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11 True Stories of Lady Adventurers

This post originally appeared on Book Riot.

Gertrude Bell, the Female Lawrence of Arabia (Wikimedia Commons)

Gertrude Bell, the Female Lawrence of Arabia (Wikimedia Commons)

I love a good adventure story. I would never actually get on a boat going deep into the Amazon or set out to trek across the desert, but I love true stories about people braver than me risking it all in the quest for knowledge and discovery.

It can be a bit of a challenge, however, to find stories about lady adventurers. There have been fewer of them and, in many cases, their stories weren’t well documented at the time. But when a Book Riot reader asked for suggestions, I was excited to do some digging to find some possibilities to share.

For the purposes of this post, I’ve defined “adventurer” pretty broadly to include stories about women who broke barriers, broke records, or simply went above and beyond what was considered possible or even the norm for women at their time. You’re also going to see quite a few books on this list by adventuring lady journalists because they hold a special place in my heart. With all that for an introduction, let’s get to the list!

Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations by Georgina Howell – Born in 1868, Gertrude Bell (pictured above) has been called, by some, the female Lawrence of Arabia. She was a strong presence in the British Empire, studying at Oxford before starting her career as an “archaeologist, spy, Arabist, linguist, author, poet, photographer, and legendary mountaineer.” She sounds pretty awesome.

It’s What I Do by Lynsey Addario – This is one of my favorite books of the year so far. Addario is a conflict photographer who was one of the first people in Afghanistan after the United States invaded in 2001. She’s been on the front lines across the world, all in pursuit of the truth.

dust tracks on a road by zora neale hurstonDust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston – Although most of us know Hurston as a writer, she was also a folklorist and anthropologist. This 1942 autobiography is Hurston’s life in her own words.

The Discovery of Jeanne Baret by Glynis Ridley – Baret accidentally became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe in the 1700s after disguising herself as a man and serving as the assistant for her lover, botanist Philibert de Commerson. The ruse was discovered sometime in the South Pacific, but she continued with her voyage successfully.

Full Tilt: Ireland to India with a Bicycle by Dervla Murphy – This book, from 1965, is the story of Murphy’s bicycle trek from Dunkirk, across Europe, through the Middle East and the Himalayas to Pakistan and India. She traveled alone and learned about people along the way.

ada blackjack by jennifer nivenAda Blackjack: A True Story of Survival in the Arctic by Jennifer Niven – In 1921, 23-year-old Ada Blackjack joined an Arctic expedition with four Canadian men as a seamstress, hoping to earn money and find a husband. She was the only person to survive the trip.

Double Victory by Cheryl Mullenbach – African American women took on a range of adventurous jobs during World War II. This book features many of them including, “Hazel Dixon Payne, the only woman to serve on the remote Alaska-Canadian Highway; Deverne Calloway, a Red Cross worker who led a protest at an army base in India; and Betty Murphy Phillips, the only black female overseas war correspondent.”

West With the Night by Beryl Markham – Markham was born in England in 1902, but grew up with her father in Kenya. She spent her life in East Africa as an adventurer, racehorse trainer and pilot. If you’d prefer a biography over a memoir, grab Straight On Till Morning by Mary S. Lovell.

eighy days by matthew goodmanEighty Days by Matthew Goodman – In 1889, journalists Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland set out from New York City, in opposite directions, to see if they could beat the fictional journey of Phileas Fogg around the world. This book is a recounting of their rivalry, the media sensation their journey caused, and their lives after they got home.

The Woman Who Fell from the Sky by Jennifer Steil – In 2006, Steil accepted a job to teach a journalism class to the staff of The Yemen Observer. While there she learns about media in the Middle East and live in Yemen, a country that’s dangerous and difficult to understand.

Sally Ride: America’s First Woman in Space by Lynn Sherr – Sally Ride was the first American woman in space, breaking through the boys’ club of astronauts to participate in the seventh shuttle mission. I’ve heard nothing but good things about this biography. (Fun fact: The first woman to travel in space was Russian cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova in June of 1963).

So there you have it, 11 books to start with if you want to read more about adventures from awesome ladies. I’d love to hear more suggestions in the comments!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • tanya (52 books or bust) June 25, 2015, 5:59 am

    There was a great little book that came out in 2002 by Barbara Hodgson called No Place For A Lady all about women adventurers in Victorian times. I’ve always loved it and it’s what started my obsession with the likes of Gertrude Bell.

    • Kim June 28, 2015, 6:54 pm

      Thanks for the recommendation! The Gertrude Bell book I included is near the top of my list.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) June 25, 2015, 7:35 am

    I would never do those things either but sure do love to read about people who do. Great list!

  • Heather @ Capricious Reader June 25, 2015, 8:51 am

    Girl, you are murder on a TBR. I LOVE IT. So many great suggestions here. I loooooved West with the Night. It may be due a reread.

    • Kim June 28, 2015, 6:55 pm

      She sounds fascinating!

  • jenn aka the picky girl June 25, 2015, 10:50 am

    Have you not read THE BOLTER?! It would fit perfectly here!

    And yes, I agree with Heather, you ARE murder on the TBR. But I love it. 🙂

    • Kim June 28, 2015, 6:55 pm

      I haven’t, but yes, I just looked it up and it sounds totally great! I’m going to definitely look for that one.

  • Jenny @ Reading the End June 25, 2015, 2:38 pm

    And this has now become a list of books I shall purchase for my sister for the next five Christmases and birthdays. :p She loves lady explorers! I am always trying to find more lady explorer books to get her.

  • Alisande Allaben June 25, 2015, 10:11 pm

    I would recommend “Ida Tarbell: Portrait of a Muckraker.” Quoting from the back cover of the book “Ida Tarbell was one of the most powerful women of her time in the United State: admired, feared, hated. When her ‘History of the Standard Oil Company’ was published…it shook the Rockefeller interests, caused national outrage, and led the Supreme Court to fragment the giant monopoly into several corporations…” That’s a woman journalist who broke barriers.

    • Kim June 28, 2015, 6:57 pm

      Thank you! I will definitely look for that one too. I love adventuring lady journalists.

  • Shonda June 26, 2015, 8:13 am

    I would recommend “I Married Adventure” by Osa Johnson. She had many adventures in Africa with her photographer husband in the ’40s. Great reading.

  • Readerlane June 28, 2015, 9:55 am

    Great list! My TBR just jumped. You might also like The Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Discovered the Hidden Gospels by Janet Martin Soskice. Victorian ladies riding camels across the desert to a remote monastery with shelves of early manuscripts….

    • Kim June 28, 2015, 6:57 pm

      That is a good one sentence description — thanks!