In my continuing series on women Hollywood should f*cking be making movies about,* we learn about some amazing adventurers and explorers. There is some overlap here with the spies category, as a number of these women worked in espionage and intelligence while they were gallivanting about the Middle East and the Arctic. But since spying is merely one item on their extensive curriculum vitae, I’ve included them with their fellow travelers.
Hester Stanhope (1776–1839)
Where to begin with Hester Stanhope? Or should I say, Lady Stanhope? For Hester Stanhope was a bad-ass lady adventurer and archaeologist who was in fact an actual lady with a capital L. More specifically, she was the eldest child of the 3rd Earl Stanhope and niece to Prime Minister William Pitt, serving as his official hostess and later as his private secretary when he was out of office. After the death of her brother in 1810, Stanhope left England to travel indefinitely, heading to Gibraltar, Malta, and Constantinople, where she lived for over a year. On her way to Cairo, a storm and shipwreck left her empty-handed on the island of Rhodes and Stanhope borrowed male clothing (billowy trousers, boots, and a turban) to continue her voyage. After Egypt, she traveled throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, including Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, all while continuing to refuse to wear a veil and often adopting male dress and carrying arms. To travel to the ruins of Palmyra in 1813, she dressed as a Bedouin and took a caravan of twenty-two camels to cross the dangerous stretch of desert, making a grand entrance into the city and calling herself “Queen of the Desert.” Stanhope was the first white woman to visit the ruins once ruled by the warrior queen Zenobia. After coming into the possession of an Italian manuscript describing a hidden treasure, Stanhope set out for the ruins of Ashkelon in 1815, establishing the first modern archaeological excavation in the Holy Land. Stanhope eventually settled permanently in Lebanon and over the years cultivated political friends and enemies by giving sanctuary to numerous Druze refugees. [Side note: Stanhope is apparently mentioned in Georgette Heyer’s Venetia, which I read almost two years ago, but I guess since the name meant nothing to me at the time I have no recollection of it.]
Gertrude Bell (1868–1926)
Gertrude Bell is hard to summarize in one or two paragraphs, especially given that she is the most problematic woman on this list from an Orientalist perspective. In short, Bell was an energetic and intelligent girl from a wealthy, political family in the industrial North, who studied in London and then Oxford, becoming the first woman to graduate with a history degree from that university. Shortly after, in May 1892, Bell traveled to Persia to visit her uncle, who was serving as an ambassador in Tehran. She published a book about her travels in 1894 and spent the next decade or so mountaineering, traveling, and learning languages, eventually becoming fluent in Arabic, French, German, and Persian, as well as speaking some Italian and Turkish.
From 1900 to 1913, she traveled throughout the Middle East and, like Stanhope before her, refused to wear a veil as she did so. She was noted for establishing ties with local groups and tribes, particularly the Druze, as well as surveying and excavating ancient ruins. She wrote extensively about her travels and documented them with maps and photographs. With the arrival of the First World War, this knowledge of the area and its peoples was suddenly quite valuable and she was invited to join the intelligence men in Cairo, including T. E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia. At the time, Bell was the only female political officer in the British forces and she would go on to become a key actor in British imperial policy-making and one of the people behind the creation and early administration of modern Iraq (and, yes, she foresaw that it would be a sh*tshow, describing the new nation as an “immense failure” and “an inchoate mess of tribes”). She founded the Baghdad Archaeological Museum to preserve Iraqi culture and history and keep artifacts in their country of origin. Shortly after, she died in Baghdad in 1926 following an overdose of sleeping pills; it is not known whether the overdose was intentional.
I think there has seldom been such a series of hopeless blunders as the West has made about the East since the armistice.
—Gertrude Bell, Paris Peace Conference, 1919
Freya Stark (1893–1993)
Rounding out our English adventuresses is Freya Stark, an explorer and travel writer who explored the Middle East and beyond. The daughter of bohemian artist parents (her father was English and her mother Italian), Stark spent her childhood roaming Europe, in her father’s home in Devonshire, and then in Italy after her parents split up. She loved reading and became fascinated with the “Orient” after reading One Thousand and One Nights. An odd note to her biography is that when she was a teenager, she got her hair caught in a machine at the family rug and basket factory (I’ll spare you the details, but the accident required months of recovery in a hospital and multiple skin grafts), leading her to wear hats for most of her life to cover the scars.
