15 Female Explorers You Should Know
You’ve heard of Ernest Shackleton, Lawrence of Arabia, and Lewis and Clark. But do you know the incredible accomplishments of Gertrude Bell, Osa Johnson, or Valentina Tereshkova? In the pantheon of female explorers, there are heiresses, socialites, rebels, and gender transgressors. But the one thing they share beyond their sex is an intrepid spirit that thirsts for adventure.
1. Gertrude Bell
A contemporary and colleague of T.E. Lawrence (a.k.a. the inspiration for Lawrence of Arabia), Gertrude Bell was a writer and archaeologist who traveled all around the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. Her books gave the people of Great Britain a clear concept of the empire’s outer territories and are still studied today.
An Oxford graduate who was fluent in Persian and Arabic, she met Lawrence while working in the Arab Bureau in Cairo during World War I. She’s best known for her contribution to the Conference in Cairo in 1921, where the beginnings of Iraq as a nation were forged. She’d later pioneer the school of thought that relics and antiquities should be preserved in their home nations. The National Museum of Iraq was born from her efforts.
2. Nellie Bly
American journalist Nellie Bly (a.k.a. Elizabeth Jane Cochrane) is best known for her world-changing exposé (for which she went undercover) to reveal the abuse at the Women’s Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell’s Island in New York City. But on November 14, 1889, Bly took on a new challenge for Joseph Pulitzer’s paper, The New York World.
Inspired by Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days, Bly set out to beat the fictional globetrotting record. Traveling in ships, trains, and rickshaws, on horseback and on mules, Bly made her way from England to France, Singapore to Japan, and California back to the East Coast. And she did all this in 72 days. Well, 72 days, six hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds to be precise. Naturally, Bly’s bold endeavor made for a series of thrilling news stories, as well as a memoir—Around the World in Seventy-Two Days.
3. Isabella Bird
A prolific author and fearless traveler, Isabella Bird thwarted social convention and her often-poor health by traveling about the world at will, and frequently alone. “The English Bird” wrote her first book after coming to the United States in 1854. From there, she traveled to Australia and then Hawaii, where she trekked up an active volcano. She also explored the Rocky Mountains in Colorado before traveling to Japan, China, Indonesia, Morocco, and the Middle East. Her journeys resulted in books like The Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, and The Yangtze Valley and Beyond. For her incredible contributions, Bird was inducted into the Royal Geographical Society of London in 1892. She was the first woman ever to earn the honor.
4. Fanny Bullock Workman
Traveling with her husband William Hunter Workman, M.D., this American mountaineer broke a string of women’s altitude records while becoming a noted geographer, cartographer, and travel writer. The Workmans both came from wealth, enabling them to go on extravagant and arduous trips, like bicycle rides through Spain and India and treks up the Himalayas.
An enthusiastic self-promoter, Workman earned a reputation for riling her rivals. But her dedication to detailing her accomplishments with precise measurements and thorough documentation meant she could back up her boasts. Fanny was a compelling orator who became the first American woman to lecture at the Sorbonne in Paris, and the second female explorer ever allowed to address—and later join—the Royal Geographical Society of London.
5. Jeanne Baré
A French sailor and botanist in the 1700s, Jeanne Baré was the first woman to circumnavigate the world. However, she did it disguised as a man, a ruse that kept her close to her love, Philibert de Commerson. The two met over a shared passion for botany. First she was the teacher to the widowed man’s children, then his assistant, and then his partner.
When Commerson scored a commission from the French government to sail the world and conduct research, the couple conspired to hide Baré’s gender by dressing her as a man, “Jean.” It worked for more than a year, but when the crew hit the South Pacific, some islanders uncovered the truth, though particulars on how vary. When Baré returned to France, the Navy paid tribute to “this extraordinary woman” and her work of gathering new species of plants by giving her a pension of 200 livres a year.
6. Aimée Crocker
An American railroad heiress born in 1864, Aimée Crocker was famous for her lavish parties and long list of lovers and husbands. She was a frequent subject of society gossip and a proud friend of Oscar Wilde. But when the public attention became too much, Crocker took off on a tour of the Far East.
On route, she detoured to Hawaii, where she met King Kalākaua, who—according to her memoir And I’d Do It Again—was so enchanted with her that he gave her an island and the title Princess Palaikalani (which is said to translate to “Bliss of Heaven”). Crocker’s book offers a slew of other outrageous encounters, including run-ins with headhunters in Borneo, a would-be murderer in Shanghai, and a sultry boa constrictor in India. After 10 years abroad, Crocker returned with wild tales, tattoos, a devotion to Buddhism, and a whole new allure for the high society of America.
7. Ida Pfeiffer
Though barred from the Royal Geographical Society of London because of her gender, this Austrian globe-trekker took to traveling once her children were grown, and frequently journeyed alone. Knowing the risk, she penned up her will before heading off on her first trip to the Holy Land. From there, she trekked to Istanbul, Jerusalem, and Giza, visiting the pyramids on camelback. On her return trip, she detoured through Italy.
From these travels, Pfieffer published her first book in 1846. Its success funded her next exploration to Iceland and Scandinavia, which in turn became the subject of her next book. More trips were made to Brazil, China, India, Iraq, Borneo, and Indonesia. Her works would be translated into seven languages and earn her spots in the geographical societies of Berlin and Paris.
Most of the credit for the Lewis and Clark expedition traditionally goes to its namesakes Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (and Thomas Jefferson), but this teenager proved to be a crucial member of the Corps of Discovery. A member of the Lemhi Shoshone, she and her trader husband Toussaint Charbonneau met Lewis and Clark while the explorers were staying with the Mandan and Hidatsa communities in present-day North Dakota.
