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Where are the women adventurers?

Frodo goes to Mount Doom. Kerouac drives across the United States. Huck Finn rafts down the Mississippi. But where are the girl and women adventurers? Where are the books and movies about female-led quests?

As Vanessa Veselka points out in a very dark American Reader article, popular images of women on the road are few, far-between, and more often than not, end in tragedy. I wasn’t sure about Veselka’s argument, until I did this thought experiment: When you think of a woman hitchhiking, do you think of her as having an adventure, or tempting fate?

Veselka argues that the lack of women adventurers in popular media has real-life consequences. She speaks from her own experience as a hitchhiker, where the people she met had no positive image of her experience.

They had no epic character to whom to compare her. She wasn’t Huck Finn, or Odysseus — she was just a lost girl at the mercy of the world.

She was not seen as having agency, as being in control of her own experience, only as a potential victim. This is not to say that she was never, or could never, become a victim — but the lack of positive stories to which other people could relate her experience made it more likely.

As she says, “During my travels I had literally thousands of interactions with people’s ideas about what I was doing with my life, but almost none of them allowed for the possibility of exploration, enlightenment, or destiny.”

No matter what her real goal might have been, other people only saw her as stupid for having stepped out her door, and as lucky for having escaped violence and tragedy for as long as she had.

Veselka mentions a few stories that do involve female travelers, including The Wizard of Oz, and one that immediately popped to my mind, Tom Robbins’s Even Cowgirls Get the Blues. I did some searching, to see if I could find any others — with mixed results.

I found lists of real-life female adventurers, which mostly contained women whose accomplishments have sadly not become legendary. I googled “female hitchhiker” — the first result was a Wikipedia article titled, “Vanishing hitchhiker.” It’s telling that perhaps the most well-known female adventurer, Amelia Earhart, is known not only for her daring feats of flight, but also for having mysteriously disappeared.

We need more books, more movies, more media in general about girls and women who go out into the world to seek their fortune — and succeed. We need them because we need other people to see us, and to see ourselves, as people who control our own destiny — as people to whom the world is a playground, not a trap.

Sasha Albert holds a Master’s degree in Gender and Sexuality from the University of Amsterdam, and participates in reproductive health and justice activism in the Boston area.

6 thoughts on “Where are the women adventurers?

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  1. I really love this! It truly got me thinking about my own life and experiences, especially the fears that have held me back from traveling alone.

  2. I highly recommend hitchhiking to women. It sucks to have to listen to bigoted men, who might make comments about your breasts or be otherwise inappropriate, but you learn how to set boundaries and take care of yourself.

    I’m currently traveling around learning about the struggles being fought by Natives here on Turtle Island, so that I can tell other settlers what we can do to fight oppression alongside these people and their amazing cultures.

    Hitchhiking helps because not using my own car forces me out of my class privilege bubble to learn about what life is like for people who have been more screwed over by the system than me. Learning the truth about this country helps me better understand what is necessary for our liberation, and to see that our liberation as settlers is very connected to, and dependent on, the empowerment of Native people.

    Hitch on, ladies – see you on the road to liberation!

  3. I’m always so nervous when I travel alone, and when I was studying abroad I was very cautious, baffled by my friends, who had so much faith in others and had such a great sense of adventure. after having experiences with other extremely cautious people, and extremely adventurous people, I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to look at the world through a more realistic lens…Not necessarily rose colored glasses, but not necessarily being closed of to experiences either. It is the harsh reality that women’s bodies will always be weaker than mens, and that there is a fear of harm that we need to have, but we can’t let it run our lives. Be smart but courageous. This is what we need to teach young girls.

  4. It’s amazing how ingrained into our culture the lack of female adventurers is. My roommate and I like to travel. Sometimes our trips (called Roommate Adventures) are planned in advance, sometimes they’re spur-of-the-moment. It’s amazing how often I’ll recount stories from one of our trips to someone who says “Oh, who did you go with? Your boyfriend?” and then “oh. the two of you went by yourselves?” with a faint hint of disbelief or disapproval when I explain that it was just the two of us. And no, travelling with another woman does not constitute “by yourself”.
    I once drove fifty minutes to have dinner at a friend’s place, and when I got ready to leave she asked who I had arrived with. When I replied that I drove myself there, she said “oh no! be carefull–you shouldn’t travel by yourself!” (as a little background info, there were several men at least ten years my junior there, most with unreliable cars and terrible driving records. yet she didn’t express concern that any of them would be driving home alone).
    I realize that people mean well, but it can be rather annoying. Maybe if we had more media focusing on positive female adventurers, it would change.

  5. I always travel alone, not by my choice from lack of friends adventurer. I had a few mishaps but nothing dramatic! The first time I went I was very stress by all around me and my family. My uncle told me that I was just crazy to want to go to the other side of the world alone.
    But I do the same.

  6. Great article! I also read the enlightening article by Vanessa Vaselka. It’s true that people try to keep women at home with stories of the “scary world” and if a women goes out into it, she is deemed as “extremely lucky” or having a “guardian angel” watching over her. Also, the ever popular idea that hitchhiking is just so much more dangerous for women than men. The reality is that hitchhiking is dangerous period, and so is getting into your car everyday to navigate rush hour traffic.

    In the 1990’s, when I was 20 years old, I gave away my stuff and spent the subsequent 4.5 years hitchhiking around the U.S., Mexico, the Bahamas and Venezuela. I had a wonderful time and learned many great things about myself and the world in which we live. It was a fabulous experience and I don’t regret a thing.

    We do need to read more stories of women adventurers in order to get used to the fact that it’s possible.

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