11 Female Explorers You Should Know About

'The Age of Discovery'. A loose term which refers to the European 'discovery' of the rest of the world. Names such as Christopher Columbus, Francis Drake, Walter Raleigh and his potato, are all main cast members of the exploration play, but where are the female parts?


I spent my International Women's Day learning about great female explorers, whose history (or herstory) has been left out of classroom lessons, documentaries, books and films for centuries. Women have continually fought sexism in order to achieve, experience and learn, as well as pave the way for future generations in their work.


While researching, I discovered the scarcity of BAME women in this portion of history - perhaps this is simply a further statement on history written from the white perspective, or also an example of the further constraints forced upon women of colour. As we work together to rediscover the history of the other half of society, I have gathered a list of pioneering women, overcome with curiosity in a time when to 'explore' was a risk in itself. Read about their incredible achievements and discoveries below.


1. Jeanne Baret (1740-1807)

The story of Jeanne Baret is really quite

extraordinary. Born in the Burgundy region of France, Jeanne became a housekeeper to a naturalist named Philibert Commerson. After the death of his wife, she became his mistress, even giving birth to his child, who was given up to the Paris Foundlings Hospital.

Commerson was invited on an expedition around the world by the explorer Louis Antoine Bougainville. Aging, with various ailments, Commerson would not accept the position without bringing an ‘aide’ to help nurse him. Women were forbidden on ships at this time, so Baret disguised herself as a man and joined Commerson on the voyage in December 1766. Finally able to be a part of 'a man's world', she helped to collect specimens from the countries they visited, even naming a pink flowering plant found in Rio de Janeiro a ‘Bougainvillea’. However, Baret’s gender was discovered when she disembarked the boat in Tahiti and hoards of locals proclaimed that she was a woman. Astoundingly, the crew allowed her to continue on. After reaching Mauritius, Commerson discovered that his friend, Pierre Poivre, was the new Governor of the island. Baret stayed behind on the island with him, until Commerson's death in 1773. She then ran a tavern in Port Louis, having been unable to fund her journey home, until she married a decommissioned French officer, who she travelled back to France with in 1775. Bougainville then organised a pension of 200 livres a year for Baret, issued by the Ministry of Marine, for her impressive feat as the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.


2. Marianne North (1830-1890)


Marianne North spent her youth travelling extensively with her father, learning to draw and paint her surroundings. After his death she continued with her travels, journeying to Sicily, Canada, the US, Jamaica and Brazil, working to document tropical plant life that had never been studied. She then embarked on a trip around the world, painting the natural species she encountered, returning to the UK to build a gallery at Kew to exhibit her work in, which is to this date “the only permanent solo exhibit by a female artist in Britain”. Her work was admired by many including Charles Darwin, who suggested she should travel to Australia. After a year in Oz, she returned with a host of new work and an ‘Australian Sheep’ shrub for Darwin. North’s work in cataloguing the world’s exotic plants was highly valuable, due to its scientific accuracy in a time before the ease of photography. As the first western botanist to view many of these plants she was also able to name many of them, even having the Northia genus name in her honour, and leaving a long lasting mark on history.


3. Mary Kingsley (1862-1900)


Mary Kinglsey grew up detesting the ‘female’ novels fashionable at the time, preferring instead to read her brother’s books on science and exploration. After the deaths of her parents, Mary used her inheritance to fulfil her childhood dreams of travelling, boarding a boat to West Africa. At this time, the only women journeying between the UK and Sierra Leone were African or the wives of missionaries and government officials, so Mary found herself constantly asked why her husband wasn’t accompanying her. On arrival, she stayed with locals, learning necessary skills for her expeditions. Briefly returning home to drum up support, she made connections with the British Museum and organised a publishing agreement with George Macmillan, before setting off into the unknown. Kingsley ventured into the bush, where no westerner had ever been before - running into Gorillas and eating snakes for lunch. She encountered the Fang tribe, deeply feared for their cannibalism, but found them to be very agreeable, describing them as “full of fire, temper, intelligence and go”. She published ‘Travels in West Africa’ on her return to the UK, an instant bestseller, and she continues to be an important voice in the literature surrounding colonialism in the 19th century.