When Lewis hired Charbonneau as an interpreter, Sacagawea and their newborn son Jean Baptiste joined the expedition. She also served as an interpreter when the party reached southern Montana, where she grew up. With her help, the newly acquired territories of the West were explored and mapped, a crucial step in maintaining the United States’ claim to them.
9. Osa Johnson
Born Osa Helen Leighty, this American explorer met her match in travel photographer Martin Johnson. The pair married May 15, 1910, and by 1917 they began traveling the globe together, making films to document their journeys. Their documentaries boasted such provocative (and what modern viewers would consider culturally insensitive) titles as Among the Cannibals of the South Pacific, Jungle Adventures, Headhunters of the South Seas, and Wonders of the Congo.
They worked as a team. Martin shot pictures and film, while Osa hunted for food and when necessary defended her husband with her rifle. This was the case when a rhino in the wild charged the pair. Osa brought it down, while Martin captured the entire encounter with his camera. The Johnsons promoted their films with lecture tours, and in 1940 Osa released her best-selling memoir, I Married Adventure. The Johnsons’ films and photos can be seen in Disney’s Animal Lodge and at the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in their home state of Kansas.
10. Isabelle Eberhardt
Born in 1877 in Geneva to a Prussian aristocrat and an ex-priest-turned-anarchist, Isabelle Eberhardt was fated to defy convention. She took to wearing men’s clothes at an early age; by the time she turned 20 she had converted to Islam. When she later began traveling alone through North Africa in the 1890s, she presented herself as a Muslim man named Si Mahmoud Saadi.
Eberhardt only lived to be 27; her life was cut short by a flash flood in a desert in 1904. In her brief life she participated in revolts against French colonialism, wrote travel essays for French magazines, survived an assassination attempt that nearly severed her arm, and smoke, drank, and had sex whenever and with whomever she liked.
11. Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz
This Polish sea captain and shipbuilding engineer earned the title of “first lady of the oceans” when she became the first woman to sail solo around the world. On February 28, 1976, Chojnowska-Liskiewicz departed the Canary Islands on her ship Mazurek, built in Poland with its construction led by her husband. Her route took her through the Caribbean and the Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean. From there, Chojnowska-Liskiewicz steered across the Indian Ocean and then around Africa.
She returned to the Canary Islands on April 21, 1978, having traversed 31,166 nautical miles in 401 days. That meant more than a year with only herself as company and crew, preparing all her meals, maintaining the boat, and facing potential threats like storms, rough seas, and even pirates alone. She said of her solo voyage, “Grown people should be aware that sometimes in life is lonely. But during the trip I was not plagued by loneliness. I was not lonely, but alone. There’s a difference.”
12. Amelia Earhart
American aviator Amelia Earhart is best known for becoming the first female pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Her interest in aviation was sparked as a young woman when she attended a stunt-flying exhibition. A natural tomboy, she wasn’t deterred by social pressure that suggested a cockpit was no place for a woman. She took her first flying lesson on January 3, 1921, and bought her own plane six months later.
The following year she’d break the woman’s world altitude record, reaching 14,000 feet. A slew of other accomplishments followed, including speed records and solo flights. Earhart urged other women to fly by writing pieces about aviation for Cosmopolitan magazine and helped found The Ninety-Nines: International Organization of Women Pilots. It was while attempting to set a record for flying around the world that Earhart and her plane went missing. Some evidence suggests she crash-landed on an uninhabited island and lived out the rest of her days there.
13. Annie Londonderry
Born Annie Cohen in Latvia , she married in the U.S. and became Annie Kopchovsky. But this mother of three’s ambitions as an athlete, entrepreneur, and explorer urged her to create a new name for herself: Annie Londonderry, the first woman to circle the globe on a bicycle. A bet was made that challenged her to circumnavigate the world in under 15 months while earning at least $5000 along the way. What might seem a silly wager became a way to challenge the concept of female propriety as well as a chance for her to show just how a woman might get on in the world on her own.
Departing from her husband and children on June 25, 1894, Londonderry set off from the Massachusetts State House in Boston with a crowd of 500 looking on. Along her route she sold promotional photos of herself and made paid appearances. She leased out advertising space on her clothes and bicycle, among these a billboard for Londonderry Lithia Spring Water. Once her ride was complete, The New York World called her adventure “the most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.”
14. Lady Hester Stanhope
Charming and witty, Lady Stanhope was an admired socialite in English high society. But after a string of messy romances, she left England forever at the age of 33, and went on to become a biblical archaeologist. She journeyed to Greece, Turkey, France, and Germany.
En route to Egypt, Stanhope discarded her feminine and European attire for menswear, a look that would prove her signature the rest of her days. She traversed Israel, Lebanon, and Syria. Later, she’d tell tales of how she so impressed the Bedouin tribes that they named her “queen of the desert,” successor to Zenobia. But her greatest success came in 1815, when she convinced Ottoman authorities to allow her to excavate the ruins of Ashkelon. Stanhope went looking for gold, but instead found a 7-foot headless marble statue—which she ordered smashed to bits.
15. Valentina Tereshkova
Leaving Earth exploration behind, we move to on to the first woman in space, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova. She flew the Vostok 6 mission, which launched on June 16, 1963. But her path to space was paved with tragedy. Her family suffered personally and financially when her father died in World War II. Tereshkova was only able to attend school from ages 8 to 16.
While working at factories, she continued her education through correspondence courses. Though she had no piloting experience, Tereshkova was accepted into the Soviet space program because she’d done 126 parachute jumps, an essential skill in a cosmonaut’s descent to Earth. After much training, she was chosen to pilot Vostok 6, and logged 70 hours in space, making 48 orbits around Earth. Her work earned her the title of hero of the Soviet Union, as well as the Order of Lenin and the Gold Star Medal.
A version of this list ran in 2014; it has been updated for 2023.