Top 10 Female Adventurers & Explorers

When most people think of famous Adventurers and Explorers they think of Marco Polo, James Cook or maybe Columbus, all men. But definitely not every adventurer is a men, there are also many women that explored the world, even in a time when it was much harder for women to be adventurous.

10 Jeanne Barre: 27th July 1740 to 5th August 1807

Jeanne Barre

Jeanne Barre had an interesting life, to say the least. She was born to poor farming parents, and her father, at least, is thought to have been illiterate. Some historians believe that Jeanne was educated by her mother who came from the better educated Huguenot people while others believe that she was taught by the local parish church. Either way, it is clear that Jeanne was literate. She became the housekeeper to Philibert Comercon (often Anglicised to Commerson) in her twenties and, after the death of his wife in childbirth, eventually became his lover, having his child in December 1764. (The child was placed with a foster mother but died sometime in 1765.) When Commerson was invited on a voyage of discovery by Louis Antoine de Bouganville, at first he was hesitant to accept. He suffered from ill-health and needed Jeanne’s assistance both as nurse and household manager. Women were strictly forbidden from sailing on any French navy ship, and it is believed that the pair came up with the idea of Jeanne disguising herself as a man in order to serve as Commerson’s valet and assistant. The truth of her sex was discovered at some point during the lengthy voyage, although no-one seems to be sure exactly when the news came out and nothing was done about it. Commerson met up with a fellow botanist and friend Pierre Poivre and the pair left the ship to stay with him in Mauritius for a time. (It is speculated that this was a relief to de Bouganville as it removed the burden of having an illegal female aboard his ship!) Commerson died on the island and Jeanne was left alone once more, without sufficient funds to return to France and claim the money that Commerson had left her. She ran a pub for a while, before marrying a Frenchman, Jean Dubernat, and finally returned to France sometime in 1775. She and her husband settled down in his home town. Some ten years later, Jeanne was awarded an annual pension of 200 livres for her part in the exhibition and her ‘impeccable’ behaviour during that time.

9 Lady Hester Stanhope 12th March 1776 – 23rd June 1839

Lady Hester Stanhope

Lady Hester Stanhope seems to have been, for much of her early life, the epitome of a graceful English lady, playing hostess for her uncle, William Pitt the Younger who, as Prime Minister, needed a female companion for dinner parties and other social events. Lady Hester was known as a beauty and for her lively conversation. So adept was she at this task that she was awarded an annual pension of £1,200 after his death. In 1810, she left England for good following the death of her brother. She and her party travelled widely covering Athens, Constantinople and were heading to Cairo when disaster struck. A storm sank their ship of the coast of Rhodes, taking with it all their possessions. Given a choice of Turkish clothing Lady Hester eschewed the veil, opting for male attire of robe, turban and slippers. Once they arrived in Cairo, rather than returning to traditional female garb, she expanded her male wardrobe, adding a sabre, embroidered jacket and waistcoat amongst other items. Over the next two years she travelled extensively, always refusing to wear the veil and slowly gaining the respect of most she met. She undertook an archaeological dig at Ashkelon, but did not find the hoped for hoard of gold coins with which she hoped to help the Ottoman ruler’s coffers. In her later years she settled near Sidon and there she stayed for the rest of her life. Towards the end, her faculties began to fail and she was robbed by her remaining servants. Much of what is known about Hester Stanhope is from the memoirs of her personal physician Charles Meryon.


8. Ida Laura Pfeiffer, 14th October 1797 – 27th October 1858

Ida Laura Phfeiffer

Born in Vienna, Ida was encouraged to wear boys’ clothing by her father and was given an education more fitting to a male child in those days. At five, she was taken on a long trip to Palestine and Egypt, something which established a deep love of travel in her. Her father died when Ida was just nine and her mother, who had not approved of all the boyish enthusiasms of her daughter, immediately encouraged her to become more feminine in manner and dress. In 19924, she married a widower some 24 years her senior, a doctor with a grown-up son. After exposing corrupt officials, Dr Pfeiffer found it hard to find work and Ida taught drawing and music in an effort to bring some money into their home. Her mother’s passing brought them a small inheritance, which helped to ease the burden somewhat. Her husband died in 1838. After her sons were grown and in homes of their own, Ida was, at last, able to indulge her love of travel. She travelled extensively throughout Europe and into the Near East, before returning home to prepare for a round the world trip. Her first circumnavigation was followed by a second and then she visited the exotic island of Madagascar. Each trip was meticulously written up and published, and Ida carefully collected and labelled a wealth of specimens from each country she visited, specimens that were ultimately sold to museums in Vienna and Berlin. Ida was expelled from Madagascar after being unwittingly swept up in an attempted coup and contracted an illness while traveling from Antananarivo to the coast. She never fully recovered from this and died the following year.

