Highlighting Histories: Women in Exploration

Published by Leonie Biggenden on behalf of Learning Volunteer & Women in Science Tour Guide Joanna Tindall

As a taster for the free NHM Women in Science Tours, Learning Volunteers will be sharing blogs on some pioneering women of science.  We can learn more about them, their work and share some information about the Museum’s displays and cutting-edge science.  Our second venture looks at three great and inspirational women explorers.

If you were asked to name a great explorer, names such as Captain Cook, Lewis and Clark, Sir Walter Raleigh, perhaps even Sir Hans Sloane might come to mind. These big voyages are generally reported as tales of individual heroism, with Western explorers bravely travelling to far flung reaches of the globe, bringing back all sorts of exotic goods and ‘new’ knowledge. These tales ensured these men made the history books. In the Women in Science Tour, we highlight some of the unsung heroes of the teams who made these expeditions a success and the many essential roles they played from diplomacy to cooking. Women were not just great helpers and enablers of expeditions; they have also always been explorers in their own right. This article highlights three women explorers and their extraordinary adventures.

A photograph of a statue of Gudrid-Thorbjarnardottir

Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir:

How long have women been exploring for? A very long time! Medieval Scandinavian history is recorded through the ‘Sagas’, a series of stories written in the 13th century based on oral histories1. They include the story of the Viking woman, Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir (aka Gudridur). She was born in Snæfellsnes, Iceland in at the end of the 10th century2 and travelled to Greenland, North America (where she gave birth to a son) and Rome. The stories suggest she made eight ocean voyages and crossed Europe by foot – twice!

A cartoon impression of Jeanne Baret holding some botanical specimens and dressed in a contemporary sailor's outfit.
Jeanne Baret

Jeanne Baret (Barret / Barre):

Fast forward a few hundred years and I can introduce you to Jeanne Baret. She made her name as being the first woman to circumnavigate the globe in 1776 CE3. She worked as a personal valet and botantical assistant to the physician and naturalist Philibert Commerson aboard Louis Antoine de Bourgainville’s voyage. Although Commerson was aware that Jeanne was a woman (but never admitted it) she disguised herself as a man to the other sailors successfully until they were halfway around the world, when the story goes Tahitians began chanting ‘ayenene, ayenene’ (girl, girl) upon their stop there. It was forbidden by the French royal navy for women to be invited aboard ship. Despite being found out, she completed the voyage and avoided punishment by the French navy. In fact, they even allowed her to have an annual pension in 1785 CE for her services, being named a ‘femme extraordinaire’. Commerson notes Jeanne’s botantical expertise in his records and praises the way she handled tough terrain from mountains to forests when on expedition, as well as acknowledging her science. Jeanne produced collections of plants, insects, and shells on her travels, which she curated. Thousands of her plant collections are found in the Paris Natural History Museum but, like was all too common, few give credit to Jeanne4.

Chen Ping (Sanmao / San Mao) – 1943 – 1991:

San Mao was the pen-name of a Chinese woman travel writer (a.k.a. Echo in the English speaking world). Her travel bug was inspired by reading articles in the National Geographic, particularly of those depicting the Sahara desert. At about 24 years old she left China for Europe, firstly to Germany, then the US, Spain and eventually to cross the Sahara desert1. Her travels took her to 55 countries around the world1. She wrote of her travels in the Taiwan United Daily News discussing the contrasts between her western ideals of feminism and the observations of her life on her travels in the Muslim world1. Whilst her writing grew a devoted readership, keen to hear of her adventures, her lifestyle was not without danger. She reportedly fended off violent attacks by men and escaped the police who were keen to arrest her for driving illegally. Chen’s work was important because it provided China with a taste of multiculturalism through her reports of life outside the country and inspired women, particularly in Taiwan and China, that adventure was possible for them too5. In 1974 her essays were published as a book “Stories of the Sahara”, although across her active writing career she produced 23 works5,6.

Here are just three examples of women explorers in history, beating the odds to have their own big adventures and contribute to furthering people’s knowledge. Of course, anyone can have an adventure and discover something new, even without exploring far off lands – perhaps you will notice something new on a walk today? or maybe visit somewhere new this weekend? But next time you hear of the stories of the great explorers and the ‘Age of Exploration’ don’t forget that women have been out there exploring new places for just as long!

If you enjoyed this blog, you may like to come on a free Highlighting Histories: Women in Science Tour at the NHM where you can discover the fascinating work of women scientists past and present. 


1] https://www.womeninexploration.org/timeline/gudrid-thorbjarnardottir/

2] Jenny Jochens, « Gudrid Thorbjarnardottir », Clio. Histoire‚ femmes et sociétés [En ligne], 28 | 2008, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2011, consulté le 30 mai 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/clio/7703 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/clio.7703

Image: File:Gudrid statue commémo Islande 01.jpg – Wikimedia Commons

3] Schiebinger, L. (2003) ‘Jeann Baret: the first woman to circumnavigate the globe’, Endeavour, 27, pp. 22 – 25.

4] https://theconversation.com/friday-essay-who-was-jeanne-barret-the-first-woman-to-circumnavigate-the-globe-146296

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jeanne_Barret.jpg

5] Sanmao, Desert Explorer, Inspired Millions of Asian Women to Adventure (adventure-journal.com)

6] Miriam Lang (1999) ‘San Mao and the Known World’. PhD Thesis – Australian National University.