Percival Harrison Fawcett is without a doubt one of the greatest explorers of the 20th century. His discoveries in the Amazon, his story and the mystery surrounding his disappearance were the subject of a book written by New York Times journalist David Grann and then a film adaptation, the Lost City of Z. This adventure story is one of the most striking I have ever read. After Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus and Saint Exupéry, my -our- fascination for the epic of these great adventurers remains intact. Among these key figures, women are once again missing. Are they absent, under-represented or erased from history? The mystery remains. In our modern societies, travel and exploration finally seem within reach, regardless of gender. But are they really?
Exploration, an ancient feminist conquest
When one does a brief search of main explorers, empire builders, cartographers of this world, then one will find almost exclusively men. Ask around, dig into your memory or your history lessons and you will probably come to the same result. Unknown in comparison to their male counterparts, almost erased from history, female explorers do exist, and not only modern day female travelers. The first female exploratory journeys are thought to have taken place around the 1850s. Prior to this and during this same period, many women were already travelling unofficially, sometimes hidden under men’s clothes or identities!
Nellie Bly was the first woman who travelled around the globe alone in 72 days. But above all, she was a pioneer of investigative journalism. Born in 1864 in Pennsylvania, Nellie began her career as a journalist in the women’s department of the Pittsburgh Dispatch, which she soon left to become a correspondent in Mexico, where she boldly covered difficult subjects such as corruption and the exploitation of workers. An arrest warrant issued by the Mexican authorities forced her to return to her native country, in New York, where she chose to try her luck. She obtained a position at the highly regarded New York World, where Joseph Pulitzer, the newspaper’s director, entrusted her with an assignment to infiltrate and investigate a psychiatric asylum.
The journalist stayed there for ten days and on her return published a report denouncing the extreme living conditions, violence and mistreatment of patients. The operation was a success, the article made a lot of noise with the general public and led to an increase in funding for psychiatric units. But Nellie Bly did not stop there. Later, she suggested an operation for the newspaper to go around the world and break the record of Phileas Fogg, the hero of the famous novel “Around the World in Eighty Days” by Jules Verne. At first, she had to face Pulitzer’s reluctance, who preferred a man, but she managed to convince him and set a new record: circumnavigation of the globe in 72 days. Nellie Bly became the first influential journalist of the time, despite all the obstacles that her status as a woman had imposed on her. She joins the ranks of famous female explorers such as Jeanne Barret, the first woman to circumnavigate the globe disguised as a man, Alexandra David Néel, the first European woman to travel to Tibet, and Ida Pfeiffer, the famous Austrian explorer.
“Women are also travelers”
“It is not easy to enter an essentially male universe, you have to learn to ignore gender limits and refuse to accept that there can be any difference between the freedoms and ambitions of girls and boys.” Isabelle Autissier, President of the WWF, and a sailor, regularly talks about her unique career path, which led her to study engineering, to lead a solo round-the-world race (the BOC Challenge), and to campaign for the environment. Having become a modern, feminine icon of travel and sailing, Isabelle’s main goal is to “broaden the imagination of women and fight the idea that there are areas only reserved for men”.
And while for a long time travel was more accessible to men, today more and more women are travelling alone. In 2018, The Telegraph shared a survey showing that in the UK more than half of solo travel searches were made by women. In 2014, 72% of American women responding to a survey by online accommodation website Booking, said they preferred to travel alone.
Globally, there were 54 million women travelers in 2014 and 138 million in 2017 according to the World Tourism Organisation! These figures undeniably show that women are as adventurous and that this trend is set to increase. In France, this craze still comes up against the fear of loneliness and the fear of insecurity. Only 22% of French women have ever travelled alone. This may not seem like much, but this number keeps increasing.
This is confirmed by Lucie Azema in her book “Les femmes aussi sont du voyage” – “Women are also travelers”. In this essay, the journalist studies travel through the prism of feminism. “Travel is an under-explored field in feminist studies, even though it is an essential issue.” A first historical overview and today’s figures show that women travelers are not exceptions. But that women travel less than men, even today.
Fighting for women’s empowerment through travel
The obstacles are not the same as in the past, when women were excluded from travel on legal grounds, or for lack of financial independence and economic resources. But according to the journalist, “women are much more discouraged from going on adventures than men, and this takes the form of safety warnings. Women have to break down many more walls to be able to leave.”
It is also more difficult for women to free themselves from gendered social norms and injunctions such as safety or motherhood. Lucie Azema denounces the persistence of travel as a “factory of masculinity that allows one to show off one’s physical abilities”, in the image of the great heroes of Greek mythology such as Ulysses sailing the Mediterranean Sea while Penelope devotes herself to her home.
So how can we encourage women to empower themselves through travel?
Some social enterprises have decided to rely on the community lever. NomadHer and La Voyageuse aim to connect and bring together women travelling alone. They can exchange advice and recommendations, share their past experiences or benefit from female hosts.
Launched in 2019, the platform la Voyageuse has already referenced more than 1250 female hosts in France, India, Guatemala and Haiti. NomadHer now gathers a community of over 10,000 members, and in July 2019 organised its first “Female Globetrotter Festival”.
Their mission? To prevent the fear of insecurity from becoming too great an obstacle for women who want to try this adventure.
For those who are hesitant to embark on a solo journey, journalist and committed feminist Lucie Azema advises asking: “Would a man ask himself these questions?” If the answer is no, then don’t waste any time and just go.
Through these Stories, Azickia aims to highlight social impact initiatives, in France and around the world, while not necessarily adhering to all the opinions and actions implemented by them. It is and will remain in Azickia’s DNA to fight against all forms of discrimination and to promote equality for all.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 France License.
Photo : Pexels – Jaxson Bryden