March 8th is International Women’s Day, the perfect opportunity to celebrate the achievements of women in travel. From the unsung heroes of WWII, to the explorer often confused with Disney’s Pocahontas, here is a collection of inspirational figures who pushed the boundaries for women throughout history (and let’s not forget, women over 21 didn’t get to vote until 1928, making their triumphs even more incredible).
Possibly the most memorialised woman in the United States, Sacagawea lived a short but legendarily eventful life in the American West. Her story is often intertwined with that of Pocahontas, since factual documents are difficult to find in Native American history. She earned her glory by leading Lewis and Clark on their famous expedition to find the Pacific Ocean.
In the summer of 1803, President Jefferson ordered the Corps of Discovery, led by Lewis and Clark, to explore newly acquired lands in the American Northwest. Sacagawea was the only woman in an expedition made up of another 32 male members. Her husband was the one officially hired by the Corps, with Sacagawea only accompanying him, but her skills as a translator proved to be invaluable, as was her intimate knowledge of the Rocky Mountain terrain. Her presence was reported to have a calming effect on any Native Americans they encountered during their travels.
During their adventure, a heavy windstorm almost overturned one of the expedition’s boats. They lost medicine, gun powder and seeds. Sacajawea acted quickly, saving most of their research notes, books and instruments. In recognition of her actions a river in North Central Montana was named after her.
Perhaps most remarkably of all, Sacajawea did it all while caring for her newborn son, who was only 55 days old when the expedition left Fort Mandan, embarking on their journey that would cover 5,000 miles and last 16 months.
Mary Breed Hawley Myers (1849 – 1932) a.ka Carlotta, the Lady Aeronaut
Mary Breed Hawley’s journey to success began when she married Carl Myers, an inventor of balloon fabric and self-taught scientist. Mary assisted her husband in his experiments at their home in Mohawk, NY, keeping records, sewing and testing fabric segments and studying what little literature was available on meteorology and ballooning. They used to hire professional aeronauts to test their balloons, then one day in 1880 Carl Myers decided to go up himself.
As she watched her husband ascend in his balloons day after day, Mary resolved that she would like to fly too. She adopted the moniker Carlotta, the Lady Aeronaut and on 4th July 1880, in Little Falls, New York, she made her maiden balloon voyage in front of a crowd of 15,000 viewers.
She was the first woman in the United States to pilot her own aircraft, and set many records for balloon flights. She set a new world altitude record of four miles, in a balloon filled with natural gas and ascended to this height without benefit of oxygen equipment. She set a record for the most one-woman piloted balloon trips in the 19th century. Mary had also made more balloon flights than any man in America by the time she retired in 1891.
Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman) – 1864-1922
Journalist Elizabeth Cochrane Seaman, better known as Nellie Bly, was a pioneer of investigative journalism in the 1800’s. However, the peak of her fame came when she attempted to beat the record of Phineas Fogg, the fictional hero of Jules Verne’s novel, Around the World in Eighty Days.
Nellie Bly traveled mostly alone for 24,899 miles, and completed her journey exactly 72 days, 6 hours, and 11 minutes from the day she began her trip, using ship, train and burro to return to New York. Though her record was beaten only a few months later, she was the first to make the attempt, earning her respect that has lasted throughout history.
The WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots) and the ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary)- World War II
“You don’t need legislation to prove something…you can be whatever you set your heart and head to be, and don’t let anybody tell you can’t be, because 1078 women pilots did it in World War II.”
WASP Annelle Henderson Bulechek
1,074 women piloted warplanes in WWII, embarking on such dangerous work that 38 of these women lost their lives while on missions. With the need to free up American men for combat positions, the U.S military desperately needed more pilots. In 1942 they formed an experimental program called Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) in which they would train young female pilots to fly war machines. Many women jumped at this chance, with over 25,000 applications. Only 1,830 were accepted into training.
Although not on the front lines, the work carried risks. They ferried planes from factory to military bases, tested newly overhauled planes, and towed targets to give gunners shooting practice – with live ammunition. Their safety record equaled and sometimes excelled that of their male counterparts. In 1943, women made up 30% of the American Aviation Industry.
Collectively, The WASPs flew more than 60 million miles before the program ended in December 1944. As the war came to a close, WASP was shut down to give their jobs back to male pilots returning from combat. Despite their service, WASP pilots were seen as civilians and did not become recognized as military personnel until 1977. None of them received the pension of benefits that came with official military service. However, in 2010, President Obama honored them with the congressional gold medal.
The ATA (Air Transport Auxiliary) served as the British version of WASP, with 166 female pilots transporting aircraft, mail, medical supplies, and personnel. Notably, the female ATA pilots were paid exactly the same as their male colleagues, a first for the British Government.
Amy Johnson, C.B.E (1903-1941)
In 1940, famed Amy Johnson, C.B.E, joined the ATA. Having previously left behind her record-breaking career in the skies, the war effort made her reconsider her role. Amy was the first woman to fly solo from England to Australia (1930). In 1931, Johnson and her co-pilot became the first to fly from London to Moscow in one day, completing the 1,760 mile journey in approximately 21 hours. From there, they continued across Siberia and on to Tokyo, setting a record time for flying from Britain to Japan.
Amy died in service to the ATA, crash landing into the sea off the Kent coast near Herne Bay, and Britain lost a beloved heroine. She inspired a generation to break free from a life of domestic drudgery and instead to seek out adventure and romance. Her death has been shrouded in mystery, since her body was never recovered and no one can be sure why she was flying so far off course. The widely believed theory is that she became lost in thick fog with a broken compass and spotted a Royal Navy convoy as her fuel ran out, so decided to ditch in the water.
Written by Kelly Barrett