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15 Female Explorers You Should Know

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You've heard of Christopher Columbus, Lawrence of Arabia, and Lewis and Clark. But do you know the incredible accomplishments of Gertrude Bell, Osa Johnson, or Valentina Tereshkova? In the female sect of explorers, there are heiresses, socialites, rebels, and cross-dressers. 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. 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 going on at Women's Lunatic Asylum on Blackwell's Island. 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, 6 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 own sickly nature by traveling about the world at will, and often 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. This resulted in books like The Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan and The Yangtze Valley and Beyond. For all 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.

A shameless self-promoter, she 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 big mouth. A compelling orator, Fanny was 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 later lover.

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 infamous 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 Againwas 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 ten 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 is now celebrated as one of the world's first female explorers. She 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.

8. Sacagawea

All of the credit of the Lewis and Clark expeditions of 1800s America traditionally goes to its namesakes Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, but this Native American teen proved to be a crucial member of this Corps of Discovery. A member of the Lemhi Shoshone tribe, she and her trader husband Toussaint Charbonneau met Lewis and Clark while the explorers visited among the Mandan and Hidatsa tribes of North Dakota.

Joining their expedition with Charbonneau by her side and her newborn son Jean Baptiste on her back, she served as an interpreter and a guide 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 discoveries. Their documentaries boasted such provocative 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 full-on 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 the best-selling memoir I Married Adventure. Today, the Johnsons' films and photos can still 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 the daughter of 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, and by 20 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.

She only lived to 27; her life cut short by a flash flood in a desert in 1904. Still, in her days 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. Much of this is documented in The Nomad: The Diaries of Isabelle Eberhardt, which paint her as a creature of her own creation, formed between the Sahara and fearless sexual exploration.

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 in 1976. On February 28th, Chojnowska-Liskiewicz left from the Canary Islands. Her ship Mazurek was 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 down 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

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American aviatrix Amelia Earhart is best known for becoming the first female pilot to ever fly 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 recently uncovered evidence suggests she crash landed on an uninhabited island and lived out the rest of her days there.

13. Annie Londonderry

Born in Latvia Annie Cohen, 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 $5,000 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 the first Biblical archaeologist. She journeyed to Greece, Turkey, France, and Germany.

En route to Egypt, Stanhope discarded her feminine and European attire for menswear of most common in Tunisia, a look that would prove her signature the rest of her days. She traversed through 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 seven-foot headless marble statue. Her reputation as an archaeologist takes a hit here, as she ordered the artifact smashed to bits.

15. VALENTINA TERESHKOVA

Leaving Earth exploration behind, we move to on to the first woman to travel into 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 was stricken personally and financially when her father died in World War II. Tereshkova was only able to attend school from age 8-16.

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 here earned her the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, as well as the Order of Lenin and the Gold Star Medal.

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Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
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A.C. Gilbert, the Toymaker Who (Actually) Saved Christmas 
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Travel Salem via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Alfred Carlton Gilbert was told he had 15 minutes to convince the United States government not to cancel Christmas.

For hours, he paced the outer hall, awaiting his turn before the Council of National Defense. With him were the tools of his trade: toy submarines, air rifles, and colorful picture books. As government personnel walked by, Gilbert, bashful about his cache of kid things, tried hiding them behind a leather satchel.

Finally, his name was called. It was 1918, the U.S. was embroiled in World War I, and the Council had made an open issue about their deliberation over whether to halt all production of toys indefinitely, turning factories into ammunition centers and even discouraging giving or receiving gifts that holiday season. Instead of toys, they argued, citizens should be spending money on war bonds. Playthings had become inconsequential.

Frantic toymakers persuaded Gilbert, founder of the A.C. Gilbert Company and creator of the popular Erector construction sets, to speak on their behalf. Toys in hand, he faced his own personal firing squad of military generals, policy advisors, and the Secretary of War.

Gilbert held up an air rifle and began to talk. What he’d say next would determine the fate of the entire toy industry.

