Ten Inspirational Women Travelers

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

6) Melinda Gates

Melinda and Bill Gates in Mozambique. REUTERS/Jeff Christensen

When you’re one of the world’s wealthiest philanthropists, it’s probably easy to delegate. But former Microsoft executive Melinda Gates is out on the front lines, traveling to places like Kenya and Bangladesh to try to figure out what works in the fight against global poverty and disease. When the co-chairs of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation travel together, it’s Melinda who connects with people in the tuberculosis ward, balancing her husband’s technocratic approach. But it’s her leadership in tackling some of the world’s great transnational threats that makes her a role model for anyone who cares about the plight of people beyond their own back yard.

7) Gertrude Bell

Was there anything this woman couldn’t do? Archaeologist, linguist, writer, diplomat—Bell was a renaissance woman to be reckoned with. One of Britain’s leading Arabists, she spent much of her life roaming the deserts of the Middle East and is credited as being the architect of modern-day Iraq. Interestingly, her letters from that country were being circulated at the Pentagon as recently as three years ago in an effort to make sense of post-invasion chaos.

8) Samantha Power

What to say about the brilliant, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, lawyer and academic? Power’s incisive reporting from places like Sudan, Bosnia and Rwanda has secured her place as one of the world’s leading thinkers on U.S. foreign policy, human rights and genocide. For the rest of us, outside the foreign policy stratosphere, her writing exposes thorny issues that lie at the nexus of politics and culture—issues we debate with ourselves and others as we travel. Power recently took a senior post on the National Security Council, but here’s hoping her journalism sees a second life. The woman’s still under 40, after all.

9) Naomi Duguid

It’s fitting that Canadian food writer Duguid met her husband, Jeffrey Alford, on a rooftop in Lhasa in 1985. She gave up the practice of law that summer, and the two decided to devote their lives to traveling across Asia, photographing and writing about food cultures for a series of award-winning cookbooks. A recent New Yorker profile dubbed Duguid and Alford “culinary geographers,” a role that’s showcased nicely in their most recent book, Beyond the Great Wall: Recipes and Travels in the Other China. Just as the book describes the pulled noodles and flatbreads of China’s minority regions, it examines how these cultures are struggling to survive in the face of massive Han Chinese migration. Given their political bent, it’ll be interesting to see how Duguid and Alford treat their next subject: Myanmar (Burma).

10) Jo Rawlins Gilbert

Never heard of Ms. Gilbert? She appeared in a recent New York Times story on the first group of tourists to visit post-war Iraq. There she was, in the lede paragraph: A 79-year-old retired probation officer from California who said of Baghdad, “If it opened up, I wanted to go.” Googling Gilbert turns up her wonderfully written travel blog, in which she has chronicled recent trips to Mali (camping) and Jordan (digging among ruins) in a wry and practical voice. She’s been to Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, and says Kashmir and North Korea are on her list. Best of all, she provides cost and tour information for each trip, making even the wildest adventure sound perfectly within reach.

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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