CChristopher Columbus, Marco Polo, James Cook, Alexander von Humboldt – the story of world travelers is shaped by men. Traveling women appear much less often and only relatively late, mostly from the 19th century.
On the one hand, this was due to real hurdles: women inherited less often and were not allowed to work for a long time, so they simply couldn’t finance travel. And they had to overcome prejudice. On ships it was said, for example, “Wiewerröck an Boord brings Striit un Moord” (women’s skirts on board bring arguments and murder).
It was – and in some societies it still is today – difficult for women to just be on the move while observing. Because they themselves have always been and are the subject of observation. One woman attracted attention, especially when traveling alone, and often enough had to defend herself against intrusive men in a foreign country.
It is all the more admirable that some women made it after all – and wrote books about their early travel adventures that opened up a new perspective on the world. We present three pioneers, whose works have been reprinted in recent years.
Ida Pfeiffer: Influencer from the very beginning
She was the first and is still the most famous Austrian globetrotter: Ida Pfeiffer, born in Vienna in 1797. Thanks to an inheritance and a husband who did not live with her, she was able to free herself from the constraints of the musty Biedermeier period into which she was born.
In 1836 she saw the sea for the first time near Trieste, which triggered in her “an almost unmanageable desire to travel”. All told, she covered 150,000 miles by sea and 20,000 English miles on land over the next few decades. She wrote 13 books that have been translated into seven languages - popular entertainment reading for the upper middle class. With the proceeds she was always able to finance new trips.
Pfeiffer learned English and photography, so she was an influencer from the very beginning, well versed in technical achievements. She traveled in an ankle-length skirt, sat on camels, walked a lot, unusual for European women. And she only had as much luggage with her as she could carry herself.
In 1846 she started her first world tour via Rio around Cape Horn to Chile, Tahiti, Hong Kong, Ceylon, Persia, Athens and Vienna. A trip that still requires a good physical condition today. Three years later it turned clockwise around the globe: London, South Africa, Borneo, Moluccas, California, Ecuador, New York, London.
She reflected on what she had seen and, in view of the many abuses in the colonies that caught her eye along the way, “that we Europeans are worse than these despised savages”.
In 1856 she met Alexander von Humboldt in Berlin, and he gave her a letter of recommendation for the world. Ida Pfeiffer is famous for “noble perseverance, truth and purity of her judgment” and “indomitable energy of character”. She died in Vienna in 1858. As a pioneer, discoverer and campaigner for women’s rights, she is still considered by many to be the most important world traveler.
Ida Pfeiffer: “A woman travels around the world: The 1846 journey to South America, China, East India, Persia and Asia Minor”, 344 pages, reprinted in 2016, Promedia publisher, 24 euros
Alma M. Karlin: Almost without money on a trip around the world
A trip around the world and a career as a travel writer – that was not what Alma M. Karlin was born with in 1889. As she writes, she was a “scrapbook” of old parents, paralyzed on one side, cross-eyed, with a huge head. Born in Cilli in the southeast of the Habsburg monarchy (today Slovenia), she received the prognosis: lifelong mentally handicapped.
She didn’t stick to it. In 1908 she went to London, studied languages, passed exams in Norwegian, Swedish, Danish, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian and learned Sanskrit, Chinese and Japanese. Well equipped, albeit with almost no money, she set out on her journey around the world in 1919.
Alma M. Karlin called the first part, which led via California and Hawaii to Japan and China, “Lonely World Tour”. Karlin was traveling alone, only accompanied by her Erika typewriter. But she has not written a melancholy story, her writing is ironic, full of subtle observations, she makes her entire work so worth reading.
Financially, Karlin was able to make ends meet “in the terrible distress of the post-war period” of the 1920s only through iron thrift and jobs as an interpreter. But the thirst for adventure prevailed: “There are places that smile at you and delight your heart with their air, their rock.”
Her sharp-tongued humor, partly peppered with nowadays seemingly strange prejudices against distant peoples, was well received. In the interwar period she became one of the most widely read travel authors in Germany and Austria.
Even difficult scenes, in which she described how she dumped pushy men, read entertainingly. For example, someone got into her at night through a window, but “I jumped up with a leap like an Andean Puma. The drawn dagger ran three inches along the wall of his nose. “
Back from her long-distance trips to Yugoslavia, she opposed National Socialism, supported Jewish refugees and was imprisoned after the country was occupied by the Germans. After her release, she joined the partisans, but was later reviled as a German-speaking author in Yugoslavia.
She died poor and forgotten in 1950. She was only rediscovered after Slovenia’s independence, and fortunately some of her books can now be read again in new editions.
Alma M. Karlin: “Einsame Weltreise” (400 pages, 20 euros) and “Im Banne der Südsee” (352 pages, 22 euros), reissued in 2019 and 2020 by Aviva-Verlag
Sofia Yablonska: Alone in Morocco as a woman
Another historical women’s travel book was published by a compatriot of Karlin: Sofia Yablonska was born in 1907 in Galicia in the east of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, near Lemberg, today Lviv in the Ukraine. Yablonska toured Morocco, Egypt, China, Indochina and Polynesia.
In 1971 she died near Paris after a car accident. “The Charm of Morocco” from 1932 is a pretty book, decorated with photos that the author took herself on the way. Yablonska was also on her own – but well prepared. After taking an entrepreneurship course, she opened a pension to make money. She definitely had a plan and could afford her trips.
Yablonska, a modern woman with bob haired hair and western clothing, writes less ironically than Karlin, her Morocco travel book is more of a documentation that observes carefully and looks at the country through the glasses of the female observer.
In the case of the Berbers, for example, she admires their relationship to time: “The rich and the poor take five or six hours of leisure every day to visit neighbors and drink tea with them.” As a woman, she even manages to get into a harem – and describes it Part of everyday Moroccan life from a perspective that male travelers could never offer.
In 1932 she wrote only for a Polish and Ukrainian audience; her work was barely noticed in Western Europe. After the Second World War, their homeland fell to the Soviet Union, Yablonska went to France and never returned to Galicia.
It took 88 years until her book finally appeared in German after the first edition in 2020. Anyone reading it can now go on a journey of thought into a world that no longer exists.
Sofia Yablonska: “The Charm of Morocco”, 136 pages, Kupido-Verlag 2020, 24.80 euros