One month, eight cities, four girls–and countless accounts of being physically harassed by men. When you put it in numbers, I’m not sure if it sounds shocking. What the numbers show, however, is that being a female traveller in 2017 is not massively different to being one in 1917. In fact, it might be even less safe.
When I initially started writing this piece, I was in a nice AirBnb in Brussels – the second stop on a month long interrailing adventure. I thought about how, as a female traveller in 2017, it’s standard to feel safe. My parents’ main piece of advice before I left was “don’t go anywhere alone,” and at the time I thought it was a little outdated. Now, on the train to Budapest (the eighth city on our list) I’ve been forced to change my tune.
Travelling is the norm nowadays. The Gap Yah’s, the Contiki tourists, the volunteers, the finding-themselves-in-Asia-while-engaging-in-mild-cultural-appropriation backpackers, the international glitter-covered festivals goers – we all recognise them, we all probably identify with a few of the archetypes.
Travel, once reserved for a tiny subsection of society, has become the norm for a vast range of people, including women. In fact, it has been the expectation for a long time. We’ve all heard our mums’ backpacking stories, and we’ve all read the Cosmopolitan Snapchat articles about why every woman should travel alone before she’s 30.
But the female traveller has more than just an extraordinarily heavy backpack. She also carries the stories of thousands of women, a rich and vibrant history. In a world before Airbnb and Uber, what was travelling like for a woman? The great ages of exploration between the seventeenth and nineteenth century were dominated by white men. The narrative of Western adventure and exploration has always been one of the white male hero encountering ‘savage’ lands and peoples. Home has always been the perceived place for women in every sense of the word. Looking to history, female travellers stand out because of their abnormality.
I see these women as heroes, and I think it’s hard not to. Jeanne Baret was the first woman to circumnavigate the world, between 1766 and 1769. In a time when women were firmly established as lesser beings, Baret’s determination to see a world previously limited to a constricting sphere of domesticity is incredibly admirable. As is to be expected from the eighteenth century, the French navy had banned women from their ships. Baret did her journey dressed as a man.
This is a persistent theme in both history and fiction. Young women see the Mulans of the world, the Elizabeth Swans, the Jeanne Barets, and we learn a few things. We learn that the world is no place for a woman unless they adopt a necessary masculinity. There’s something thrilling about that, isn’t there? The thought of sneaking onto a pirate ship, or into the Emperor of China’s army, and no one knowing. But right now, at stop five, I have a few more things to consider.
Instead of exhilaration and thrill, unfortunately I relate more to Jeanne Baret’s fear and apprehension. I wonder if she lay awake, paralysed, dreading what would happen to her if her cabin mates discovered who she really was. As well as binding her chest, she carried pistols with her for safety, and I can relate to this sense of unease. If this trip has taught me anything, it is that the sexualised nature of female travellers has not changed in the last 300 years.
On this trip, we have been catcalled in every European language at every possible location, which will likely not come as a shock to any woman who has left her house. This culture is indescribably demeaning – being reduced to a sexual object, based entirely on a perfectionist and westernised ideal of attractiveness.
Yet, it’s insidious because it’s normal. There is still a perception amongst men, however tenuous, that catcalling is a compliment. Every woman I know has experienced it at some point, to the point where we see it as an annoyance rather than what it actually is. Namely, it’s a power move. On our first night in Europe, being catcalled at a tube stop didn’t seem like a big deal. Now, it speaks to me of a larger web of inherent misogyny and unwanted sexualisation that women must face.
Another historical pioneer I relate to is Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, a Latvian immigrant in Boston in 1894. Supposedly on a bet with two wealthy clubmen of Boston, she endeavoured to circle the globe in 15 months on a Columbia bicycle. Partly an effort to win $10000 and partly a symbolic destruction of Victorian ideals of female frailty and incapability, Kopchovsky achieved both: she finished her trip two weeks before the fifteen months was up.
I am inspired by both Kopchovsky’s bike and her adventure, as they represent symbols of freedom and independence. This is what being a female traveller should be, and for the most part, is. Travel is intrinsically tied to liberation, both in being able to explore the world, and having the right to feel safe while doing so. In this sense, there is a juxtaposition.
Travelling is one of the most liberating things that I have ever done. yet the process of existing in the eyes of men, and always being conscious of that, is frankly exhausting.
In 1889, Lillias Campbell Davidson wrote Hints To Lady Travellers, a handbook for
female tourists. It was the Victorian era that saw the first active female travellers because of the development of new, accessible, high-speed forms of transport. These were women whose legacies I couldn’t help but consider as I journeyed on trams across Europe. It is shocking that the independent female traveller has existed since the 19th century, yet today I still do not feel entirely safe. One senses that the women of the Victorian age may have been safer than those today, or maybe they were simply wiser.
