For International Women’s Day, I’m taking a look at three remarkable women travellers who lived life according to their own rules, and made a great success of it.  

Isabella Bird


Isabella Bird, from The Life of Isabella Bird (Anna M Stoddart, 1906)

From the moment she stepped ashore in Hawaii in 1872, Isabella Bird was struck by the freedom of the local women.  At a traditional welcome party, a group of about 200 horses stood ready;  Isabella’s keen eyes flickered over their Mexican saddles, which had big lassoing horns in front, and enormous wooden stirrups.   She wrote with envy:  ’Every now and then a flower-wreathed Hawaiian woman, in her full, radiant garment, sprang on one of these animals astride and dashed along the road at full gallop, sitting on her horse as square and easy as a hussar.’  

Hawaiian women obviously suffered none of the ridiculous constraints that forced women back in Britain to ride side-saddle.  A superb horsewoman herself, Isabella was soon copying them and enjoying herself immensely:  her only nod to decorum was to arrange the flowing folds of the traditional Hawaiian riding dress so that they concealed her legs.  A few months later, she had moved on to the Rocky Mountains of Colorado and was galloping around after herds of cattle, keeping up with the toughest of the Wild West cowboys and loving every second. 

Isabella even carried a gun, but she had misgivings about it.  She wrote:  ‘I left Estes Park with a Sharp’s revolver loaded with ball-cartridge in my pocket, which has been the plague of my life.  Its bright ominous barrel peeped out in quiet Denver shops, children pulled it out to play with, or when my riding-dress hung up with it in the pocket, pulled the whole from the peg to the floor.’  She did, however, occasionally take comfort from being armed, especially when she came across a group of rough-looking hunters sitting around a camp fire.  She wrote to her sister reassuringly:  ‘Last night… I took [the revolver] out, cleaned and oiled it, and laid it under my pillow, resolving to keep awake all night.’  Despite her best efforts, she dozed off and slept soundly until morning.

Isabella Bird became a member of RSGS when it was founded in 1884;   in 1890, she was the first woman to receive Honorary Fellowship. 

Mary Kingsley


Mary Kingsley

About 20 years later, in the rainforests of equatorial West Africa, Mary Kingsley was having similar reservations about guns.  She had taken herself there alone, with the intention of continuing her late father’s natural history studies;  she also wanted to visit the Fang people and learn about their spiritual beliefs.  There were many risks involved, and most visitors to Africa at that time thought nothing of carrying a gun.  Mary disagreed:  ‘As for flourishing about a revolver and threatening to fire,’ she wrote, ‘I hold it utter idiocy.’  Furthermore, ‘after wading neck deep in a swamp your revolver is neither use nor ornament until you have had time to clean it.’ 

Unlike Isabella, however, Mary saw no reason to deviate from the strict dress code of Victorian women, even in the tropical climate.  Her friends back home had advised her to wear men’s clothes for practicality, but she was having none of it.  When she stumbled into a concealed game pit, she felt she had nothing more to prove, because, ‘save for a good many bruises, here I was with the fulness of my skirt tucked under me, sitting on nine ebony spikes some twelve inches long, in comparative comfort, howling lustily to be hauled out.’  Had she been wearing men’s breeches, she wrote, she would have been ‘spiked to the bone.’

Nor was Mary particularly intimidated by the wildlife, although she kept well clear of the enormous hippos that lined the banks of the Ogowe river.  Woken one night by a terrible commotion outside her hut, she ran out and saw a leopard attacking one of the half-wild local dogs.  Instinctively, she grabbed a couple of wooden stools and threw them smartly at the animals.  The leopard ran off, leaving her with a fleeting impression of its ‘great, beautiful lambent eyes.’ 

Mary won the trust and respect of the Fang people in Cameroon, and on her return to Britain she spoke out forcefully against the many unsympathetic ways in which Africa was being governed by western nations.  She wrote that if African people resisted this change, it resulted from an unwillingness to be ‘dispossessed alike of power and property in what they regard as their own country.’   She added:  ‘I openly own that if I have a soft spot in my feelings it is towards African women;  and the close contact I have lived in with them has… I venture to think, made me understand them.’ 

Mary Kingsley delivered her first ever public lecture to an RSGS audience in Edinburgh in 1896.

Isobel Wylie Hutchison


Isobel Wylie Hutchison in Alaska (RSGS Collections)

Women travelling solo in former centuries had other issues to deal with, too, including the risk to their reputations if they so much as slept in the same room as a man.   Even in the 1930s this stigma persisted, although it didn’t deter Scotswoman Isobel Wylie Hutchison from accepting a rather unorthodox offer of accommodation from a lone fur-trader and dog-musher with a knowing twinkle in his blue eyes.

In the autumn of 1933, Isobel had got herself to Barrow in the High Arctic by means of passenger ship, railway, paddle steamer, small aircraft and coastal trading vessel.  When the sea began to freeze over, it looked as if her plant-collecting expedition was coming to a premature close… but then came a chance meeting with Gus Masik, whose cabin happened to lie on Isobel’s intended route to Aklavik on the Mackenzie Delta. 

Seeing a way out of her immediate predicament, Isobel impulsively accepted Gus’s offer to put her up for a few weeks if he couldn’t take her any further by motorboat.   Then, when she got to the lonely sandspit on which the cabin was situated, she found that it consisted of a single room.  Isobel’s tentative suggestion that she could sleep in the entrance passage with the sledge dogs provoked a scornful reply from Gus:  ‘What!  And freeze to death!  Nothing doing!’  So she settled for draping an awning over her camp bed, giving some degree of privacy. 

Isobel paid Gus one and a half dollars per day for her board and lodging.  By making it out to be a formal undertaking and describing him as a considerate host, she neatly glossed over the issue of possible impropriety.  Her readers had to be satisfied - but, from our own perspective in the 21st century, it seems wrong that she had to explain herself in this way.  Why should a woman not be free to behave as she chooses, basing her decisions on real risks to her safety, rather than the judgmental views of society?  At least, in Isobel’s case, she never let such considerations influence her actions.   Like Isabella Bird and Mary Kingsley before her, she blazed her own trail because doing what she wanted to do mattered more than what the rest of the world thought. 

In 1934, Isobel Wylie Hutchison was the first woman to receive the RSGS Mungo Park Medal.  She was for many years Honorary Editor of the Scottish Geographical Magazine and a Vice President of RSGS.

Quotes and reference:

Isabella Bird, Six Months in the Sandwich Islands (1874)

Isabella Bird, A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains (1879)

Mary Kingsley, Travels in West Africa (1897)

Mary Kingsley, West African Studies (1899)

Isobel Wylie Hutchison, North to the Rime-ringed Sun (1934)