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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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.

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.

Jessie Ackermann: the globe-trottin’, god-fearin’ witness to the Australian women’s movement

“There is nothing in life that can compare with the delights of thinking. To grasp an idea and travel with it through a long process of evolution; to live with it, cherish it, compelling unfoldment that reveals hidden treasures, to run along with it, although the chase ends in mental chaos where one lands in the solitudes and waste places of thought, is joy unbounded. The journey often leads over some hitherto untrodden way which reveals food for the brain, enlargement for the soul, and inspiration for the battle of life.”

Few American women have blazed as many trails as Jessie Ackermann, who visited more than fifty countries and is believed to have circumnavigated the world eight times between 1889 and the late 1920s, when she returned to the United States and hung up her traveling bags for good.Read More »

The Legacy of the White Pantsuit

Today, Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s words ring as true now as they did a hundred years ago: “The history of the past is but one long struggle upward to equality.”

If nothing else, Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy has sparked a renewed enthusiasm for talking about America’s suffragettes. Much of that interest is tied to Hillary Clinton’s “white pantsuit,” a conscious nod to the color that was most associated with the Votes for Women movement, along with the mass uptick in Election-Day pilgrimages to Susan B. Anthony’s gravesite in Rochester, New York.

The suffragettes learned a lot of lessons the hard way, but perhaps chief among those lessons is that change is a journey — a journey that includes crossing lots and lots of borders in pursuit of a more equal world.

To be literal about it, Clinton traveled to 112 countries during her time as secretary of state, a number that makes her the most widely traveled U.S. state secretary ever. But long before Clinton’s miles of experience landed her the Democratic nomination for president, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton went to London in 1840.Read More »

“We ought to live confidently”

There are few issues as thorny as a woman’s decision to prioritize career or family — and it’s far from a new challenge. In 1919, newly divorced Rose Wilder Lane wrote her first novel on the subject, and a century later, it offers a striking look at how far we’ve come in terms of female empowerment and opportunity — and how far we still have to go.

Rose Wilder Lane

Rose Wilder Lane was the daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the pioneer woman who wrote a “little” series of books about life on the American frontier. Rose had already written about a dozen books when Laura’s first came out in 1932, and it’s well established that Rose helped her mom whip her manuscripts into shape.

Rose, too, capitalized on American nostalgia for settler life and published several Depression-era novels set in the Ozarks. But Rose was more interested in wrestling with the social issues of the day, and her work was deeply influenced by her travels with the Red Cross in post-WWI Europe. Her time in Albania in particular helped influence her political ideology, which eventually morphed into libertarianism. Along with Ayn Rand and Isabel Patterson, Rose is considered one of the “founding mothers” of that movement.

A couple of years before Rose first went to Europe, she wrote a book about a young woman struggling to come to terms with her own ambition — and learning to overcome the men and women who stood in her way.Read More »