1. Amelia Earhart (born in 1897)
Amelia Earhart, like many of the figures here, rebelled against expected gender roles from childhood, playing sports, learning how to repair cars, and going to college. During the First World War, she worked with the Red Cross and observed pilots training nearby. After the war, a renowned pilot took her for a flight and she never looked back, learning how to pilot herself in 1921 with a female instructor Neta Snook (see below). In a move that seems incredible today, she earnt money as a clerk to save for her own plane, a used Kinner Airster, she baptised ‘the Canary’.
After quickly passing her license, she began flying in exhibitions and bagged a name for herself as well as a number of records: first woman to fly solo above 4267 meters (14,000 feet), first woman and second person ever to fly solo across the Atlantic; first woman to fly direct and solo flight across the USA; first person to fly solo from Hawaii to the US mainland.
Earhart championed other women, forming and leading women’s flying organisations, as well as capturing the world’s imagination, in which she lives on due to her mysterious disappearance in 1937, during her second attempt to fly around the world. Rumours are that she was captured and killed as a spy, assumed a new identity or that she crashed on a Pacific island and was eaten by crabs.
2. Neta Snook (1896 – 1991)
Mary Anita Snook spent her childhood in Illinois getting interested in machinery and making toy cars and boats. She studied mechanical drawing, combustion engineering and farm maintenance in Iowa, and began researching aircraft and government flying work. When she first applied to aviation school, she was rejected because she was a woman, but she persevered and was accepted, twice, only to be prevented from completing due to the First World War.
She tested engines and aircraft parts for the war effort and afterwards bought her own Canuck plane and spent two years fixing it up. Finally accepted into the Aero Club of America and the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, she did commercial tourist and advertising flights, stunts, and eventually instruction, training Amelia Earhart. So, without Snook, the legend of Earhart may never have taken flight.
3. Nellie Bly (1864 – 1922)
Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, or ‘Nellie Bly’, started as a US journalist in 1885, arguing against the idea women were nothing more than walking wombs and housekeepers. She wrote about working women, did an astonishing piece of investigative journalism by faking madness to secretly embed herself in a mental asylum, and went on in 1889 to become the first woman to travel around the world in just 72 days.
Her achievements were groundbreaking at a time when women did not have the right to vote and women in some parts her country were still not even considered legal entities in their own right and had no right to property. By making a name for herself and travelling around the world (in competition with another female reporter, Elizabeth Bisland) she helped pave the way for others who wished to live and travel independently.
4. Gertrude Bell (1868 – 1926)
A contemporary of Nellie Bly, Gertrude Bell possessed both a strong spirit and a privileged background as the daughter of a Baronet, so her parents educated her in London and Oxford, even though women did not have the right to earn academic degrees at the time.
She used that privilege to become an archaeologist, civil servant, diplomat, explorer, mapper, linguist, mountaineer and photographer who travelled extensively in Iran and other places where few ‘westerners’ ever went, let alone women. She certainly helped to change views about what women could achieve and though journalists tried to coin the name ‘The Uncrowned Queen of Mesopotamia’ for her, she did not seek notoriety.
Her political legacy in Iraq has been discredited but her archaeology and library work is still well thought of and she was widely admired by her contemporaries. Her printed works and photography are still referenced by scholars.
5. Aloha Wanderwell Baker (1906 – 1996)
This Canadian became known as the ‘World’s Most Travelled Girl’ after accepting a job aged just 16 with Captain ‘Cap’ Wanderwell. Cap is described by the Bowers Museum as ‘an explorer extraordinaire, showman and ex-spy who travelled [sic] the world in purchased military fatigues and captured footage of local cultures.’
Born in Manitoba, she moved to Europe with her family and went to convent school in France. She was nicknamed Aloha and had always wanted to explore the world. Her ability to speak French (and eventually 10 other languages) won her the position Cap advertised as “Brains, Beauty & Breeches – World Tour Offer For Lucky Young Woman…”.
Both the advert and what happened next would raise eyebrows today: she became the face of the Wanderwell Project and, journeying to 80 different countries, she translated; drove, pushed and repaired the Model T car; worked in front of and behind camera; collected artefacts; married Cap in 1925; and journalled and lectured about her experiences – continuing after Cap’s death and her marriage to someone else. Though we can now see that some of the material she was involved in was both inauthentic and voyeuristic, she was a well-known heroine in her day who inspired many young people to see the world.
6. Margaret of Beverley (c.1150-1215)
Though the infamous Christian Crusades saw many European women abandoned or widowed and forced to join alms-house communities, some were never left behind in the first place.
Women joined the Crusades in various roles from fighters to washerwomen and were often thrown out of armies for alleged immorality and ‘temptation’ to the ‘good Christian soldiers’. Women’s role was often written out of the records as their participation in fighting was thought to discredit the males.
Many women who joined the Crusades were nobles, whose backgrounds prepared them for battle. They often travelled with their husbands and ended up in arranged marriages of power and convenience in far-flung lands.
One commoner who did fight in the Crusades was Margaret of Beverley, an English woman, born in Jerusalem to pilgrim parents outside of the Crusades. The family returned to England and Margaret grew up to become the carer for her brother when they were orphaned. She appears to have returned to Jerusalem as a devoted pilgrim herself, only to be caught up in its siege. She fought alongside the men, pretending to be one.
When her side lost the Siege, she paid her own ransom to free herself. Then she set off on another incredible journey towards Syria. She was enslaved for several months, was freed again, worked her way to the Greek city of Antioch, was besieged again, won, tried to go to Tripoli and ended up on various pilgrimages around Europe before becoming a nun.
The Crusades changed the face of travel, by generating demand for supplies and shipbuilding. Despite attempts to write out of history and belittle women like Margaret with details about having a cooking pot for a helmet, the record of her life has been pored over by historians and has changed our perception of how women lived and adventured in the Middle Ages.