7. Alexandrine Tinné: 17th October 1835 – 1st August 1869

Alexandrine Tinné

With perhaps more courage than common sense Alexandrine (or Alexine as she preferred to be known) was determined to make contact with the Tuaregs and this keen desire for exploration saw her killed. With her father’s death coming when she was just ten years old, Alexandrine became the richest heiress in the Netherlands. She and her mother travelled extensively, covering Europe and venturing further afield as Alexandrine got older. They were the first white women to navigate up the White Nile. Alexandrine was devastated when a number of their party died from fever, especially as this included both her mother and her aunt. Alexandrine’s brother called upon her, attempting to persuade her to return with him, but she refused, merely handing over to him the bodies of their kinfolk and a large part of her ethnographic collection. Then she continued with her journey. Ill-health (eye inflammation and gout) meant that she did not appear to be fully in control of the party and she and two Dutch sailors were murdered. A greater understanding of the inner politics of Tuaregs has given most historians to understand that the murders were committed to show the growing weakness of the current leader of the tribe, by proving that he was unable to follow through on the promised protection offered to Western travellers.

6. Annie Edson Taylor: 24th October 1838 – 29th April 1921

Annie Edson Taylor

Born one of eight children, Annie Edson had a comfortable upbringing. After her father’s death, when she was just twelve, the family were fortunate enough to have sufficient funds to continue their accustomed lifestyle. While undertaking a four year honours degree (she was a teacher) Annie met and married David Taylor. The death of their only child, in infancy, followed by the passing away of her husband, seemed to awaken a kind of wanderlust in the young widow and she took a series of jobs, moving from place to place. Wanting to work as a dance teacher proved unfeasible and Annie opened a music school instead, later teaming up with a friend to travel to Mexico City in search of work. Unlucky in this endeavour, she returned to the USA. Being somewhat strapped financially and wanting a ‘big score’ to see her through her later years she determined to be the first person to ride a barrel of Niagara Falls. Annie had an oak barrel custom designed for her, padded with mattressing and reinforced with iron bands. Few people were keen to help with her endeavour, fearing that they would be aiding and abetting a suicide, but, after a ‘test run’ in which the barrel was sent over the falls with a cat inside of it (the cat survived with minor injuries) she was set afloat on her 63rd birthday. Her assistants pumped the barrel full of air and sealed it tightly. The actual trip over the falls took some twenty minutes, but the barrel was not opened for some time after it had been retrieved. When it was finally opened, Annie was, like the cat, alive but with slight injuries, the most visible of which was a small gash on her head. Sadly, her feat (which she strongly recommended that no-one emulate, saying, ‘I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it would blow me to pieces, than make another trip over the Fall.’) did not make her the fortune she had hoped. What money she did earn was spent on trying to track down her erstwhile manager who ran off with her barrel. As a result she continued to work, more or less until her death, taking such exotic jobs as that of a clairvoyant, dabbling on the Stock Exchange and selling souvenir photos amongst others.

5. Martha Jane Canary (also spelled Cannary) better known as Calamity Jane: 1st May 1852 – 1st August 1903

Calamity Jane

Martha Jane was thrust into responsibility when both her parents died, leaving her as the eldest of six siblings. She worked exceptionally hard, taking jobs that ranged from dish-washer, cook and nurse to dance-hall girl, prostitute and ox-team driver. With such an upbringing, it will come as no surprise to learn that Martha Jane had little education and was illiterate. At some point she earned the name ‘Calamity Jane, heroine of the plains’ a name that she claimed was awarded to her by Captain Egan, although others (including soldiers who had served when Jane claimed to) stated that she saw no action, served under no military leaders and was essentially a liar, although a bold, vivacious and charismatic one! She became associated with Wild Bill Hickok (contemporary accounts seem to imply a stalker-ish overtone to her attachment to the cowboy hero). There have been various claims that Wild Bill and Calamity Jane actually married, and it seems that Jane did, in fact, have a daughter. From around 1893, Calamity Jane appeared in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. Calamity Jane led a fairly tragic life, one influenced by her alcoholism and depression, but her funeral was a feted and well attended affair with many people who would not have given her the time of day while alive racing eagerly to her coffinside… She was buried next to Wild Bill Hickok, some believe as a kind of cosmic joke by so-called friends.

