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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Over There: Yes, Female WWI Reporters Did Exist

Today is the anniversary of the armistice that brought WWI to an end in 1918. In honor of it, let’s meet eight women who worked as war correspondents in Europe between 1914 and 1918.

Despite several fantastic resources now available about female WWI reporters, a variation of this sentiment still occasionally pops up on the Interwebs: “During the First World War women war correspondents were simply nonexistent; the U.S. military accredited only one, then sent her off to Siberia, far from the main fighting fronts.” (That little gem appeared in National Geographic.)

But the accuracy of that statement is simply nonexistent. Women were most definitely reporting from the front lines, permission slips be damned. So let’s begin.Read More »

Remembering Dickey Chapelle on the anniversary of her death

On November 4, 1965, Dickey Chapelle was killed by shrapnel on a battlefield in Vietnam. She was the first female war correspondent to die in the field, but that designation doesn’t do her justice. Dickey was a tireless photographer, an emphatic patriot, and a plucky role model for young women in the Midwest.

Last year, Milwaukee Public Television aired a really good documentary about Dickey. As you listen to it, scroll through a gallery of her photographs.

Don’t have time to watch the full doc? Here’s a quote from Dickey about her love of country. I guarantee you’ll feel a strong urge to scrounge up that ol’ flag pin hiding somewhere in your dresser.

“I grew up in the heart of the United States, and I believed that I could do anything I really wanted to do. And I still believe it. In the first place, I hope you will never say it [the name of the United States] without its sense of its uniqueness. You have just defined Americanism. Because nowhere else in the world, and I’ve now worked in my 44th country, no where else in the world, can a woman about seventeen — or an old lady in her 40s like I am — no where else in the world can she say, ‘I can do anything I really want to do.'”

Dickey originally wanted to be pilot, and she received a full scholarship to study aeronautic design at MIT after graduating early from her high school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. But she flunked out after skipping an exam to cover a stunt-plane exhibition instead. She made pit stops back in Wisconsin and Florida before landing a job as a PR writer for the TWA in New York. That’s where she took the photography class that radically altered the trajectory of her life and career.

We’re rarely able to get an up-close look at the moment when a woman becomes an artist. But Dickey wrote candidly about her earliest exposure to photography in her fascinating autobiography, which illustrates her gift as a storyteller both in words and images. Here’s the section about her introduction to photography:Read More »

A lens of her own: The photography of Harriet Chalmers Adams

Harriet Chalmers Adams is almost always included in round-ups of American female adventurers, and rightfully so. She was an obsessive traveler, and from what I’ve read so far, Jessie Ackermann appears to be the only American woman to have technically covered more ground in the early 20th century. Kathryn Davis, who is probably the foremost scholar on Adams, put together a handy table of her travels:

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From The California Geographer, 49, 2009

In the early 1900s, Adams cultivated a public image as a female adventurer in order to garner interest in the public talks she gave to raise money for her trips. And she certainly wasn’t shy about posing for camera — her husband took several photos of her during their first major journey, to South America in 1904, which were published by the New York Times and elsewhere upon their return and launched her into the public eye. The Library of Congress also has images of her doing grip and grins with figures like Amelia Earhart and male reporters and politicians of her day.

But an unfortunate historical side effect of this is that we usually only see only pictures of Adams, but not pictures by her. And that means we’re missing half the story, because over the years, Adams evolved into an accomplished photographer.Read More »

We’re up to 50!

I hit an arbitrary milestone today: 50 women on my list of American women travelers from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

War reporters, scientists, artists, homemakers — it’s a diverse list that challenges some of our stereotypes about what women were up to in decades before and right after they obtained the right to vote. And it’s far from complete. My goal is 100 women, but I can’t get there alone. Know a name I don’t? Tell me all about her.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to start breaking down the comprehensive list into smaller, more thematic ones, like “WWI war correspondents,” or “schoolteachers abroad,” etc. And my posts will start to delve a little deeper into various topics that this list brought to light, such as the “royal road” through Europe that lots of American women followed in the 1880s and common ways in which “lady travel books” were marketed around 1900 (popular ad copy adjectives included “wide-awake traveler” and “breezy narrative”). I could also spend a lot of time on packing advice and media coverage of the controversial clothing choices of women in the 1910s.

Anyway. After a lot of time poking around the Internet in pursuit of historical women, I think we’re finally cookin’ with gas here on WR. Thanks for being an early reader!

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