4. Nellie Bly (1864-1922)


Nellie Bly was a well-renowned journalist, who had found fame by writing an exposé on a mental institution, by pretending to be insane in order to be admitted. A ballsy character, Nellie went to her editor with an idea: she wanted to travel around the world in 80 days - just as Jules Verne had fictionally done. She left New York in November 1889 with one outfit, a coat, some spare underwear and toiletries, with £200 in a bag tied around her neck. A rival newspaper announced that they would send their own reporter - Elizabeth Bisland - on the same journey as a race, except she would journey in the opposite direction. Bly didn’t find this out until she arrived in Hong Kong, but she refused to let it affect her, dismissing the race. Instead she made her way across the globe using trains and steamboats, even meeting Jules Verne in France, visiting a leper colony in China and adopting a monkey in Singapore. Bly returned to New York just 72 days after her departure, while Bisland was still crossing the Atlantic, making her the fastest person to circumnavigate the globe.


5. Annie Londonderry/Kopchovsky (1870-1947)


A Latvian immigrant to the US, Annie Londonderry as she was best known, is a pioneering female explorer - as the first woman to cycle around the world. She was an unlikely choice, at just 5 ft 3 inches, a wife and mother to three children under five and a highly inexperienced cyclist; she could not ride a bike just days before her trip. She set off from Boston, USA, and vowed to complete the trip in 15 months. Annie was highly entrepreneurial, realising that she would need more than her initial sponsorship to make it around, so she drummed up publicity, offering interviews and further sponsorships to earn the extra cash. Conquering various obstacles, including the confiscation of her bike and passport in Paris, a foot injury which led her to ride with one leg bandaged and propped up on the handlebars and crashing into a group of pigs in Iowa, Annie made it back to Boston bang on time.


6. Amelia Earhart (1897 - 1937)


Shockingly the only female explorer I had heard of when compiling this list, Amelia Earhart actually earned her fame as the first female passenger to fly across the Atlantic. In the aircraft 'Friendship’ her only reponsibility was to keep the logbook, remarking that the male pilot "Stultz did all the flying... I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes... maybe someday I'll try it alone”. Soon after returning to the States, Earhart was back in the air. She became the first woman to fly solo across North America and back, she set a world altitude record of 18,415 feet, and became the first president of the Ninety-Nines, an organisation of female pilots aiming to advance the cause of women in aviation. Then, in 1932 Earhart set off on another transatlantic flight, but this time she went solo. She gained her now world-famous record as the first woman to fly alone across the Atlantic, after a gruelling flight lasting 14 hours 56 minutes in very poor weather conditions. Earhart then went on to become the first pilot (male or female) to fly from Hawaii to California, after many others had failed. She followed this with a nonstop flight from Mexico to New York, which attracted huge crowds. But, for her ultimate challenge, Earhart decided she wanted to be the first female pilot to circumnavigate the globe. After much preparation she took off, flying West to East from Miami on 1st June 1937, successfully flying 22,000 miles until the Pacific Ocean, where the aircraft disappeared between Hawaii and Australia, near Howland Island.


7. Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz (1936 - Present)


1975 was declared as International Women’s Year by the UN, and the Sailing Association of Poland thought that there was no better way to mark the occasion than to organise the first female solo voyage around the world. Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz was chosen for the job, due to her experience on several all-female voyages, and on 28th March 1976, she set off from Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. A trained ship engineer, Krystyna’s love of sailing combined with her technical ability allowed her to overcome the many obstacles of her trip. She had a two-month supply of drinking water, so was flexible with her stops, and managed to create a community wherever she went, spending time with Polish families including two Christmas Eves, in Australia and in South Africa. Encountering dolphins, the treachery of sailing the barrier reef and avoiding collisions, Krystyna completed her full loop on 20th March 1978, covering a distance of 28,696 miles. It took her a total of 401 days, with Dame Naomi James following just 39 days behind her as the second woman to complete the challenge in just 272 days. It was a fantastic year for women sailors.


