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The Girl Explorers, by Jayne Zanglein


I do love travel, as you’ve probably gathered by the number of globetrotting tomes that have made it into my weekly reviews. And I’ve long enjoyed the tales of daring women who undertook adventures around the world, having read books by or about such adventurers as Gertrude BellIsabella BirdNellie BlyIsabelle EberhardtAlexandra David-NéelDervla Murphy, and Freya Stark. What is nice about The Girl Explorers, by Jayne Zanglein, first published in 2021, is that it doesn’t retell the stories of those famous women. There are many more stories to be told!

The author was led to her research by finding the story of Blair Niles.

I was immediately taken aback by this woman. Blair was born on a Virginia plantation in 1880, surrounded by freed slaves. Nearly two decades earlier, her maternal grandfather, a Virginia congressman [Roger Atkinson Pryor], had provoked the Confederacy into launching the Civil War against the Union. When Blair was a child, her mother started a mixed-race night school to educate Blair, her brothers, and the children of the household’s former slaves. She did this to expose her children to diverse viewpoints at a time when the family could not afford to send them off to school. Because of her mother’s influence, and in spite of her grandfather’s reputation, Blair became an advocate for marginalized and oppressed people.

Although Blair is remembered as the author of the first compassionate book about gay people in Harlem (Strange Brother), her books on the brutal treatment of prisoners in French Guiana (Condemned to Devil’s Island), the uprising of slaves during the Haitian Revolution (Black Haiti: A Biography of Africa’s Eldest Daughter), and the mutiny of the Amistad slave ship (East by Day) have been forgotten. Also overlooked is Blair’s role in founding the Society of Women Geographers, an organization with more than 500 members worldwide that will soon celebrate its one hundredth anniversary.

She helped found that organization because the famous Explorers Club, founded in 1904 as both a professional society to promote scientific exploration and a hangout for gents to swap tall tales, refused to admit women. The head of that latter organization, Roy Chapman Andrews, had declared women “temperamentally unfit” for exploration.

The Girl Explorers, while it doesn’t include the well-known women I mentioned in the first paragraph, does include a few famous names, like Amelia Earhart and Margaret Mead. But the majority of those profiled are people whose adventures and scientific work has been overlooked.

We learn about Gloria Hollister, who had a Master’s Degree in zoology from Columbia, and who had developed a technique for making fish specimens transparent, the better to study their skeletal structure. She was the first woman to explore the ocean by being lowered hundreds of feet in a bathysphere, a metal globe with portholes lowered by cable. Another woman, Else Bostlemann, worked out a way to paint underwater aquatic life off Bermuda. She would climb down the boat ladder into the sea, then have the crew lower a copper diving helmet over her, which she then used to descend dozens of feet below the surface.

We meet Elizabeth Dickey, a South American explore who stunned an audience with her show-and-tell of a shrunken head from the Jivaro tribe in Ecuador.

”Here’s one,” she said, as she pulled it out of a box. “This is a particularly beautiful specimen.”

As she held the head high, long black hair dangled from its sides—two ribbons made of iridescent insect wings nestled against its hair. Absentmindedly, Elizabeth stroked the head as she explained why the man had been killed.

We meet Annie Peck, who began mountain climbing at the age of 45, when many men start to consider themselves too old. At age 58, she was the first American to summit Mount Huascarán in Peru. At age 60, she climbed to the top of the eastern peak of Peru’s Mount Coropuna and planted a “Votes for Women” flag.

And so many more amazing stories. Some of these women traveled solo, and some accompanied their husbands of scientific expeditions. Osa Johnson, for example, traveled the world with her husband collaborating on documentary films. Mickie Akeley went on African safaris with her taxidermist husband, and quickly learned to be a crack shot. Out of necessity, she once took down a charging bull elephant just six feet from where she stood.

The special appeal of this book is how the author brings in the lives of these women explorers from the late nineteenth century into the mid-twentieth century as they interact with the suffragist movement, the civil rights movement and early fights for gay/lesbian rights. Not all were explicitly politically active, but many were. These women were adventurous in both their travels and in their social outlooks.