Travelling through the female gaze
Updated: Jan 30, 2021
An aspect of the human experience that spellbinds many is our need to travel, to experience that which is different, to ignite senses that have laid dormant, glassy eyed and groggy from another day of the same. But what ensnares my mind even more, is the conflict in gendered travel and our expectations of whether the voice of a weathered traveller will be male or female. I cannot speak for the male experience, as mine has been exclusively female, so the following will be uncomfortably biased for some, yet critically empowering for others. For that, I do not apologise.
If you have travel stories to share from a female perspective, it's time to get writing!
There is an undeniable dominance of macho, bearded males stomping across desserts, straining our literature with yet another tale of a geographical feature cowering in submission. While I love summiting mountains and racing across new lands like any other masculine energy, “in a market that values stunts over staying, looking and revealing, women travel writers will always be at a disadvantage” (Dea Birkett, 1997). Remaining true in 2017, Sarah Wheeler, Chair of the Dolman Travel Book award, revealed that only a quarter of titles submitted were women. This is inadmissible, as there are many women who I know from my travels who could put pen to paper and inspire the world with their experiences.
In contrast to masculine conditioning, I believe a feminine view of the world is different, nurtured to allow a more compassionate approach, feeling, expressing, touching, sharing. By no means entirely polarised or binary, or restrained to a female body, our gendered energy can fluctuate like the weather. But a more feminine view of the world is in fact a superpower, and it is high time we own our narratives and proudly reveal its fruits.
Rita Golden Gelman, author, world nomad and advocate of female travel. I couldn't agree more with her comments above, I have always felt more approachable and available to opportunities when traveling alone.
This blog post was inspired by an article in the Guardian by Sarah Wheeler, ‘Where have all the female travel writers gone?’ (2017). She opens her article with a 1893 poem extract by Punch, which satirises the Royal Geographical Society as a ‘walrus-whiskered committee’, only just opening to its first female fellows after much resistance.
A Lady an explorer? A traveller in skirts?
The notion’s just a trifle too seraphic:
Let them stay and mind the babies, or hem our ragged shirts;
But they mustn’t, can’t, and shan’t be geographic.
Today, I exalt the rise of women in every realm of our society. We are living in truly transitional times thanks to generations of feminist movements, as women assume positions of power and reclaim rightful authority. Laws are changing to substantiate these shifts and we are gradually detoxifying our minds. Organisations like the military have opened all roles to women as of 2018, while women lead from the front with grace and fortitude in politics and business. Kamala Harris, Ursula von der Leyen, Christine Lagarde, Amanda Gorman, Captain Rosie Wild, to name a few.
But this means nothing unless we honour these advances, by continuously raising the female voice, by celebrating motherhood as much as our careers and our ambition, and by being as geographic as we bloody well please. Despite gender fluidity, rainbow sexuality and the right to individual subjectivity, I believe the feminine perspective has inherent qualities. It beholds a dynamic asset that the world needs to see and read more of, especially in travel literature.
'In a career spanning more than 30 years, Marie reported from the front lines of war zones around the world and was renowned for her bravery, her tenacity, her skill and her compassion. She received many awards and honours during her career, including the Courage in Journalism Award, the British Press Award and Foreign Press International’s Journalist of the Year Award. Many have called her the “greatest war correspondent of her generation.”' https://mariecolvin.org/about-marie
A standout female journalist, Martha Gellhorn, audaciously spoke our minds, “are we really only interested in seeing the glory and horror and complexity of the modern world through men’s eyes?” Gellhorn embodied an assertive, feminine unruliness we all strive for, not wishing “to be good”, rather “hell on wheels, or dead”. This empowering declaration reveals a need to be unapologetically ourselves, however that looks for you, rather than ironed, pruned, and neatly folded into patriarchal boundaries.
One way to trail blaze for our daughters and granddaughters is to become this different way of living, in which we are more conscious, senses alive. At large in the world, our travelling soul may answer only to itself, away from expectations at home and exempt from constraints abroad thanks to our position as observer. The freedom, the indulgence, the excitement. To normalise this lifestyle, is to talk about it, to write about it, to live it for ourselves.
