From “Vampire Hunter” to #wanderlust: The evolution of female travel tropes since 1910

When you start to research early 20th-century female travelers, there’s an uncomfortable phrase that appears regularly: “first white woman to go here or there.” I don’t mean to single out Harriet Chalmers Adams for this, but here’s an example from an interview she did with the New York Times in 1912:

I have circumnavigated the South American continent, covering more than 40,000 miles, and penetrated savage wildernesses where no white woman had ever been.

For us to successfully make the case that HCA (and many of her contemporaries) warrants a larger place in our historical canon, she needs to represent something more historically substantive. So does she?Read More »

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Miss Leslie’s Tips for Crossing the Sea

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You know that friend who’s always trying to run your life, down to the smallest of details? In the mid 1800s, Eliza Leslie was that friend. For everybody. 

Born in Philadelphia in 1787, Leslie spent six years of her childhood in London. After her family returned to the States, she attended on of the first formal cooking schools in America, run by Elizabeth Goodfellow, sometime in the mid 1820s. Leslie then began to write best-selling cookbooks and domestic how-to books, many of which remained in print well after her death in 1858.

One of Leslie’s biggest contributions was her book of translated French recipes, Domestic French Cookerywhich first appeared in the early 1830s. It’s believed that Leslie learned French while living in London, and the recipes she translated opened a window into modern European life and culture for American housewives.

In 1840, Leslie published the first edition of her massive domestic guide, called Miss Leslie’s Lady’s New Receipt-Book, with more than 400 pages of tips for running a proper mid-19th century home. Though almost all the tips (“receipts”) are related to cooking, hygiene, and home organization, there’s one passage that stands out: “crossing the sea.” Leslie was five years old when her family sailed for London, and though it’s possible she was recalling her voyage back to the States as an eleven-year-old, it’s more likely that Leslie collected advice from other women while writing this section of the book. It’s detailed to the point of banal, but it’s worth a read for one significant reason: it’s clearly written with a solo female traveler in mind.

That fact struck me midway through, at the line “No dress intended to be worn on a voyage should fasten behind, as it is not always that a lady can procure the assistance of another person to do this for her.” If you read the entire passage with this perspective in mind, it’s really a remarkable piece, chock full of practical advice for alleviating seasickness, boredom, and fashion emergencies on the road. It was designed for women embarking on the Grand Tour — or for women who dreamed of embarking on the Grand Tour — but there are no suggestions about packing for one’s husband or other tips that would imply a man or a female friend would/should also be in tow.

Instead, it’s bonnet-to-bonnet advice and encouragement for other intrepid young American women. Here’s the whole thing: Read More »

The “Art of Travel” Database

A medieval historian buddy sent me a link the other day that I had to share with y’all. The National University of Ireland, Galway, has put together an awesome database of historical European travel writing dated between 1500 and 1850. There’s even a fancy name for this genre of writing: ars apodemica, or the art of travel.

I made a quick pass through the database and identified four women out the project’s current collection of 166 travelers:

  1. Sophie Volland (French?)

Unfortunately, the essays by the English-language writers (Cavendish’s “An Oration concerning the Forein Travels of Young Gentlemen” and Macaulay’s critique of the Grand Tour) are both trapped behind library logins. Volland’s letters have been lost to history, but some of Félicité’s articles are available open source via her database page.

The limited number of women in the collection is likely due to the curators’  narrow definition of texts that qualify as “apodemic,” their word for texts that offer moral and philosophical commentaries on travel as a modern social practice. From the database About page: “Travel focuses upon European writing on theories and methods of travel rather than practical travel advice such as travel guides, route descriptions, or travel almanacs.”

That sounds super smart and heady, but by overlooking “travel guides and route descriptions,” the curators are excluding a large number of female diaries and letters, some of which almost certainly include the sort of philosophical musings on travel that the database aims to preserve. All we can hope is that later phases of the project will expand its scope and soften up a bit on the restrictions. (I really hate to point this out, but the curatorial team is composed of five men.)

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Anyway, Mary F. McVicker’s Women Adventurers, 1750-1900 is a better resource for those looking for a bibliography of early travel writing by women. Though the majority of entries are about English women, there are a few continental Europeans, too, along with about a dozen Americans. And every entry includes an excerpt of the woman’s own writing.

So click around the Galway database, but don’t let it fool you: women throughout history have been travelers, writers, and philosophers, too, regardless of whether some 21st-century dudes in Ireland invite them to the party.

Here’s why the new Brie Larson movie about Victoria Woodhull is not awesome

Last week, news spread that Amazon Studios is set to produce a biopic starring Brie Larson as Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to officially run for U.S. president.

But before the marketing push goes into full swing on this one, it’s worth hitting the pause button: Woodhull’s legacy is many things, but a hero for contemporary feminists should not be one of them. We cannot overlook her harmful work as an eugenics advocate just because we’re desperate for vintage female mascots.

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Read More »

Women’s passport history featured in Atlas Obscura

You might remember a post from awhile back about my hunt for the first American woman to get a passport. (The answer: we don’t know, but she was probably listed as “and wife” on her husband’s passport.)

Well, over the past couple of months, that post evolved into a piece for Atlas Obscura, which went live yesterday. Here’s the lead:

The 1920s Women Who Fought For the Right to Travel Under Their Own Names

The current U.S. passport includes 13 inspirational quotes from notable Americans. Only one belongs to a woman, the African-American scholar, educator, and activist Anna J. Cooper. On pages 26-27 are words she wrote in 1892: “The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class—it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity.”

If equality is a journey, then it should come as no surprise that passports have helped American women to cross some of society’s most entrenched cultural borders for more than a century.

Read the rest here.

From Heels to Mukluks: the First American Woman in Antarctica

In this week’s edition of the Anarchic Archivist, we’re uploading a personal essay by Edith “Jackie” Ronne, a writer and Antarctica explorer who visited the frozen continent 15 times. Her notes during her first expedition, in 1946, significantly influenced the book now credited solely to her husband, Antarctic Conquest: the Story of the Ronne Expedition 1946-1948.

Sometime in the mid 1990s, Ronne jotted down some of her memories, perhaps at the prompting of Washington Post writer Judith Weinraub, who profiled Ronne in 1995 (and topped the story with one of the most sexist and off-putting leads of all time).

Ronne’s jottings appeared online as an essay titled “From Heels to Mukluks.” From what I can find, the essay is only hosted on one site, xpda.com. For the sake of preservation, I’ve copied the essay in its entirety here. I’ve also copied the Washington Post profile below it; despite its horrible, no-good lead, the piece offers some useful and little-reported tidbits about Ronne’s later years.

And BTW, the Ronne family maintains a great archive on Edith, along with her many Antarctica-loving relatives.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s Ronne in her own words: Read More »