christel Mouchard


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4 replies on “Lady Explorers”
  1. says: Hels

    I was fascinated last year in amazing female botanical artists, Marianne North, Marian Ellis Rowan and Berthe Hoola van Nooten.

    But I had not thought of them in terms of \explorers\, even though they went to exotic locations like Batavia and New Guinea. Certainly scholars in their own right, even when being responsible for small children. Totally admirable women.

    I will go back and add a link to your post, many thanks

  2. says: Hels

    Timing is everything. Just a couple of days after leaving a message here, I found an old book (in my own library, mind you) called “Ladies On The Loose: Women Travellers of the 18th and 19th Centuries”. It is divided by the continents these brave women visited, not by their area of scholarship. So my botanical artists aren’t included. But never mind, I will have a look at this book over the weekend.

  3. says: Eva Gordon

    Thanks for leading me to this blog about women explorers. I’m a biologist by training and I’m enjoying the research about my Edwardian explorer. I think in a past life I must have been a naturalist.

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