Despite her early interest in the region, it wasn’t until 1927 that she began to travel the Middle East in earnest: First Lebanon to perfect her Arabic, then Syria and Iraq, and finally western Iran, including exploration of the fabled fortress of the Assassins. In 1935, she travelled to southern Arabia, little explored by Westerners. For many of these trips, she was acknowledged by the Royal Geographical Society though she never “discovered” anything per se. Instead, she became known for the personal, cultural details she recorded, particularly her descriptions of women’s lives. During the war, Stark joined the British Ministry of Information and worked to persuade Arabs to support the Allies. After the war, she travelled to Turkey and finally Afghanistan. All told, she published more than two dozen books on her travels. Her books sound utterly thrilling: I think I’m going to seek out The Valleys of the Assassins first, although The Southern Gates of Arabia, which tells of her attempt to locate the lost city of Shabwah, sounds pretty good too.
Louise Boyd (1887–1972)
Women didn’t explore only the Middle East. Louise Boyd was a gold heiress from California who logged numerous Arctic expeditions throughout the 1930s and 1940s—studying fjords and glaciers, measuring ocean depths, and photographing plant and animal life, particularly on the coast of Greenland. Boyd had traveled extensively with her parents after the early deaths of her two brothers (heart disease as teenagers!), and they encouraged her in a number of hobbies, including photography. As the sole heir to a fortune after both her mother and father died in quick succession in 1919 and 1920, she began traveling even more widely. In 1924, on a trip to Norway, Boyd made her first trip to the Arctic. By 1928, she was leading her own polar expeditions, including one to find legendary explorer Roald Amundsen who had himself disappeared trying to find and rescue Umberto Nobile. At first it seemed that the outbreak of WWII would halt her regular expeditions; however, in 1941, she undertook an expedition sponsored by the U.S. government, studying the effects of polar magnetics on radio communications. Boyd subsequently became an advisor on military strategy in the Arctic and continued to work on secret assignments for the U.S. Army throughout the duration of the war. In 1955, she became the first woman to fly over the North Pole.
And again, why did I not know of this woman who lived most of her life in the Bay Area (while not exploring) and part of whose home now serves as the Marin History Museum? I realize the fault lies with me for my ignorance, but, at the same time, I can name multiple polar explorers who happen to be male. You can see some of Boyd’s photographs in the Marin History Museum, which is located in the gatehouse of her former estate gatehouse in San Rafael, California.
Is this just me? Did you know of any of these women? Do you have a favorite female adventurer or explorer I should know about?
To read more about these incredible women:
- Priya Satia, Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East
- Georgina Howell, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations
- Janet Wallach, Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia
- Jane Fletcher Geniesse, Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark
- Elizabeth Fagg Olds, Women of the Four Winds: The Adventures of Four of America’s First Women Explorers
- Freya Stark, The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels
- Neil Asher Silberman, “Restoring the Reputation of Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope” (Biblical Archaeology Review, July/August 1984)
- Audrey Amidon, “Women of the Polar Archives: The Films and Stories of Marie Peary Stafford and Louise Boyd” (Prologue, Summer 2010)
Footnoting History: Desert Queens? Women at the Edges of Empire from Hester Stanhope to Gertrude Bell
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Gertrude Bell: The Uncrowned Queen of Iraq, Part 1; Gertrude Bell: The Uncrowned Queen of Iraq, Part 2
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Freya of Arabia
Stuff You Missed in History Class: The Heiress Explorer: Louise Boyd and the Arctic
*Apparently there is a project on Hester Stanhope in development by the people behind The King’s Speech and Werner Herzog has made a film about Gertrude Bell starring Nicole Kidman, which is being released here in April (but unfortunately has already come out in Europe to horrible reviews).