Ten Inspirational Women Travelers

Lists: Julia Ross celebrates women who have blazed their own trails

06.18.09 | 10:13 AM ET

Maureen Wheeler (Photo reproduced with permission of Lonely Planet)

No, we likely wouldn’t publish a list of 10 inspirational male travelers. But men and women experience travel differently and face different obstacles in making travel a part of their lives, so let’s recognize a few women who have blazed the trail. Here, in no particular order, are 10 women—past and present—who have inspired others through their travels, whether by making the world a richer place, contributing to cross-cultural understanding, or simply pursuing their dreams.

1)  Maureen Wheeler

The Belfast-born cofounder of publishing powerhouse Lonely Planet, Wheeler and her husband Tony get our vote as the patron saints of independent travel. The couple wrote their first guidebook, “Across Asia on the Cheap,” at their kitchen table in 1973, detailing a six-month overland trip from London to Australia. It spawned a global empire. By 2008, what began as an effort to guide travelers across the Hippie Trail had yielded annual sales of more than six million books per year. Maureen still travels and writes. Lonely Planet guides have taken countless travelers faithfully through China, Thailand, New York City and beyond.

2) Martha Gellhorn

One of the great U.S. war correspondents of the 20th century, Gellhorn covered every major conflict from the Spanish Civil War to the U.S. invasion of Panama, describing the human toll of war for hungry American readers. She began her career in 1930s Spain, crossing over land, alone, with only a little cash and a knapsack. She went ashore as a stretcher-bearer with U.S. troops at Normandy; reported from hospitals and orphanages during the Vietnam War; and continued writing about the wider world well into her 80s. This wonderful Salon obituary provides testament to Gellhorn’s character—an agile and curious mind to the end.

3) Julia Child

Julia Child (Reuters)

She’s been gone a few years now, but oh, how her legacy lives on. Long before she became a beloved presence in America’s kitchens, Child satisfied a thirst for adventure by signing on as one of the first female spies in the OSS (forerunner to the CIA), which posted her to Sri Lanka and China during World War II. From there, she married into the Foreign Service, landed in Paris in 1948, enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu, and the rest is history. Child’s soufflés and sauces have inspired everyone from Emeril Lagasse to Alice Waters to striving culinary bloggers, revolutionizing American cooking along the way. For her life’s work as perhaps the best cultural ambassador ever to bridge two sides of the Atlantic, she received both the French Legion of Honor and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom.

4) Margaret Bourke-White

Another traveler who came into her own during wartime, this groundbreaking photojournalist seemed to be everywhere at once, snapping history’s great moments for Fortune and Life magazines. The first woman to be allowed to work in combat zones during World War II, Bourke-White photographed the conflict from all angles—North Africa, Italy, Germany and Russia—at times tagging along with Patton’s Army. After the war, she continued to ply her trade in places like India and Pakistan, where she recorded the violence of partition and took iconic photos of Gandhi, for which she remains well-known.

5) Annie Griffiths Belt

When Belt’s work goes on display at National Geographic headquarters in Washington, DC, where she works as a staff photographer, I make sure to visit. Israeli soldiers, Burmese refugees, Hong Kong opera stars—Belt’s images lay bare the joy and pain of the human experience and somehow bring the world a little closer. What’s even better: The woman’s got a dream job but also makes time to produce pictures for aid organizations like Habitat for Humanity. Her photo memoir, A Camera, Two Kids and A Camel, chronicles her travels to the world’s far outposts while toting two kids. As any working mom will tell you: Impressive.

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Julia Ross is a Washington, DC-based writer and frequent contributor to World Hum. She has lived in China and Taiwan, where she was a Fulbright scholar and Mandarin student. Her writing has appeared in the Washington Post, Time, Christian Science Monitor, Plenty and other publications. Her essay, Six Degrees of Vietnam, was shortlisted for "The Best American Travel Writing 2009."

9 Comments for Ten Inspirational Women Travelers

Terry Ward 06.18.09 | 11:57 AM ET

Thanks for the introduction to Jo Rawlins Gilbert, Julia. Nice roundup!

Jenny 06.18.09 | 4:30 PM ET

How wonderful! What a great article. I would respectfully add Dervla Murphy to this list. Irishwoman born in the 1930’s who rode her bike alone through the Middle East in the the 1960’s and wrote a book afterwards, Full Tilt (among other titles to her credit).

David C. 06.19.09 | 3:02 PM ET

Julia, thanks for your new list of women world travelers.  I’ve had the honor of traveling with Jo Rawlins Gilbert in Iraq and can personally vouch for her adventurous spirit.  She’s tough as nails, but with a heart of gold.  Jo is the real thing!

Scribetrotter 06.20.09 | 6:57 AM ET

As of a couple of years ago, Dervla was still on the road… she must be close to 80 by now and still going strong.

Jo Rawlins Gilbert 06.20.09 | 11:46 AM ET

I’m certainly honored to be included in the listing of Inspirational Women Travelers, but do want to name three other women who led the way:  Freya Stark, who traveled from the Himalayas to the desert; Alexandra David-Neel, who was one of the first Westerners into Lhasa, and Anne Blunt, who left sketches of her wanderings into what we now know as Saudi Arabia.

Julia Ross 06.20.09 | 5:53 PM ET

Thanks for your comment.  Given your seemingly indefatigable thirst for travel, I was happy to include you.  Freya Stark, Alexandra David-Neel, and Dervla Murphy were certainly contenders for the list as well. Impressive women all. I had not heard of Anne Blunt, but I’ll have to research her now that you’ve brought her to my attention.

I look forward to checking in with your blog regularly.  I only hope I have half your energy in my retirement years !  Julia

Vani 06.24.09 | 9:59 AM ET

Great list! But you can’t leave out Isabella Bird, 19th century English traveler and writer. She defined the word “intrepid.”

Nancy D. Brown 06.28.09 | 4:23 PM ET

Nice list. My current day hero is Beth Whitman, blogger at Wanderlust and Lipstick and intrepid solo traveler. http://wanderlustandlipstick.com/about-us/

Kim Baughman 07.24.09 | 5:25 PM ET

As a retired Probation Officer from San Mateo County, Jo Gilbert and I are part of a monthly coffee group.  I asked her why she doesn’t travel to European destinations such as Austria (where I was about to go).  Her reply was “I am saving these places for a time when I am no longer physically able to travel to the more adventurous places of interest”.  She is now 80 years young and still going.  I on the other hand am 64 and no way could I keep up.  She is pure inspiration to us all.

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