'For the epic Travels in West Africa (1897), Kingsley hacked through those countries now known as Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Our heroine waded through swamps for two hours at a time, up to her neck in fetid water with leeches round her neck like a frill. After falling 15 feet into a game pit laid with 12-inch ebony spikes, she noted, “It is at these times you realise the blessing of a good thick skirt.”' (Wheeler, 2017)
My own travels began wandering the architectural masterpieces of Parisian streets, like fine pencil drawings, trudging up the steps of the Sacré Cœur, bridges existing twice as they reflect nostalgically onto the Seine. I drifted from job to job within French borders, scrapping the burnt bottoms of fondue Savoyard and swooping down alpine worlds on my snowboard, carving fresh lines into this nomadic existence. Freedom is a luxury. Many of us have this luxury and do nothing with it, preferring to conform to societies expectations of what women should be doing with their time, rather than trusting your own intuition and leaping into the unknown.
A Parisian brasserie I'd sit for hours in with my first foreign girl friends, who taught me a wonderfully German French.
The unknown became some of my most comforting experiences. I found home in the emerald gardens of Guadeloupe, the hummingbird's wing stealing any speed from the rest of island life. All lush greens, fuchsia villas and crystal seas. I ate what the island provided, the sherbet taste of soursop still sweet on my tongue and the spice of rum still hot in my throat. My wonderful host, Marie Chantal, taught me about Caribbean authors and the spirits of the mornes, while we foraged for bread fruit and I promised not to crash her car for the umpteenth time. I taught English to secondary school children, learning that your reality back home is as foreign to them as their customs, comforts and faith are to you. My routine rewrote itself to harmonise with the climate and the slower pace of life, driving to the beach after work to surf until nightfall, because where else do you need to be?
More recent travels in Peru involved two home stays, building new friends into my heart and a new language into my mind. Peruvian culture was so welcoming to a woman travelling alone. I’d spend evenings pouring over Peruvian newspapers, trying to decipher my host’s explanations of the political crisis in Latin America. I’d nod, politely responsive where possible, the concentration debilitating, until the day came when the Spanish started to flow. Sarcasm and juvenile humour came first, then finally, after enough time reading their papers and listening to their music, parodic jokes made sense and I could retort with my own Spanish lines. Laughter, compassion and time unite us all.
Anna McNuff, “With a background in psychology and a career as an elite athlete under my belt, I’m fascinated by the powerful and delicate relationship that exists between mind and body. I have an insatiable thirst for exploring the limit of human potential, and in better understanding the (often misunderstood) feelings of fear, self-doubt, vulnerability and courage.”
As a woman on the road, not only did I find a great sense of community, but also a definite facility in integrating. Naturally sentimental and attentive in my feminine ways, I enjoyed a certain dexterity and effortlessness in understanding the trials and realities of communities I was living in. There is a certain courageousness to stepping out of the world you know, but it was comforting to feel so welcomed into the communities I chose to explore.
I believe there is a feminine approach to travel, of staying, of experiencing, of cooking, of conversing, of language learning, of supporting people and their artisanal trades. A softer approach aims not to combat their geography or appropriate their arts, but is vital for intercultural understanding and progress. I know many women who have travelled this way and it’s about time we balance the narrative in travel literature to better represent this compelling approach.
Hannah Hartley and Elena Harris, two women who've committed much of their young adulthood to understanding cultures abroad, living in their families, volunteering for their communities, teaching their children and appreciating their landscapes. We met on Guadeloupe, and spent many a weekend together as a ferociously feminine ensemble.
Some excellent travel pieces by female authors:
Anna McNuff (2020), Llama Drama
Bethany Allen (2020), Freelance Writer at https://www.bethanyallen.co.uk
Georgina Howell (2008), Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations
HarperPress (2012), On the Front Line – The Collected Journalism of Marie Colvin
Helen Lloyd (2015), A Siberian Winter’s Tale – Cycling to the Edge of Insanity and the End of the World
Kristin Newman (2014), What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding: A Memoir
Mary Kingsley (1897), Travels in West Africa
Natasha Posnett (2021), Travel and Environmental Inspiration, at https://www.natashaposnett.com
Rita Golden Gelman (2001), Tales of a Female Nomad - Living at Large in the World
Sybille Bedford (2002), A Visit to Don Otavio
The Last Woman on Earth with Sarah Pascoe, BBC
To close this blog, I want to reiterate that gender arguments are as intensely hued as the individuals presenting them. I speak up for this aspect of the debate, female travel writing, because statistically it is underrepresented. So, male or female, see through that feminine gaze next time you go. Share stories, feel the music, smell the air, take it slow.