8 Incredible Female Explorers We Should Honor Instead Of Christopher Columbus
Columbus Day — a time for some to remember the "discovery" of the Americas, and just a federal holiday and a day off from work for others. Whether or not you’re taking the time to honor Columbus and perhaps recall the names of the three ships that made the journey (since everyone loves a good third grade history class throwback), the question remains — why does Columbus get a whole day for people to celebrate his voyage to the western hemisphere? Follow-up question: what about all the female explorers who deserve holidays in their names?
Some say that good ol' Chris wasn't the first explorer to arrive in the region. That award instead goes to viking Leif Eriksson, who set foot on the shores of Nova Scotia several centuries before Columbus lived. And, heck, it's basic knowledge that plenty of groups were already living on both North and South America when Columbus landed on Oct. 12, 1492.
This isn't to say Columbus' accomplishments weren't incredible; the man did make four voyages across the Atlantic when it really wasn't that easy. But the repository of historical figures worth celebrating is generally way skewed toward men, so we could use a bit more marking the achievements of women explorers. Here are eight women who didn't just know how to read a map, but helped to draw it.
1. Alexandrine Tinné
There should be a universal holiday celebrating Tinné's travels and her overwhelmingly high level of cool. Born in The Hague, Netherlands, in 1835, Tinné set out on her first expedition to map the White Nile soon after turning 25 years old. Ignoring the fact that European women didn't really go to the African continent during this time period, she traversed much of the Sahara during the trip and brought her mom and aunt along for the ride.
Even the story of her death is fascinating: While journeying south through the Western Desert toward Lake Chad, she was allegedly robbed and murdered by Tuareg tribesmen in league with her guide, though details have never been confirmed. Forget a single day, why are we not honoring this woman every day?
We do get an occasional reminder of the fearless Native American woman and her adventures with Meriwether Lewis and William Clark in the form of spotting her face on the U.S. dollar coin. But that's not nearly enough, especially since the circulation of the coin was a dismal failure, and nobody really carries around that enormous piece of gold.
The daughter of a Shoshone chief, Sacagawea was captured by an enemy tribe at the age of 12 and subsequently sold and wed to a French Canadian. After such a rough start, you'd think a teenage girl might shy away from joining up on an all-male expedition into the American West in 1804. But she agreed to act as the interpreter for the Lewis and Clark crew and helped in pretty much a million other ways, too, like finding edible plants and making business negotiations to get horses so they could cross the Rocky Mountains.
3. Nellie Bly
Topping any journalist's list of favorite people should be Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, who went by her pen name, Nellie Bly (borrowed from a Stephen Foster song title). Bly was a badass by all accounts: she invented an improved version of the milk can, did charitable work helping single moms and abandoned children, and faked insanity to go undercover at a female mental institution for a news story.
What made Bly an adventurous spirit worth remembering, though, was her successful attempt at beating fictional character Phileas Fogg's time of 80 days to travel around the world. In 1889, she traveled solo via steamship, train, horse, and rickshaw, among other vehicles — and did it in 72 days.
4. Amelia Earhart
Possibly the most famous on the female explorers list, Earhart should get all the holidays. Knowing that she was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928 is practically a requirement for any kid in the U.S. hoping to graduate from junior high school. Even more well-known is Earhart's disappearance in 1937 during her attempt to circumnavigate the globe from the equator.
We can only assume that if Earhart had ever returned home, she would have continued her efforts supporting equal rights for women and returned to her job as a career consultant for female students at Purdue University.
5. Valentina Tereshkova
It would be unfair to contain this list to women involved with earthly exploration, since there have been quite a few fierce females to go beyond our atmosphere. And while a U.S. holiday would likely go to astronaut Sally Ride before going to Tereshkova, a shout-out is necessary for the first woman to ever fly in space.
The Soviet cosmonaut, born in Russia in 1937, was an expert parachute jumper before she was selected to join a special women-in-space training program. Tereshkova's spacecraft, which launched in June 1963, orbited Earth 48 times and landed after a quick 71 hours. She never flew again, but one time in space is quite enough to gain the respect of women everywhere.
6. Fanny Bullock Workman
Fanny Workman was all kinds of fierce and so deserves all kinds of recognition — a holiday is just one possibility. A mountaineer who often went on expeditions in the Himalayas with her husband, Workman dedicated much of her time to understanding the science of high altitudes and glaciation. She was part of the first group of women to be awarded membership into the Royal Geographic Society and was an outspoken supporter of women's rights; upon reaching one mountain summit, Workman had a photographer snap a picture of her holding a newspaper announcing women's suffrage.
And with all that adventuring in the mountains, Workman certainly made an impact in the realm of global exploration. The husband-and-wife team documented all their climbing and biking expeditions in writing and photographs, helping to map areas on several continents.
7. Gertrude Bell
Columbus only discovered the Caribbean and did it while trying to find a route to someplace else. (Granted, we can't really blame the guy for not assuming there could be a couple more continents blocking a direct path west to Asia.) On the other hand, Gertrude Bell explored and mapped parts of Greater Syria, Mesopotamia, Arabia, and Asia Minor.
And in all her spare time, Bell climbed mountains in Switzerland, recording new paths for ranges like the Bernese Alps. She became fluent in Arabic, Persian, French, and German; she could also hold a conversation in Italian or Turkish, your choice. Oh, and she was a major player at the Conference in Cairo of 1921, which pretty much determined the political and geographic structure of present-day Iraq. Way to be an overachiever, Bell.
8. Isabella Bird
A pioneer of solo female exploration, Bird spent years journeying through Australia, Hawaii, East Asia, India, the Middle East, and northern Africa, all after an initial recommendation from a doctor to travel.
Probably not in an attempt to one-up Fanny Bullock Workman (who appeared to be so competitive that I doubt any one would have dared try), but Bird was the first woman to be inducted into the Royal Geographic Society. Isabella Bird is an inspiration for all with wanderlust, particularly for those who don't know they have it.
Image: Wikimedia Commons (7)