The Victorian era woman knew she was regarded as a lesser being than men, while today’s woman assumes she is seen as an equal until proven otherwise. This might sound melodramatic, but in America, we have a president who is actively campaigning to take away women’s healthcare rights, who is moving to scrap on campus sexual assault resources, and who thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to grab women by the pussy. It is this attitude on the large scale that enables, and encourages, the aggression that women feel everyday.
In Amsterdam, one of us was on the phone to her dad when a man cycled past and smacked her on the bum. As things go, it doesn’t seem like that big of a deal. As her mum put, it’s “something that happens to everyone”, which in itself speaks volumes.
But the visceral fear of being smacked, hard, while walking along in broad daylight, and having no idea who did it, leaves a mark. There’s a lack of account- ability there. For someone like Jeanne Baret, desperate to see the world but under constant threat of far worse, I can hardly imagine what travelling was like.
Travellers like Jeanne Baret had to actively compromise their femininity. However, there is another brand of unapologetically female travellers. Ching Shih, a notorious 19th century pirate, ruled the China Sea. She led an empire of 300 junks containing 20,000 to 40,000 fellow pirates. With good reason, she is widely seen as the most successful pirate in history. But looking back now, I feel like there’s no way she could have reached that point unscathed. She was able to be female because she was feared. Her femininity became second to her ruthlessness.
Another thing I’ve discovered about being a female traveller is that people aren’t scared of girls, really. A thirty-year-old man in a business suit was not afraid to grope one of my friends in a club. Another was not afraid to pull my friend’s hair on a subway escalator, and follow us out of the tube station. A sixty-year-old man was not afraid to stare at me and smirk on the metro, and when I moved, to follow me and sit down opposite me again. It’s acceptable and it’s normal, and it does not involve any fear of repercussion. Travelling has taught me to have a mental escape route, to be aware of other groups of women or people who look vulnerable to harassment.
That’s not to say that I’m scared to be a female traveller. It’s rather that, given our history, there’s something intrinsically fearless about being one. I just don’t think we should have to be fearless.
I can’t imagine being Jean Baret, or Ching Shih, alone and surrounded by men, relying on my ruthlessness or my ability to hide and blend in. Yet, while it’s hard to identify with their specific circumstances, there is a common thread among all of our experiences. That is of being a lone woman in an unapologetically masculine world.
Female travellers of the past stand out to be not only because of their abnormality, but because of their loneliness.
According to a 2016 report by the George Washington University School of Business, nearly two-thirds of travellers are women. According to the US Travel Association, eleven percent of adults travelling for leisure are women by themselves. Evidently, being a lone female traveller is not abnormal. Rather, it’s a trend.
However, the vulnerability of being a woman by herself is still paramount. This suggests a dichotomy. The idea that women should only travel with men is outdated and ridiculous.
Yet, there is still the pervasive notion that I would be safer if accompanied by men. At one point in the trip, a male friend joined us for two stops. And while a part of me wishes this wasn’t the case, it’s true that I did feel safer when he was there.
No-one shouted at us on the way back from a night out, or followed us down the street. Coincidentally, these were the two stops where we went clubbing the most, and one night out involved a fifty-minute walk back (if you go to Amsterdam, avoid Techno Tuesday).
Having done that walk as four girls would’ve been an entirely different ball game. Threatening women – scaring them – is a game. It’s harder to play that game in the presence of someone that actually feels like a threat.
One day in Bratislava, and we were shouted at by men outside a tram stop. While walking away from them, an old man patted my bum. It’s demeaning in a way that words can’t really describe. It’s unsettling knowing that the casual harassment of women is a joke. If I had male friends with me, would it still have happened? Probably not.
Travelling and adventure have always been predominantly a man’s world. Being singled out as an outsider because of one’s gender is unsettling, and makes one feel vulnerable. A German friend of mine worked for a year in London.When she described her experience of the city, she said she’d never felt less safe. So maybe this is less about travel, and more about the distinct sense of being an outsider. I’ve done the walk home alone from Bridge at 2am and felt safer than I did on a train at 8pm in Prague. This idea of being an outsider is something that surpasses just womanhood.
As a lesbian, gay clubs have always felt far more comfortable to me. For people that identify as transgender, gender non-conforming, or even present as especially effeminate, there is a constant sense of threat that I can barely begin to comprehend.
My point in all of this is not to dissuade women from traveling. In fact, it’s the opposite.
We should be celebrating the achievements of historical female travellers, as much as, if not more than, their male counterparts. I’d much rather see a statue celebrating Jeanne Baret or Annie Cohen Kopchovsky, than one celebrating Christopher Columbus. But more than that, it’s a comment.
The world we live in is not so different from the one Jeanne Baret traversed. The male image of woman and vulnerable people – as sport, as objects, as fetishes – is as striking as it has always been.
The world of travel has evolved. The men who inhabit it have not.