The Road less Travelled

Female explorers of the 19th century demolished Victorian notions of stay-at home women. But why were they so vehemently anti-feminist? The case of Mary Wollstonecraft may hold the answer. 

Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, c.1797 © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Mary Wollstonecraft, by John Opie, c.1797 © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Women travellers performed remarkable feats in the 19th century. Marianne North criss-crossed the world, painting flora in the Middle East, Asia, Australasia and the Americas. Isabella Bird roamed the United States and Asia, becoming the first female fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Flora Shaw travelled as a journalist through parts of Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Canada –historians credit her with suggesting the name ‘Nigeria’. Mary Kingsley explored parts of West Africa and discovered new species of fish. Gertrude Bell, spy and archaeologist, travelled across the Middle East. People admired these women: their travel books were absorbed, their exploits discussed. Despite this, travelling was still considered a largely male pursuit.

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