Why Women Began To Travel

Portsmouth Dockyard painting by James Tissot, 1877/public domain
Portsmouth Dockyard painting by James Tissot, 1877/public domain

Women began to travel in the nineteenth century for many personal and political reasons. Some women sought to further a cause, like missionary work, while others traveled to satisfy personal curiosities of “exotic” lands. Most women, however, traveled to escape gender oppression in Europe (Stevenson 2). One form of gender oppression had manifested in scholarly and scientific writing, in which women scholars were not taken seriously. This was especially clear in attitudes towards women who researched and collected data, so women traveled to create a space for their research. In India, this proved to be a successful method of advancement in anthropology. White women were admitted into harems and zenanas, the homes of hundreds of eastern women, for the purpose of study. Men, however, were not allowed into these female dwellings. This allowed women that had come abroad to study and have expertise in an area where men had no access (Ghose 10). Race provided women with immediate empowerment (Ghose 9). (See Gender and Nation)

White women travelers were hailed for their advancement of feminism. Many of the women were surprised at this honor for their intent was not political. Yet whether women traveled for a political purpose or not, the power they gained in foreign lands as opposed to at home caused them to re-examine their position in Europe (Blunt 124). This realization of oppression and domination by men, however, did little for the liberation of people in the East. Rather, the East was seen as a place for women to regain power through race, which was lost at home because of gender (Stevenson 125).

Uses of Personal and Scientific Research

Many of the observations made by women traveling to the East concerned the indigenous people (Stevenson 10). Women viewed the people of the “Orient” from many different personal positions (See Orientalism). Some female travelers identified with the people of the land as objects of study. They related to the native people because as women they were also objectified in Europe. This relation of marginalization allowed feminist travelers to advance the status of European women by showing gender hierarchy in another context. Anti-feminists, however, identified with the native women to support the idea that European women were losing their femininity (Ghose 53). Although few of the women travelers were known to be sympathetic to the cause of the indigenous peoples, Mary Kingsley advocated for anticolonial causes (Stevenson 11).

Objectification rather than identification was the more common approach on the study of native people. By studying the indigenous peoples, women were able to rise to the status of the white male in scholarly writing and in literature. These women behaved paternalistically towards the natives, as white men acted towards them.  Female European researchers who objectified native women were very critical of the people and the land that they saw around them. The travel writings of the 19th century are known to be full of exaggeration, specifically about the violent tendencies of the native peoples. Victorian women often painted a picture in which African peoples were savages waiting to be tamed and trained to live better lives (Stevenson 10).

Marie Postans, an English traveler, represents many of the superior attitudes of Europeans. In the following example, she writes of Hindu holidays and their interference with daily life: “Hindu holidays interfere sadly with the labors of the working classes” (Ghose 35). Postans’ words re-emphasize the idea that the Indian way of living is lazy and fun-loving thus being unsuitable for the development of their own people. Postans’ documentation of Indian behavior supported an existing belief in the Puritan work ethic during the nineteenth century. By describing the Indian population as lazy, the European population, in contrast, became sober and hard working. According to colonial belief, it was only through better European schooling and exposure to English enlightenment that would lead to an advancement of the Indian people (35).

Another example is illustrated within the context of the remarks made by white women about women’s behavior in the harem or zenana in India. Many conservative white women viewed Indian women in harems as over-sexed and demented. White women contrasted their own behavior to the behavior of Indian women. As Isabella Bird claims:

I have lived in Zenanas, and have seen the daily life of the secluded woman, and I can speak from bitter experience of what their lives are–the intellect dwarfed, so that a woman of twenty or thirty years of age is more like a child of eight, intellectually; while all the worst passions of human nature are stimulated and developed to a Fearful degree: jealousy, envy, murderous hate, intrigue, running to such an extent that in some countries I have hardly ever been to a woman’s house without being asked for drugs with which to disfigure the favorite wife, or to take away the life of the favorite wife’s infant son.  (qtd. in Ghose 63)

Bird’s description of the native population makes Europeans seem superior in intelligence and morality. She views the “child-like” Indian woman and believes that Indians need to be saved from their own demise. As with many English, Bird felt that Indian people left alone without the enlightenment of the Europeans were doomed to destroy themselves.

Bird and Postans were two of many imperialist women who contributed to the discourses of Orientalism. Their personal opinions of natives represent the attitudes of the majority of Victorian women who wrote and studied the women of the East and Africa. Below are quotes from various women whose travel journals also helped to shape Victorian attitudes towards the non-Western peoples.

Significant Quotations

Lady Mary Whortley Montague, Turkey:

I have seen all that has been called lovely either in England or Germany, and must own that I never saw anything so gloriously beautiful … I confess, though the Greek lady had before given me a great opinion of her beauty I was so struck with admiration that I could not for some time speak with her, being wholly struck taken up with gazing. (qtd. in Ghose 58)

Mary Billington, India:

According to modern “emancipated” lights, the answer of a poor Mohammedan woman in Calcutta to my question as to what she regarded as the chief happiness she would desire for herself might seem a contracted one. “To see my husband happy, and to know that what I have cooked and done for him has helped to make him so; to see my sons grow up as men, honest and strong, and to know that my daughters are well married” — is in my view a praiseworthy domestic ideal, enough even when set beside the possibilities of a bank holiday on Hampstead Heath.  (qtd. in Ghose 65)

