“Go west, young man” — it’s an iconic phrase that echoes deep in the soul of Americans, long after the closing of the frontier. And while this phrase is a grand symbol of the open road, freedom and the excitement of discovering uncharted territory, it represents one overarching problem — the idea that monumental travel was only accomplished by men.
The story of women on the road, especially as portrayed in film, is almost always one of fear or invisibility. Solo female travelers seem to be rare and habitually escaping from something. If they do travel safely and happily it’s because they’re accessories to the men whose journeys they’re aiding. While we’ve made great strides as women to assert ourselves, the idea that women are incapable or too fragile to accomplish something as monumental as circumnavigating the globe seems to loom in the back of our minds.
For the sake of current and future generations of women, we’re hoping to change that — by celebrating some incredibly bold women whose calling to cover new terrain, break records and shake up the status quo drove their adventures forward against all odds. These female heroes were born in different times and came from differing circumstances, but they all share one thing in common. They are icons to the female travel narrative, and in some cases, travel wouldn’t be what it is today without them.
So next time you plan to hit the road with the top down or book your plane ticket, consider the women that went before you who paved the roads we so frequently travel. We need more of them!
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Jeanne Baret is the ultimate definition of a shattered glass ceiling. Born from humble beginnings in the Loire Valley, Baret discovered an early interest in plants and earned a reputation as an “herb woman.” Her work drew the attention of a fellow botanist, Dr. Philibert Commercon. So when Commercon was invited to join the first French circumnavigation of the globe, Baret came along as his assistant — but not as a woman.
At the time, women were not allowed on French Naval ships, so Baret was forced to conceal her identity. She wrapped her chest in linen, never relieved herself in front of the crew and went by the name Jean. She was eventually outed by Tahitian locals, but by the time she returned to France in 1775, she had already cemented her legacy as the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.
Bertha Benz is responsible for possibly the most important car journey ever taken. Her husband. Karl Benz, is the man credited with inventing the motorized car — but we have Bertha to thank for its success. In 1888, there was a lot of doubt surrounding the possibilities of the horseless carriage, even by its creator.
The Motorwagen — a wooden vehicle that had two wheels in the back, one in the front and a handle-like contraption for the steering wheel was no doubt exciting, but its sales suffered. Bertha decided to get behind the wheel of what became one of the shrewdest marketing stunts in history. In 1888, she set off on an impromptu 56-mile trip from Mannheim to Pforzheim, Germany to prove the car was capable of going the distance. And go the distance it did. Bertha Benz help pioneer the luxury car company, Mercedes Benz, by bravely taking to the open road when no one thought it was possible.
In 1873, the French author Jules Verne published Around the World in 80 Days, a fictional account of a man who circumnavigated the globe, and Nellie Bly intended to beat it. Prior to her world travels, Nellie Bly built her reputation as an intrepid journalist and the world’s first investigative reporter when she checked herself into a mental institute to expose the abuse of the mentally ill. So, it came as no surprise when she took on the daring stunt to circumnavigate the globe in 75 days.
Better yet, she beat her goal, making it home in 72 days and — unbeknownst to her — beating out her competitor, Elizabeth Bisland. But not everyone believed Nellie could do it. Her editor at New York World initially resisted sending her, stating her gender would make the trip impossible. Her response: “Very well. Start the man, and I’ll start the same day for some other newspaper and beat him.”
In 1909, 22-year-old Alice Ramsey made history as the first woman to drive across the United States. In the early 20th century, most women had never even operated a vehicle, but Ramsey had a love for the open road. So much so that she drove a total of 6,000 miles over the course of a single summer, prior to making her cross-country road trip. During a time when Americans were skeptical that cars made for a reliable mode of transportation, Ramsey proved otherwise.
She drove a dark-green, 1909 four-cylinder, Maxwell DA across the country from New York to San Francisco in 59 days, with three other women as her copilots. Navigating the route was not easy as nearly all highways at that time were unpaved and bumpy, but she ultimately succeeded and helped catapult the automobile into mainstream American culture.
Aloha Wanderwell is a woman who many have forgotten. In 1922, she joined a race to visit the most countries in the world alongside expedition leader, “Captain” Walter Wanderwell, a camera crew, and a pet monkey named Chango. The most amazing part — she was only 16 years old when she set off on the journey.
Inspired by the tales she read in her father’s beloved collection of boyhood books, Wanderwell dreamed of travel, adventure, and intrigue found in the far-flung corners of the globe. Impressively, she accomplished more than imagined. Wanderwell led a colorful life documenting parts of the world that most men and women of her time had never even seen or heard of. Her work as a cinematographer, photographer, and translator made her famous during the 1920s and 1930s. Most importantly she was the first woman to drive around the world, trekking through 43 countries and four continents in a small caravan of Model T Fords.
They said she couldn’t do it and she proved them wrong — several times. Amelia Earhart, arguably one of the most famous women in the history of travel, set a number of aviation records in her short career. Her first came in 1922 when she became the first woman to fly solo above 14,000 feet. She followed that by becoming the first woman, and the second person ever, to fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean, turning her into an international sensation overnight.
Later that year, Earhart would make the first solo, nonstop flight by a woman across the United States and then again from Hawaii to the continental United States. She was an activist, a writer and strong advocate for women’s rights — in short, a total badass. When she disappeared somewhere over the Pacific Ocean in 1937, during an attempt to circumnavigate the globe, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized a massive two-week search, but she was never found. Numerous theories have been floated regarding her disappearance, including that Earhart may have died a castaway, but one thing is for certain, her legacy has continued to inspire generations of women.
Cassie De Pecol
Cassie De Pecol made news headlines in February 2017 when she crossed into Yemen on a 4 a.m. bus. This particular passport stamp marked the completion of her goal to become the first documented woman to travel to every country in the world. Breaking two Guinness World Records, she also made the fastest trip — for a person of any gender — to all 196 sovereign nations. It was a lofty goal and one many female travelers aspire to.
On a quest she named “Expedition 196,” the then 27-year-old traveled more than most people ever will in their lifetime. But it wasn’t solely in the name of setting records. De Pecol served as an ambassador for the International Institute of Peace Through Tourism, meeting with mayors, ministers of tourism and students all over the world to spread education about sustainable tourism.
These women — a small sampling, to be sure — represent far more than recording breaking titles. They speak volumes about the ambition and drive of women throughout history who encountered the word “no” time and time again, but never let it derail their goals. So next time you’re boarding your flight for a girls wellness getaway or renting a car for a cross-country road trip with your best friend, take a moment to thank the women who’ve paved the way and took the roads less traveled.