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  • Writer's pictureKaitlynaMac

Women who walked the world

I don't know about you, but when I was taught history in grade school and the topic of explorers came up, we usually were taught about old European dudes who did a little less exploring, and a little more invading, if you know what I mean. I never questioned it at the time, but now as an adult I often find myself wondering if any women got itchy feet in the past, and what their accomplishments were. With most things, I assume that there were many female explorers, but they probably didn't get the credit or the acknowledgement they deserved. It's only relatively recently that I heard the name of a few explorers thanks to the internet and the tenacity of archivists and historians, hats off to you, seriously. Today, I want to highlight a few of the female explorers of the past and talk about their incredible journeys and discoveries. In no way is this a comprehensive list and I implore you to do some research on your own because I've definitely omitted a lot.

Jeanne Barret: First woman to circumnavigate the globe

Jeanne Barret was born in 1740 in the town of La Comelle in the East of France. She was born to a poor family, and it's most likely that her mother died when she was only 15 months old. Eventually, she became a servant under the service of one Philibert Commerson, a naturalist who studied zoology, botany and natural history, and who is most famous for his observations in Tahiti. In 1765, Jeanne disguised herself as a man and accompanied Commerson on a trip around the globe. Having become an "herb woman" herself, Jeanne was allowed to go on Louis-Antoine de Bougainville's expedition as Commerson's assistant (read:servant). Little is known about Jeanne since it appears she did not keep a journal, but an account of her life has been pieced together from the journals of the famous men with whom she travelled. Many of the plants collected on the trip, which amounted to thousands of unique specimens, were likely mostly collected by Jeanne. Commerson was gravely injured in the early legs of the voyage, and so Jeanne had to do much of the heavy lifting. She was often described as being a hard-worker and well-mannered, in addition to being an expert botanist. Upon arrival in Tahiti, Jeanne was quickly identified as a woman by locals. Instead of getting in trouble, Bougainville ruled that she should be left alone and Jeanne was able to continue her journey. Eventually, she and Commerson ended up in Mauritius where Commerson later died, but this is not the end of Jeanne's story. It was only recently that the later episodes of her life were revealed. Jeanne was rewarded for her work and was given a pension from the French Navy. Eventually, she started a business (a bar) and amassed a small fortune. When she married, she got her fiancé to sign a prenup. In 1775 she returned to France where she took in her orphaned niece and nephew, and bought a bunch of properties, including a farm that still exists today.

Mary Seacole: Globetrotting nurse

Mary Seacole was born in 1805 in Kingston, Jamaica. Her father was a Scottish soldier, and her mother was a Jamaican woman who was knowledgeable in traditional medicines, a skill she passed onto her daughter. The family owned a boarding house, and Mary began to care for the sick guests from a young age. When she was 13, she travelled to England with relatives and was able to learn about modern European healing techniques over the course of a year. In 1823, at the age of 18, her travels began in earnest. She spent 2 years in London, then she went on to travel to Cuba, Haiti, and the Bahamas where she studied local medicine and curative techniques. Finally, she returned to Kingston in 1826.

In 1836 she married Edwin Horatio Seacole, who unfortunately died in 1844 despite Mary's best efforts to save him. Sadly, when it rains, it pours, and Mary's mother died just a few months later. Mary was badly shaken, as you can imagine, but her grief did not stop her from travelling to Panama in 1851 to fight a cholera outbreak in the town of Cruces. After many years of treating cholera and yellow fever patients, both at home and abroad, she was invited to supervise the hospital at the British Army's headquarters in Kingston. She also renovated her family's boarding house into a hospital after a fire.