Even if he had never had to testify on behalf of Christmas toys, A.C. Gilbert would still be remembered for living a remarkable life. Born in Oregon in 1884, Gilbert excelled at athletics, once holding the world record for consecutive chin-ups (39) and earning an Olympic gold medal in the pole vault during the 1908 Games. In 1909, he graduated from Yale School of Medicine with designs on remaining in sports as a health advisor.

But medicine wasn’t where Gilbert found his passion. A lifelong performer of magic, he set his sights on opening a business selling illusionist kits. The Mysto Manufacturing Company didn’t last long, but it proved to Gilbert that he had what it took to own and operate a small shingle. In 1916, three years after introducing the Erector sets, he renamed Mysto the A.C. Gilbert Company.

Erector was a big hit in the burgeoning American toy market, which had typically been fueled by imported toys from Germany. Kids could take the steel beams and make scaffolding, bridges, and other small-development projects. With the toy flying off shelves, Gilbert’s factory in New Haven, Connecticut grew so prosperous that he could afford to offer his employees benefits that were uncommon at the time, like maternity leave and partial medical insurance.

Gilbert’s reputation for being fair and level-headed led the growing toy industry to elect him their president for the newly created Toy Manufacturers of America, an assignment he readily accepted. But almost immediately, his position became something other than ceremonial: His peers began to grow concerned about the country’s involvement in the war and the growing belief that toys were a dispensable effort.

President Woodrow Wilson had appointed a Council of National Defense to debate these kinds of matters. The men were so preoccupied with the consequences of the U.S. marching into a European conflict that something as trivial as a pull-string toy or chemistry set seemed almost insulting to contemplate. Several toy companies agreed to convert to munitions factories, as did Gilbert. But when the Council began discussing a blanket prohibition on toymaking and even gift-giving, Gilbert was given an opportunity to defend his industry.

Before Gilbert was allowed into the Council’s chambers, a Naval guard inspected each toy for any sign of sabotage. Satisfied, he allowed Gilbert in. Among the officials sitting opposite him were Secretary of War Newton Baker and Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels.

“The greatest influences in the life of a boy are his toys,” Gilbert said. “Yet through the toys American manufacturers are turning out, he gets both fun and an education. The American boy is a genuine boy and wants genuine toys."

He drew an air rifle, showing the committee members how a child wielding less-than-lethal weapons could make for a better marksman when he was old enough to become a soldier. He insisted construction toys—like the A.C. Gilbert Erector Set—fostered creative thinking. He told the men that toys provided a valuable escape from the horror stories coming out of combat.

Armed with play objects, a boy’s life could be directed toward “construction, not destruction,” Gilbert said.

Gilbert then laid out his toys for the board to examine. Secretary Daniels grew absorbed with a toy submarine, marveling at the detail and asking Gilbert if it could be bought anywhere in the country. Other officials examined children’s books; one began pushing a train around the table.

The word didn’t come immediately, but the expressions on the faces of the officials told the story: Gilbert had won them over. There would be no toy or gift embargo that year.

Naturally, Gilbert still devoted his work floors to the production efforts for both the first and second world wars. By the 1950s, the A.C. Gilbert Company was dominating the toy business with products that demanded kids be engaged and attentive. Notoriously, he issued a U-238 Atomic Energy Lab, which came complete with four types of uranium ore. “Completely safe and harmless!” the box promised. A Geiger counter was included. At $50 each, Gilbert lost money on it, though his decision to produce it would earn him a certain infamy in toy circles.

“It was not suitable for the same age groups as our simpler chemistry and microscope sets, for instance,” he once said, “and you could not manufacture such a thing as a beginner’s atomic energy lab.”

Gilbert’s company reached an astounding $20 million in sales in 1953. By the mid-1960s, just a few years after Gilbert's death in 1961, it was gone, driven out of business by the apathy of new investors. No one, it seemed, had quite the same passion for play as Gilbert, who had spent over half a century providing fun and educational fare that kids were ecstatic to see under their trees.

When news of the Council’s 1918 decision reached the media, The Boston Globe's front page copy summed up Gilbert’s contribution perfectly: “The Man Who Saved Christmas.”

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The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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