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Women on the Road

Women Travel Writers
There may not be many, but there are more than you think!

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And they rock.

So many travel stories have been written by men over time that when the rare female travel writer emerges, she seems an unexpected exception - at least that how it has been. Now, that is changing.

I've always been fascinated by women who make their living travel writing - so much so that I've had a modest go at it myself, first as a journalist, and now with this website.

That's me, learning first-hand about whale-watching off the coast of Vancouver Island.

While I wouldn't say that reading the words of those who went before were the only reason I started travel writing, I do know they inspired me - at times to travel (as though I needed inspiration!) and at times to write about it.

There's something romantic and daring - even spiritual - about discovering a new place (new at least to you). Even solitude has its glow, providing time to think and just be, especially if you are traveling solo.

For me, travel writing is something very unrestrictive. It includes everything from armchair travel writing to journaling while on an expedition to war correspondence to writing about poverty.

Throughout the ages, women have traveled and written about their experiences. Whether for pleasure, pilgrimage, or work, the stories of these women travel writers are an inspiration for modern women who venture off the beaten track.

Travel writing by women is more than about places - it's about how women cope with being women in a foreign land.

And this is how I coped in Morocco.

Once upon a time

Travel writing by and for women has come a long way - from records of pilgrimages and family trips in Antiquity and the Middle Ages, to documenting the exploits of modern day journalists.

There are plenty of types of travel book of interest to women. One of the most upcoming genres is the reference travel book or the travel tips book, in which women share not only their exploits but what they've learned along the way. These are general travel books - because they're not linked to a destination - and are designed to help you plan and execute your journey from beginning to end.

It isn't easy to make a living as a travel writer. Travel writing is like any other kind of writing, it takes practice and it's a skill that must be honed. In the same way picking up a camera does not a photographer make, you don't become a writer by knowing how to type and travel - although this is definitely a good first step!

There are many roads to becoming a travel writer. Excellent courses are available, both residential and online, as are books about travel writing and memoirs by those those who succeeded. Plenty of outstanding travel, geographical and political magazines provide examples of superb writing.

Today, we have access to outstanding resources.

That wasn't always the case.

Early women's travel writing

Early travel writing by women isn't quite a genre, and admittedly there were few women travel writers in Ancient times.

Those women who could write tended not to travel - they were often nuns. Those who did travel usually did so with their husbands - and often couldn't write. We often have to read books by men to find out about women who traveled...

They were from many parts of the world - Ban Zhao from China, Eudocia Augusta from Athens, Sugarawara no Takasue no musume from Japan, Margery Kempe from England, Gulbadan Bigam from Afghanistan... these women, who often lived at court or were at least well-off, wrote mostly of their pilgrimages and of travels with their husbands.

Sometime around the 17th century female travel writing began to portray women traveling on their own or simply for pleasure. The Frenchwoman Marie Catherine le Jumel de Barneville, Baronness d'Aulnoy, traveled extensively in Spain and England and wrote her most popular works based on these trips.

It took the 18th century to see a dramatic proliferation of travel writing by women - again, largely because more women were learning to write.

Travel was also becoming more common, for leisure as well as business. Women often accompanied their husbands on trips and had plenty of free time to write their memoirs and tales of travel. People were also beginning to travel longer distances - especially the English, who wandered not only to the sunny South of Europe but far afield to Africa and Asia.

Mary Wollestronecraft

A wave of intrepid English women travelers left their mark on literature during this period. Elizabeth Craven wrote about her travels through Crimea and Constantinople - and her description of the Ottomans was scathing: they were clumsy, lazy, politically corrupt, corpulent - and Turkish coffee was bad. The editorial (as opposed to descriptive) style of writing was being shaped but often, the comparisons fared badly, with new lands comparing poorly to back home.

Thankfully, not everyone was this critical.

Mary Wollstonecraft, an early women's advocate and philosopher, traveled to Scandinavia, describing the breathtaking scenery and her connection to it. Mariana Starke wrote the first European travel guide, and May Crommelin, from northern Ireland, went further afield, to the Andes, the Caribbean and North Africa.

It took time to take off, but early women's travel writing paved the way for the 20th-century women who would scour the world and write about it.

Intrepid women travel writers

The intrepid women travel writers of the 20th century were as affected by the expansion of air travel as were their earlier compatriots by rail travel in the 19th century. Women traveled more for business, and became independent. From that freedom was born a wave of travel writing by women that continues to amaze by its honesty and richness.

Bedouins in the Arab Desert around the mid-20th century

Dame Freya Madeleine Stark was one of the first Western women to travel through the Arabian deserts. She often traveled alone into areas where few Europeans - and even fewer women - had ever been.

Frenchwoman Alexandra David-Neel  made history in the early 1900s by walking, disguised as a male beggar, from China across Tibet and into the forbidden city, which she was the first Western woman ever to enter. She lived more than a century - and surprised her local authorities by requesting a new passport at the ripe old age of 100!

Another of the inspiring and intrepid women travel writers and one of my favorites is the Swiss Ella Maillart, know as Kini to friends. A pro-level skiier and sailor, Maillart died in 1997 at the age of 94, having criss-crossed Asia a number of times. Whether in Moscow with the Countess Tolstoy or across Central Asia on her own (read Turkestan Solo), she brilliantly documented her trips in words and pictures - the quintessential 20th century photojournalist.

If you ever visit Ethiopia's Simien Mountains you'll understand how enormous a feat crossing them was - as did Dervla Murphy. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

And who doesn't know the prolific Dervla Murphy - the older she gets the more intrepid, it seems! Her autobiography, Wheels Within Wheels, tells it all. Born in 1931, she cut her travel teeth on bicycle trips across Europe but graduated to world-class journeys when one blustery day in 1963 she set off on Roz, her Armstrong Cadet, to cycle from Ireland to India. She hasn't stopped since. I've had the privilege of almost running into her twice on my travels, once in Uganda and once in Laos. I admit I took advantage of that coincidence to write to her - and to my amazement I received a lovely typed postcard back!

As I flew low in a tiny plane over the spiky Simien Mountains in Ethiopia one day, I looked down in awe, recalling Dervla's In Ethiopia With a Mule, wondering how she ever made it across. And in Uganda and Kenya, I was reminded of The Ukimwi Road, which documented the spread of AIDS along Africa's trucking routes - written when the epidemic was still new.

Contemporary women travel writers

Today's young (and less young) contemporary women travel writers - writers who write of a place, its people and the events surrounding them - are in every way as inspirational as the women who preceded them.

Take journalists such as Kate Adie, former Chief News Correspondent of the BBC. Her travels took her to the major conflicts of the latter part of the 20th century - Rwanda, Yugoslavia, Tiananmen Square, Sierra Leone - and are brilliantly documented in her first book, the autobiographical The Kindness of Strangers. While we may not want to follow right in her footsteps, the ground she broke and the courage with which she did it are inspiring. Today she leads a calmer life and presents a journalism program on the BBC.

And who hasn't heard of Elizabeth Gilbert, who already in her twenties began winning awards most of us would be content to have at the end of our careers. Her recent memoir of a year's personal exploration, Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything, Across Italy, India and Indonesia, got her onto the New York Times bestsellers' list and has become a major Hollywood movie.

Today's best women writers on travel are just emerging - and perhaps soon the lists of best travel books and writers will contain as many women as they do men. 

Which women travel writers would you recommend?

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