Rebel Women of the Past

The summer term had just started when my 7-year old daughter came home from school lamenting the injustices of life.

“Mummy, we’re learning about explorers this term, but they’re all boys! I’m a girl, so I want to learn about girl explorers!”

Indeed. My daughter wasn’t content with reading about the likes of Christopher Columbus, James Cook and Sir Francis Drake, so I set about looking for notable women explorers of the past. And there are quite a few although history hasn’t afforded them nearly as much attention as their male counterparts.
imgresThere’s Jeanne Baret, a French sailor and botanist who became the first woman to circumnavigate the world, albeit disguised as a man since the French Navy didn’t allow women on their ships.

Born in 1740 in the Loire Valley to a family of modest means, Jeanne learned early on to identify plants and their medicinal uses, earning her the reputation as a ‘herb woman.’

Sailing to Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo and Patagonia under the assumed name of Jean Baret until her identity was eventually discovered when the ship reached Tahiti, Jeanne played a key role in identifying hundreds of plant species, including the bougainvillaea, named after the French admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, on whose ship she sailed.

imgres-2The daughter of a Shoshone chief, Sacagawea was born around 1788 in Idaho and grew up to be a Shoshone interpreter. When she was 12, Sacagawea was kidnapped by another tribe and later sold to a French trapper. She was the only woman to serve on the Lewis and Clark expedition into the American West. Aside from being the only Shoshone speaker, Sacagawea’s knowledge of native plants and terrain contributed greatly to the success of the expedition.

While American history teaches us that two men, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were the explorers who mapped out the north-western United States, it was Sacagawea, still only a teenager, who negotiated their peaceful passage through Native American territories and provided much of the food by gathering edible plants along the way. Without her, Lewis and Clark would most likely not have reached the Pacific Ocean alive and well.

imgres-1Mary Kingsley is perhaps the best-known female explorer in history. For much of the late 1800s, she travelled on her own throughout West Africa, often living among the people she met there. In doing so, she played a major role in breaking down stereotypes about gender and race.

Firstly, she challenged Victorian ideas of gender roles by travelling to Africa and studying African societies, something that was considered an exclusively male occupation.

Women in Victorian England were discouraged from participating in sciences, and despite her scientific achievements, Mary was discriminated against based on her gender and prevented from joining many geographical and anthropological societies.

Secondly, Mary challenged European stereotypes about African cultures, disproving the popular belief that Africans were primitive savages with no culture. Not only did she prove that African societies were highly complex, but she also showed that some parts of African societies, including legal systems, were strikingly similar to their European counterparts.

Although Mary was still an imperialist and didn’t go as far as to say that Africans and Europeans were equal, she played an important part in educating the British colonialists about the complexities of African societies, and she was a fierce critic of the way white Europeans treated black Africans.

Mary, Jeanne and Sacagawea are but a few of the many women of the past whose contributions to the social and natural sciences are no less worthy of recognition than those of their male contemporaries. Still, the history taught in schools across Europe and the United States is overwhelmingly the history of white European men.

My daughter is absolutely right that girls (and boys) her age must have the opportunity to learn about female explorers, scientists, etc. The way history is taught needs to change to reflect the fact that there were women who accomplished great things but whose stories have often been overlooked because of their gender.




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