4. Nellie Bly: 5th May 1864 – 22nd January 1922

Nellie Bly

The daughter of a mill worker, Elizabeth Jane Cochran and her siblings saw the benefit of hard work and canny investment as their father prospered enough to buy the local mill and some of the surrounding land. In 1880, she responded fiercely to a dreadfully misogynistic newspaper article entitled ‘What Girls are Good For’. The editor was so impressed with her response that he appealed to the anonymous author to come forward, offering her the chance to have her response printed as an article, rather than as a letter. Once again impressed with her work, he then offered her a full-time job and it is at this point that she took the name Nellie Bly. (She did want to be called Nelly Bly after a popular song, but the editor misspelled the Nelly!) As female reporters, even today, often find, Nellie found herself being pushed into the ‘soft’ reporting of social events, fashion, and gardening and rebelled, travelling to Mexico to become a foreign correspondent. She spent nearly six months there, only leaving when one of her fiery reports protested the arrest of a fellow journalist who was outspoken against the ruler of the time, Porfirio Diaz. Learning that her arrest was imminent she returned to Pittsburgh. Throughout her career she was determined to get at the truth, spending ten days undercover in a mental asylum. Her shocking expose of the conditions at the asylum brought her instant fame and saw the Department of Public Charities and Corrections being granted US$850,000 to improve conditions for patients. By now, she was working for the New York World. In 1888, she suggested to her editor that she try to emulate the travels of the protagonist of Around the World in 80 Days. He agreed and she set off, taking in a vast number of countries and meeting the famed author of the work she was attempting to copy, Jules Verne, while in France. Despite various setbacks, she returned to New York 72 days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds after her department, four days ahead of her rival from another publication. In 1895, Nellie married a millionaire and retired from journalism. However, she was not one for the quiet life and became an inventor and was active in various charitable works until her death from pneumonia at the relatively young age of 57.

3. Alexandra David-Neel: 24th October 1868 – 8th September 1969

Alexandra David-Neel

Throughout her childhood Alexandra (born Louise David) had a strong desire for spiritual understanding and freedom. By eighteen she was already a prolific solo traveller having visited England, Switzerland and Spain. She travelled widely, touring India until she ran out of money and was forced to return home, becoming an opera singer to travel throughout Indo-China (a trip on which she met her husband, although it took them four years to marry). In 1911, she left her husband and returned to India, once again taking up her search for spiritual cognition. She also met the Dalai Lama, not once, but twice and had the chance to ask him questions (something quite unheard of for a European woman at that time!) During World War One, Alexandra could not return to Europe and thus she set off for Japan, traversing China and visiting Lhasa, where she and her companion stayed for two months. In 1928, Alexandra formally separated from her husband, but he continued to support her for the rest of her life. In 1937 Alexandra would return to Tibet one more time, before returning, with Yongen, her young partner whom she had adopted many years previously, to France, aged 78. The young Yongen died at the tender age of just 55, while Alexandra lived well into her 100th year, dying just one month and a few days before her 101st birthday. She wrote over thirty manuscripts, many of which were published in English and French simultaneously.

2. Amelia Earhart: 24th July 1897 – (disappeared and presumed dead shortly thereafter) 2nd July 1937

Amelia Earhart

Amelia and her sister were encouraged by their mother to wear ‘bloomers’ which offered great freedom of movement, although Amelia was known to be aware that these garments were not worn by other ‘nice little girls’ in the neighbourhood. The girls were raised to be adventurous tomboys, hunting rats with a rifle, climbing trees and collecting a wealth of small animals and insects. Her first flight did not enthuse her at all, asking if she could return to the merry-go-round and describing it (an old biplane) as ‘a thing of rusty wire and wood and not at all interesting’. Throughout her education (which was troubled due to her father’s drinking problem and variable fortunes) she maintained a scrapbook about women who achieved well in traditionally male positions. Amelia’s next encounter with a plane was watching a World War I ace perform stunts and she felt that the little plane ‘spoke’ to her. A couple of years later, she took a ride in a plane and was immediately drawn to aviation. She quickly gained fame as a brave and daring aviatrix and after Charles Lindberg’s successful solo transatlantic flight, Amelia was keen to become the first female to emulate his feat. She achieved this feat in 1932, going on to set a number of other records before planning her ultimately tragic round-the-world flight. Amelia Earhart captured the imagination and hearts of the world and her legacy goes on today, with almost everyone in the world recognising her name.

1. Junko Tabei: 22nd September 1939 – present

Junko Tabei

Junko Tabei is a name that not many people will recognise, while that of Edmund Hillary is instantly known. Junko Tabei is a Japanese mountain climber, who, on 16th May 1975 became the first woman to reach the summit of Mount Everest. She loved climbing right from her early days at university where she was a member of the climbing team. Her climb gains even more import when one learns that the party was struck by an avalanche while scaling the slopes, some twelve days before they attained the summit. Nowadays Junko works hard to raise environmental concerns and to protect the mountain environments she loves so much, including serving as a director of the Himalayan Adventure Trust of Japan.