10 November 2008

Social Taboos: Single Women & Travel

By Christine Koehler

I remember the story of a Victorian woman who traveled to Arabia. There she met the son of a nomad leader, horse traders I believe, and even though she was older, they fell in love and married. They were together a long time, decades, and she traveled with him and his tribe. In several journal entries she lamented the fact that he seemed not to want her anymore, though as he was getting up there in age it could have something to do with that.

Can I remember where I read this? No. Can I remember her name? No. His name? No. Can I even remember the specific wheres and whens? Nope.

So I'll post a short bit on women traveling the world alone. Even with the advent of faster travel y trains and steam ships, it was still taboo for a woman to travel alone--not with her family or a travel group.

What was a curious woman, uninterested in the mores and standards of society, to do?

Go it alone. And alone they did.

They didn't travel in groups. Don't ask me why because I haven't a clue. I guess when you're breaking standards, you do it alone. Makes more of a statement. Here are some of the more famous women who broke gender bounds and made a name for themselves.

Harriet Martineau (1807-1876): Writing made her wealthy (woo-hoo!) and she decided to travel the US. She spent two years doing so, and at the end of her travels published Society in America, which critiqued America's failure to live up to its democratic principles. She was especially concerned about the treatment of women and called one chapter "The Political Non-existence of Women". Martineau argued for an improvement in women's education, so that "marriage need not be their only object in life."

Isabella Bird (1831-1904): Born into a well-to-do evangelical family, she accompanied her father on his clerical rounds through the English countryside. It was here that she began to love the outdoors and have a passion for traveling. What's a rich woman to do? Travel through the United States, Japan, China, Korea, Persia, and Tibet. She claims to have eaten "meals of rice and beans and to have spent far too many nights in flea-ridden inns." The first woman member of the Royal Geographical Society, she was a precursor to modern anthropologists/sociologists.

Gertrude Bell (1868-1926): Traveling through Europe, she completed two 'around the world' trips. While she stayed in Mesopotamia, "she studied Arabic and rode sidesaddle across the Arabian Desert." The Arabs pronounced her a "daughter of the desert." An experienced climber, her exploits in the Alps earned her the nickname as a mountaineer.

Mary Henrietta Kinsley (1862-1900): Born in London, she was the daughter of a medical doctor who traveled extensively. A British explorer of West and Central Africa, she conducted scientific research on fish, bugs and African religious practices. After sailing, traveling by steamboat, canoeing, trekking and climbing into the Great Forest Region, she reached territory that was then seldom visited by Europeans. There are several books about her experiences in Africa.

Can you imagine traveling months to reach your destination country only to then have to travel on horseback or train or...on foot! No tour guides, no tour books, no maps! And if the people of today don't stare enough, imagine what they'd do if you were the first person outside their country they’d ever seen, let alone a single woman!