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6 Female Explorers Who Made History

6 Female Explorers Who Made History

Editorís note: This post is a Care2 favorite. It was originally published on July 5, 2013. Enjoy!

Despite changing world history, pushing the boundaries of current scientific knowledge and challenging the social norms of their day, female explorers are often completely ignored in the history books. So to help bring a little more recognition to adventurous women everywhere, today we’re bringing you 6 profiles on women explorers past and present who’ve changed the course of history.

Jeanne Baret

Born in 1740 in the Burgandy region of France, Jeanne Baret was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Baret disguised herself as a man in order to join an expedition on the ship Etoile in 1766 with her lover, the botanist Philibert Commerson. At the time, women were forbidden from French Navy ships, so Commerson brought her on as his “assistant” and helped her conceal her identity from the rest of the crew.

There was apparently much speculation about her sex throughout the journey. (She even “confessed”†to being a eunuch in response to some awkward questions from the sailors). At some point, her disguise was discovered, although the details vary depending on the report. The journals of three crew members, however, claim that Baret was forcibly stripped and gang-raped by the shipís crew in Papua New Guinea.

Shortly after, Baret became pregnant. She was forced to leave the ship with Commerson on Mauritius island in the Dutch New Indes. Commerson grew ill and died during their stay, leaving Baret without the means to return to France on her own.

In 1774, she married a non-commissioned French Army officer named Jean Dubernat, who brought her with him back to France, completing her circumnavigation of the globe. While her story is tragic in many ways, Baret’s bravery and willingness to defy gender expectations has won her wider recognition in recent years.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Gertrude Bell

Born in 1868, Gertrude Bell was an English writer, archeologist, political officer and spy who is known for her role in founding modern Iraq. After becoming the first woman to graduate with a history degree from Oxford, Bell began her world travels.

Over the years she learned Arabic, Persian, French, German, Italian and Turkish. She made two around-the-world journeys within 10 years, and even survived a blizzard while while climbing the Alps in 1902.

Bell was particularly fond of the Middle East, and began a career in archeology there. When World War I broke out, she was hired by the British government to form an alliance with the Arabs against the Ottoman Empire. She was the only female political officer in the British forces at the time. In 1921, Bell was incredibly influential in determining the borders of the new state of Iraq, even serving as advisor to the first King of Iraq, Faisal bin Hussein. Bell died shortly after, in 1926, from an apparent overdose on sleeping pills.

Interestingly enough, Bell was a staunch anti-suffragist and seemed to have a rather dim view of the abilities of other women of her day. Despite working for the Imperialist British forces, she was loved by the people of Mesopotamia that she encountered in her travels and remains a figure of affection even today. She believed strongly that the people of Iraq should have the right to determine their own fate, a controversial stance at the time which was dismissed by the British government.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Nellie Bly

Nellie Bly was the pen name of American journalist Elizabeth Jane Cochrane. In 1880, at the age of only 18, Bly wrote a rebuttal to a misogynistic column in the Pittsburgh Dispatch and was immediately offered a job by the editor. Once the editor realized the letter writer was a teenage girl, he took a little more persuading, but she eventually talked him into hiring her. An early feminist, Bly wrote about the plight of working women, investigating the conditions of female factory workers in the city.

After editorial pressure forced her to start covering more “feminine” topics like fashion and gardening, she left for Mexico to serve as a foreign correspondent at age 21. After her political writing there put her in danger from the government, she moved to New York City in 1887. For her first gig, she took an undercover assignment and†faked insanity in order to investigate the brutal conditions of a local asylum. After ten days of being offered spoiled food, given dirty water and left to freeze surrounded by her own filth, Bly was released. She published a report that was later adapted into a book entitled Ten Days in a Mad-House, which earned her lasting fame and launched a series of mental health reforms.

Only a year later, Bly decided to replicate the fictional trip from the book Around the World in 80 Days for an article in the New York World. A competing magazine called The Cosmopolitan sent their own journalist, Elizabeth Bisland, on a trip in the opposite direction to try to beat Blyís time. On her travels, Bly met Jules Verne (the author of the book that inspired her trip) in France, and traveled through Penang, Singapore, Hong Kong and Japan. Her final travel time ended up being 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds total — a world record at the time.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Valentina Tereshkova

On June 16th, 1963, Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to fly in space. Tereshkova was born to a poor family in 1937, and began working to support her mother and siblings when she was only 10 years old. Over the years she pursued her education while working as a seamstress, an apprentice in a tire factory, and a loom operator. An amateur parachutist, Tereshkova was selected from more than 500 applicants to be the first woman in outer space.

In many ways, her 3-day mission was simple political propaganda — the USSR wanted to launch a woman into space before the U.S. did. Her story of rising from a humble background was used to inspire the masses, but after her 1963 trip, she never visited space again. In fact, it would be another 19 years before another female cosmonaut was launched into space.

In the years since, Tereshkova has channeled her fame into a political career. She served in several political positions within the Soviet Union, and represented her country in many international efforts for peace abroad. Today, she serves in the Russian legislature.

At age 76, she says her current ambition is to join a manned trip to Mars and investigate the possibility of life on her favorite planet (other than Earth).

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Ann Bancroft

Despite struggling with a learning disability in her early years, Ann Bancroft never let it hold her back. Instead of becoming frustrated with her studies, she turned her attention to the natural world, where she felt comfortable and safe.

As an adult, she has made the connection with nature her life’s calling. In 1986, she became the first woman to cross the ice to the North Pole, traveling 1,000 miles from Canada by dogsled. In 1992-93, she led an all-woman team to the South Pole, becoming the first woman to cross the ice on both poles. In 2001, she teamed up with Norwegian explorer Liv Arnesen to become the first women to ski across Antarctica.

Bancroft is using her fame to draw attention to a number of issues close to her heart. An out lesbian, she has publicly campaigned for marriage equality. She also helps develop educational curriculum and speaks about her struggles with dyslexia in order to raise awareness of learning disabilities. She has also used her experience as a polar explorer to draw greater attention to climate change.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Cindy Lee Van Dover

Cindy Lee Van Dover is a modern oceanographer and deep-sea explorer. She’s spent her career studying hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor. In 1990, she became the first and only female pilot of submersible. On her dozens of deep-sea dives, Van Dover has uncovered new species of mussels, shrimp, tube worms and bacteria.

She has led almost 50 deep-sea expeditions. In 2006, she became the first female director of the Duke University Marine Laboratory. Her discoveries have added to scientists’ understanding of what early Earth may have been like billions of years ago.

Van Dover is also doing her part to train the next generation of marine scientists: every fall she teaches a course on invertebrate zoology for undergraduates. She also teaches graduate courses and runs summer field programs, in addition to writing about her experiences for a lay audience.

Photo credit: Duke University

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Photo credit: Kenneth Lu via Flickr

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451 comments

+ add your own
8:39AM PDT on Jul 22, 2014

And that's just a few of all those great women all around the world!

9:04PM PDT on Jul 14, 2014

I have some new idols to add to my favorite: Jane Goodall.

1:42AM PDT on Jul 14, 2014

Thanks you for sharing

7:37AM PDT on Jul 13, 2014

thans for sharing

12:33AM PDT on Jul 12, 2014

Thanks

11:34PM PDT on Jul 11, 2014

ty

11:57AM PDT on Jul 11, 2014

Thank you

6:08AM PDT on Jul 11, 2014

Thank you for the great article

6:08AM PDT on Jul 11, 2014

Thank you

5:51AM PDT on Jul 11, 2014

merci Julie

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