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Their Boots Were Made For Walking


The subtitle says it all: "A Celebration of Intrepid Women Who Explored the World." This is the kind of book you wish you could thrust into the hands of waiting 16 or 17-year-olds, with the command to "Read this!" Women of Discovery is also one of those books in which you can skip around and read different parts whenever fancy strikes you. Read for a refresher on just where Margaret Mead went (Samoa and other South Pacific islands, New Guinea and Bali) or what kind of gorillas Dian Fossey studied (mountain gorillas in Rwanda). Discover ladies you never knew before who explored their own countries, like Lady Sarashina of Japan, or ones who ventured to remote areas, like American Louise Arner Boyd who was a polar explorer.

The essays in this book are fairly short, but they aren't meant to give a full biography of these women. The sketches instead give a good introduction and overview of their adventures. As author Milbry Polk says in her introduction, "This book relates the stories of 84 women explorers. There are many more to be told -- more than even the most well-informed travel buffs know about and far too many to include in this book. I have therefore selected a few whom I admire. This is just the beginning of a voyage of rediscovery."

The other important thing about this volume is the collection of photographs. We see for example, Margaret Mead, decked out in a pith helmet and having broken her ankle, being carried sitting in a sort of sling by local men in New Guinea's Admiralty Islands. Then there's Lady Anne Blunt, the granddaughter of Lord Byron, who was the first Western woman to travel with the Shammar tribes in Mesopotamia and the Anazeh tribes of the Syrian desert. There's a magnificent photo of her in what we think of as Arabian garb, on an Arabian mare. Lady Anne, incidentally, illustrated the books she wrote about her adventures with her own sketches.

The photographs not only document the individual adventures of these women, they capture unique times and places as well.

Katharine Stevens Fowler-Billings is shown as a young geologist in the Rocky Mountains, in knickers and climbing shoes and carrying a pickaxe; but most fascinating are her passport photos through the years. Fowler traveled the world but did the majority of her geological mapping work in the US and Sierra Leone. She started out in the mostly all male field by studying geology at Bryn Mawr: "Outside of Bryn Mawr, women were so unusual and unwelcome in geology departments that Katharine had to sit behind a screen while attending lectures at Columbia University."

In addition to photographs, there are samples of nature illustrations done by women who were artists as well as explorers, like Marianne North. North, who was English, traveled alone -- amazing for the 19th century -- and later donated her work, 832 oil paintings portraying some 727 genera and more than 1000 species, to the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew near London, where they continue to attract visitors.

One of my favorites is Aphra Johnson Behn, who was an English writer and spy during the reign of Charles II (1660-1685) in England. She was a prolific writer, and was the first Englishwoman to support herself by writing plays and satires. According to this account, Behn was unable to "marry well, probably due to lack of a dowry," so she supported herself by acting as a confidential agent for high officials in the British government. In her plays and stories, she recounted her adventures while traveling in South America and, probably, Africa. One of her more famous works is Oroonoko or the Royal Slave, which introduced the theme of the "noble savage." Her plays, in fact, are still produced and her novels have never been out of print.

Most of these women, even the 20th century explorers, had to face prejudice--sometimes in the extreme--from their male counterparts, which, especially for the early explorers and travelers, makes their remarkable achievements even more amazing.

Not all were wealthy nor educated. Take Koncordie Amalie Nelle Dietrich, for example. She was a German botanist who lived from 1821 to 1891. She first learned about plants from her mother, who was an herbal healer. Her husband deserted her, leaving her with a young daughter, but she found work with a wealthy German collector who was looking for field naturalists to gather flora and fauna in the South Pacific. Dietrich traveled to Australia and eventually spent 10 years amassing the largest collection of Australia's flora and fauna then known. Sadly, much of what she collected and sent back to Hamburg was lost during the bombings of World War II. However, her legacy lives on in the Latin names of several species she discovered and were subsequently named for her.

Their passion and determination to pursue their interests in the face of incredible odds, society's disapproval and, often, physical danger, makes present day corporate dilemmas seem silly. It's corny, but it's true: These women are an inspiration to us all -- male and female.

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