Intrepid Female Explorers
May 10, 2017 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
Hi dear readers, as I write I’m surrounded by a precariously stacked pile of clothes, an open suitcase, and a long list of things to accomplish. You’ve guessed it (you’re so clever!)… another work trip awaits me. While I’m getting a bit tired of this international rollercoaster (UK, Czech Republic, Toronto, and now San Francisco – all in the last four months), I’m incredibly grateful. Not just because I have a job that allows me the opportunity to meet new folks and get some stamps in my passport, but because I live in an age where I can travel freely as a woman.
Which got me thinking, what about the intrepid female explorers who came before me? Who truly blazed a trail – not just braved the minor inconveniences of baggage claim & long lines at Starbucks (honestly, we have it so easy! You remember my laundry article right?!) Without further ado, let’s get to know these inspiring pioneers…
We’re already familiar with the name of Nellie Bly, who faced off with fellow wonder woman Elizabeth Bisland Wetmore in the well-publicized 1889 race around the world. Think about that in context – women were still three decades away from getting the right to vote in America and the fashions of choice were the bustle and corset. Not exactly an age where it was comfortable and freeing to be female. Yet here were two women making the biggest headlines of the year. Can you imagine how that must have impacted people during that time? Pretty cool, don’t you think?
Another super cool gal you should acquaint yourself with: Gertrude Bell. She liked to dig, write, and explore. Her inspiration – Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. That’s a lot of territory for one person! Upon her graduation from Oxford she sought to provide her fellow Brits with a clear and honest understanding of far-flung places. In addition to her native tongue, she also spoke Persian and Arabic like a local. I can only imagine how shocked folks must have been when a proper English lady addressed them in their own language, and in accordance to their local customs.
While her studies are still relevant to modern researchers, her work in Iraq is the gem in Gertrude’s legacy. She passionately worked to educate the world about itself, yet just as passionately did she believe others should not appropriate regional artifacts & traditions. Quite a modern perspective really – fighting for locals to keep their history local. She was thrilled to export stories and illustrations, but the originals were to remain in their homeland. What a beautiful gift – helping a community preserve its own legacy for future generations.
You may rely upon one thing — I’ll never engage in creating kings again; it’s too great a strain. –
Let’s look at her belief system in action. For that we will travel back to 1921. Our landing place: The Conference in Cairo. The purpose of this discussion: develop a common policy to handle the unrest in the Middle East. Sound familiar to anyone?? Hosted by the Brits, and attended by a brash new Colonial Secretary (Winston Churchill), it consisted of mainly white males making decisions for an entire region. Sigh. The rays of hope for this conference: a small Arab delegation and the championing voice of Gertrude Bell.
Take a look at the group shot – there she is off to the side, holding her own like a boss. Her unique perspective granted her an unprecedented level of foreign policy power. Gertrude was truly a pioneer – she helped administer the policies put in place during the conference and did it from a place of compassion. Anyone else want to get “I’m with Gertrude” t-shirts?
This lovely Latvian lady has something in common with the fab Nelly Bly – traveling around the world. But she put a twist on it: she circled our blue marble on a bicycle. And did I mention she was a proud wife, mom of three, and entrepreneur? Remind me to not complain about being stressed or burdened – I can only imagine how jam-packed her schedule was. And this is well before the era of Amazon Prime and grocery delivery services. Running a household, navigating the world, and building a brand. Wow!
“The most extraordinary journey ever undertaken by a woman.” – The New York World talking about Annie’s successful journey
The best part of this story is that supposedly she started off on her bicycle because of a bet. Yep – she is one sassy lady. Someone bet her $5,000 she couldn’t do it in 15 months and well.. she didn’t appreciate their lack of confidence. Departing from Boston in 1894, she sold promotional products along the way, made paid personal appearances, and rented advertising space on her bicycle and her biking outfit. Clearly modern marketing all started with Annie’s clever approach.
She was a one woman PR department. The brains, beauty, and brawn of this entire adventure. While some of her methods and motives may be dubious, you’ve gotta give her props for her moxie. (And no, I don’t mean the soda!)
Our last woman in this trailblazing trio is Osa Johnson. Her travel adventures were shared with her hubby, photographer Martin Johnson. Honestly… I know people Tweet about Jay Z and Beyonce’s relationship goals. They’re great and all, but let’s be real – Osa + Martin forever! They sounded like such a fun and adorable couple. Married in 1910, they left Kansas seven years later to trek out as a duo, making documentaries along the way. Martin shot the film (using cutting-edge equipment he made himself), Osa fixed up the viddles, and they collaborated on the final product.
I can feel some of my feminist readers squirming… you mean she was just there to cook the food?? Don’t be fooled by this traditional-sounding role, Osa was an equal collaborator on all their projects. And can I say, she was one cook not to mess with, as one very unlucky rhino found out when it tried to charge at her hubby. She saved her husband’s life on the regular, but the rhino example is the most dramatic and the one Martin captured on film (ever the devoted artist – anything for the shot!).
“Unexpected difficulties, I think, are at once the challenge and the charm of the lives of all explorers.” – Osa Johnson
Fast forward and decades later, in 1940 she published her memoir I Married Adventure, to much fanfare. For the Disney fans out there, the Johnson’s work is regularly screened at Disney’s Animal Lodge. Next time you’re there I hope you think of the adventurous Osa and her contributions to preserving our natural history – one picture and story at a time!
Dear readers, whether you are traveling around the world or down the street – be present and take note. Adventure can happen anywhere. Keep your heart open, your mind sharp, and remember that one compassionate view (mixed with a little sass & determination) can truly change the world!