Mary Carpenter, India:

In England, such girls would be generally intended for domestic service, and prepared for its duties while at school. I was informed, however, that such can rarely be the case in India, owing to the universal employment of men in the household occupations with us exclusively appropriate to women; it would not, therefore, be safe for a young girl to be placed as a servant in the family. The girls are usually married when about fifteen or sixteen to native converts, and it is of importance that they should be prepared to be good wives and mothers of families … The singing is sweet, and in other respect this school gave me satisfactory proof that, under good female instruction, Hindoo girls are quite equal to their English sisters. (qtd. in Ghose 117)

H.H. Princess Marie Louise, Gold Coast, Africa:

The cloth is draped over the left shoulder, leaving the right arm and shoulder bare, and hangs down in heavy folds resembling a Roman toga. When an African, be he chief or otherwise, speaks to one of high or royal rank, he bares his left shoulder, removes his crown or fillet from his head and takes off his sandals. A chief’s ornaments, anklets, rings and bracelets, are very beautiful and of pure Ashanti gold, strange and rare in design and of the best native workmanship. (qtd. in Romero 163)

Hitherto the young African desirous and keen for higher education has had to seek his training overseas, in surroundings alien to those amongst which he must ultimately live and work, thus exposing himself to the danger of growing out of touch with his own race during the most important period of his intellectual development. (qtd. in Romero 165)

Anne Louise Dundas, Tanganyika, Africa:

As the entertainment at this stage is growing rather thin, and our host appears somewhat anxious and weary, the European ladies adjourn by invitation to view their Hindu sisters, hidden from vulgar male curiosity … Everywhere about the floor of the inner sanctum lie wee brown babies, sleeping peacefully in their stiff, gold-lace caps, looking not unlike luscious chocolate drops decorated by a French confectioner.  (qtd. in Romero 115)

Joan Rosita Forbes, East Africa:

As soon as a married couple arrive at a suitable age they are entitled to a portion of the family land, sufficiently large for its products to support them. This is chosen by arbiters appointed by the district, within whose bounds the husband has the right to cut sufficient wood for the construction of his house. Friends and relations carry this material to the appointed site. (Forbes qtd. in Romero 144)

Miss John Gray, Canton:

The courtesy of the Chinese is very great. You feel on entering one of their houses that their great desire is to please you and that their whole attention is given to you as a guest. Henry says when he has called a house of mourning, in which, according to Chinese custom, the seats of the chairs are covered with blue, a servant has been called to bring a red covering to place on the chair intended for him, as a Chinese gentleman consider it is not kind to make his friends mourn for his particular loss. (qtd. in Robinson 300)

Lady Sheil, Persia:

Here then we are fairly launched on the monotonous current of life in Persia. To a man the existence is tiresome enough, but to a woman it is still more dreary. The former has the resource of his occupation, the sports of the field, the gossip and the scandal of the town, in which he must join whether he likes to or not; and finally, Persian visiting cannot be altogether neglected, and if freely entered into, is alone a lavish consumer of time. With a woman it is otherwise. She cannot move abroad without being thickly veiled; she cannot amuse herself by shopping in the bazaars, owing to the attention she would attract unless attired in Persian garments. This is precluded by the inconvenience of the little shoes hardly covering half the foot, with a small heel three inches high in the middle of the sole.  (qtd. in Robinson 174-175)

Works Cited

  • Blunt, Alison. Travel, Gender, and Imperialism: Mary Kingsley and West Africa. New York: The Guilford Press, 1994.
  • Ghose, Indira. Women Travelers In Colonial India: The Power of the Female Gaze. Calcutta: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  • Romero, Patricia. Women’s Voices on West Africa. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
  • Robinson, Jane. Unsuitable For Ladies: An Anthology of Women Travelers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
  • Stevenson, Catherine Barnes. Victorian Women Travel Writers in Africa. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

Related Sites

Victorian Women Writers

Author: Aziza Ahmed, Fall 1998

Last edited: October 2017



    excellent collections it will be useful for the scholars and philosophers

  2. My mother was the librarian in our little tiny townin the ’50’s and ’60’s. She was always telling me about books she read. Two I remember were ‘Africa’ and ‘China’. These books tell about how the people lived and their customs..the nitting gritty. I’ve been looking for older anthrology books written in the early period when most women who traveled to Africa and China could have been writting. the only names that come to mind that I remember mentioning where Margaret Mead and Ruth Benedict. Still have not found these books. I do not remember the names. Only the thick books and their titles: “Africa” and “China”. Would like some help with the authors who were anthropologists.

    • Hi Margaret,
      As for travel narratives by women in the early period, here are some books:
      A Woman in China by Mary Gaunt.
      The Face of China; The Face of Manchuria; Chinese Mettles; Wanderings in Chinese Turkestan by Emily Georgiana Kemp
      An Irish Woman in China by Emily French Daly
      Wanderings in China by Constance Gordon-Cumming
      Intimate China; Round about My Peking Garden; My Diary in a Chinese Farm by Mrs Archibald Little
      The Yangtze Valley and Beyond by Isabella Bird
      A Passport to China by Lucy Soothill
      Brave New China by Lady Dorothea Hosie

  3. Pingback: A Women’s Gaze – ENROUTE INDIAN HISTORY

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