8. Valentina Tereshkova (1937- Present)


Valentina originally trained as a competitive parachutist, in her hometown of Yaroslavl, while working in a cotton factory and studying with the Light Industry Technical School. She held no previous desire to go to space, but after the Russian Director of Cosmonaut Training read that American women were training for missions, he declared that he could not allow the first woman in space to be an American. The requirements were for a female parachutist under 30, less than 5 ft 7 in and 70 kg. The candidates were whittled down from 400 to 5, which included Tereshkova. She was finally selected, and even took part in the renowned cosmonaut Gagarin’s tradition of urinating on the tire of the bus which drove her to the shuttle, becoming the first woman ever to do so. On 16th June 1963, Tereshkova was launched faultlessly into space in Vostok 6, becoming the first and youngest woman (at just 26) to fly solo in space. She orbited the Earth 48 times, spending over 2 days 22 hours in space. On her descent, she ejected from the shuttle 4 miles above Earth and parachuted to safety, as with all other Vostok missions. Tereshkova was awarded the Hero of the Soviet Union Medal and paved the way for women in space.


9. Junko Tabei (1939-2016)


Junko Tabei was born in Fukushima, Japan, and she experienced hiking for the first time on a school trip to Mount Nasu. She caught the bug, but her family couldn’t afford to fund her hobby. It wasn’t until university that Tabei was able to join an ‘alpine club’, but she encountered sexism amongst its members, with some male students refusing to climb with her and others arguing she only joined to find a husband. After graduation, she formed the Ladies Climbing Club in 1969, the first association for women climbers in Japan. She then climbed the Matterhorn in Switzerland and Mount Fuji in Japan. A division of the club began training to climb Mount Everest - but it proved to be very difficult to get adequate sponsorship. The team made over-gloves and waterproof bags from old carseats, while sewing their own sleeping bags from goose feathers bought from China. In 1975 they set off, but their camp was hit by an avalanche at 6300 metres, where Tabei lost consciousness for 6 minutes until her guide dug her out. Picking herself up and carrying on, 12 days later Tabei became the first woman to summit Everest. She continued with her love of climbing, not stopping until she was the first woman to reach the top of the Seven Summits (the highest peak on each of the seven continents). Her motto was “Do not give up. Keep on your quest.”


10. Rosie Swale-Pope (1946 - Present)


Rosie Swale-Pope has been on a huge variety of adventures, but perhaps most astounding is her run around the world, in memory of her late husband, raising awareness for prostate cancer. Setting off from Tenby, Wales on her 57th birthday in October 2003, Swale-Pope began her run around the northern hemisphere - with no support crew and few supplies. By April she reached Moscow, Russia, towing a tiny cart which contained her supplies and camping equipment. She was knocked over by a bus, met a naked man with a gun, got frostbite in the Yukon and even ran the marathon while she was in Chicago. She returned home to Wales in August 2008 after 5 years, 53 pairs of shoes and fractures in both legs, to huge supporting crowds in Tenby. Rosie has run over 19,900 miles and she released her memoir in 2009. She is currently in Berlin, while she runs from Brighton to Kathmandu - there really is no stopping this woman.


11. Greta Thunberg (2003- Present)


Greta Thunberg is perhaps one of the most recognisable faces of the 21st Century. As a world-famous activist for the environmental cause, Greta is not only notable for her environmentalism but as an explorer of an entirely new and world-changing movement. Exploring involves travel, and Greta’s self-imposed ban on flying has led to a new way of thinking about the environmental impact that travel has, and what this means for an explorer. Her sabbatical year in 2019 saw Thunberg complete a voyage from Plymouth, UK to New York, USA. Equipped with solar panels and water turbines, she embarked on a carbon-neutral transatlantic crossing. Here Thunberg attended the UN Climate Action Summit, giving her notorious ‘How dare you!’ speech to the world's leaders. The COP25 climate conference was then moved to Madrid, rather than being held in Santiago, Chile as planned. Refusing to fly, Greta used social media to appeal for help from anyone who was able. An Australian couple sailing around the world in their Catamaran offered to take her, allowing Greta to continue on without the use of air travel. At just 17 years old, Greta has become an explorer: she is a pioneering woman, taking on a journey never before taken, and she is doing it on her own terms - while seeing much of the world that she is trying desperately to save and protect.