Because of how much she cared for British soldiers, Mary felt compelled to go to Europe and nurse injured soldiers during the Crimean war. She was refused by the British War Office for racial reasons, but that didn't stop her from going to Crimea anyway. With the help of her husband's cousin, Thomas Day, she opened a "hotel" in Balaclava which was very close to the frontlines. Wounded soldiers would go to her "hotel" for treatment. She posed as a sutler, a civilian merchant who sells goods to the army, but her real intention was to treat wounded soldiers. At the time, her name was as famous as Florence Nightingale's in England, and a her autobiography, Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands was a huge hit after it was published in 1857. Regrettably, her name fell into obscurity in most of the world until 2004. A group a nurses visited London, England designing to pay their respects to Mary's grave which sparked renewed interest in this healer/explorer. She was voted the Greatest Black Briton and a statue of her was erected in 2016 at St. Thomas' Hospital on London's Southbank.

Nellie Bly: Fastest woman around the world

Nellie Bly was born in 1864 in Pennsylvania, USA, although her name at the time was Elizabeth Cochran. Tragically, her father died when she was only 6 years old, which plunged the family into financial hardship. She attended school for a while, intending to become a teacher, but due to money problems, she was forced to give up her education and move to Pittsburg with her mother where they opened a boarding house.

In 1882, at the age of 18, Nellie responded to a sexist editorial in the Pittsburg Dispatch, where the author, Erasmus Wilson, said that women were monsters for working, in a very attention grabbing way. In fact, she was able to grab the attention of the Newspaper's editor, George Madden, who offered her a job. As a writer for the Pittsburg Dispatch, Nellie wrote about women's rights issues (hell yeah!) and she started to become known for her undercover investigations. During this time she pretended to be a sweatshop worker and revealed the poor working conditions that women faced at that factory. Unfortunately, probably due to hurt egos, she was banished to the women's page, probably writing about sew patterns or recipes or something, so she left that place and moved to the big apple!

In New York she worked for the New York World and she shot to fame after she pretended to be a mentally ill person and gained access to the New York City Mental Health Hospital where she lived for 10 days and exposed the deplorable conditions there. In 1873, Jules Verne wrote Around the World in Eighty Days, which Nellie read and immediately wanted to attempt. She proposed the idea to her bosses who agreed that it would make a good story, but they wanted a man to go. Nellie dug in her heals, and finally, in 1889 she set off on her journey. In November she departed from Hoboken, NJ, and travelled by world by ship, horse, rickshaw, sampan, burro and other vehicles and animals around the world.

The news of her voyage made headlines, and people gathered to greet her and hear tales of her travels wherever she went. She travelled to England and France, Italy, Egypt, Sri Lanka, China, Singapore (where she bought a monkey) and Japan. She visited a leper colony and even participated in the Sino-Japanese war (allegedly). Pretty good considering she left the US with only the clothes on her back and a small bag.

She completed the trip in 72 days, 6 hours, 11 minutes and 14 seconds and was shot into stardom. She wrote a book about her travels, which was an instant bestseller. In 1895 she married an oil mogul who was MUCH older than her and after he died, she took over the running of his company. As the boss, she treated her employees fairly and they were able to enjoy many benefits not offered elsewhere. She also patented a lot of inventions related to the oil industry, many of which are still in use today. She gave so much to her employees that it led her to financial ruin.

In the last few years of her life she returned to writing and reported on many events related to the women's suffrage movement. Nellie passed away in 1922 from pneumonia at the age of 57.

Like I said before, this is in no way a comprehensive list of explorers, but rather the intention is to wet your appetites to learn more. Feel free to conduct your own research, or stay tuned for a "Women who Walked the World" part 2!

Sources: Editors. “Nellie Bly.” Biography, 28 Feb. 2018,

Clode, Danielle. “Friday Essay: Who Was Jeanne Barret, the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe?” The Conversation, Accessed 15 Apr. 2022.

“Mary Seacole | Biography, Facts, Family, & Nursing.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 2019,

Mary Seacole Trust. “Read Mary’s Story - Mary Seacole Trust, Life, Work & Achievements of Mary Seacole.” Mary Seacole Trust, Life, Work & Achievements of Mary Seacole, 18 May 2020,

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Nellie Bly | American Journalist.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 23 Jan. 2019,

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