Our occasional series about history’s most interesting people who have been overlooked by Hollywood. See also our articles about scientists, queer people, writers, artists, Renaissance women, Medieval women, 18th-century people, pirate women , journalists, Tudors, and suffragists who need movies made about them. We’ve also also nominated Rose Bertin and several of Henry VIII’s wives for specific screen treatment.
All of us here at Frock Flicks HQ love to travel, especially if it’s to explore historical sites, visit museums, and enjoy costumed events. This lockdown has been HARD with no trips on the horizon! We’re getting COVID vaccinations and watching national and international recommendations, but legit travels will probably have to wait until 2022.
But in ye olden times, a global pandemic wasn’t the only thing that made travel hazardous or complicated. Before jet planes or, hey, women’s suffrage, world travel was a super exclusive club. Which makes the few women who did journey far from their places of origin all that much more fascinating. So here are five female travelers whose stories I think would make fantastic fodder for film or TV. Hollywood, BBC, Netflix, et. al., take note!
Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir (born around 980 – 1019)
Known by the nickname of “víðförla” in Iceland which means “far-travelled,” this Norse woman joined first her father and then her husband in different explorations of North America (long before Christopher Columbus and other Europeans). Gudrid was the daughter of a chieftain and traveled with him from Iceland to Greenland on a treacherous voyage where they had to be rescued by Leif Eirikson. She later traveled to Newfoundland to help establish a settlement, and her son Snorri was the first recorded birth of a European on the North American continent. In addition, Gudrid had three marriages and a failed engagement, so there’s plenty of romantic drama to spice up a TV or movie story. When her last husband died, she made a pilgrimage to Rome, then returned to Iceland and lived her final days as a nun.
Jeanne Baret (July 27, 1740 – August 5, 1807)
The first woman who completed a circumnavigation of the globe by ship, Jeanne Baret did so disguised as a man and worked as an assistant botanist on Louis Antoine de Bougainville’s colonial expedition of 1766–1769. She accompanied the ship’s naturalist, Philibert Commerçon, and while not married, the two had a child together in 1764. Commerçon was ill during the voyage, and Baret nursed him while collecting and cataloging plants on shore. The pair left the expedition on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, amid scandal on the ship when the crew learned Baret really was a woman. Baret and Commerçon lived on Mauritius until Commerçon’s death in 1773, although Baret was independently granted property in 1770. Jeanne later earned her own small fortune by running a tavern, then married a French officer and returned to France around 1775. A species of flowering shrub, Solanum baretiae, is named in her honor, but how about a frock flick?
Edith Van Buren (1858 – 1914) &
Mary Evelyn Hitchcock (March 10, 1849 – April 6, 1920)
Edith was a grandniece of U.S. President Martin Van Buren, and Mary was a reporter for the New York World, who had already traveled extensively after her husband’s death. Together, the two friends took a steamer from San Francisco to the Yukon in the summer of 1898, packing along their Great Dane dogs and an early motion picture device called an animatoscope. They spent much of this trip camping around Dawson City on the Yukon River, where they explored miners’ claims and leaned local customs. Hitchcock climbed Skagway Pass (nearly 3,000 feet), and she even secured her own Free Miner’s Certificate. Upon returning, Hitchcock wrote the book, Two Women in the Klondike: The Story of a Journey to the Gold-fields of Alaska. While Edith went on to marry and then divorce a man claiming to be a French count, Mary returned to the Yukon where she spent 5 years and staked over 100 mining claims. Sounds exciting enough for film to me!
Annie “Londonderry” Cohen Kopchovsky (1870 – November 11, 1947)
Forget the fictional Phileas Fogg and his around the world in 80 days — Annie Cohen Kopchovsky was the first woman to bicycle around the world! This Jewish Latvian immigrant to America took on the challenge to promote Columbia bicycles and used the name “Londonderry” because New Hampshire’s Londonderry Lithia Spring Water Company helped sponsor the trip. She added more sponsors as the trip went on, attaching signs and ribbons to her bike, much like modern race cars are covered with brand logos. Her voyage started on June 27, 1894, in Boston, Massachusetts, and she rode to New York where she boarded an ocean liner for France. She traveled overland through Egypt, Israel, and Yemen, and then crossed to Sri Lanka, Singapore, Vietnam, China, and Japan. Annie sailed to San Francisco and road through California, Arizona, and New Mexico, occasionally taking a train trip where the roads gave out. On September 12, 1895, Annie arrived at her goal of Chicago, 14 days ahead of schedule, and earning a $10,000 prize. While she lectured and wrote about her trip for some years afterwards, she died in obscurity, which feels wrong when this could be such a dramatic TV or film story!
Bessie Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926)
Born to a family of sharecroppers in segregated Texas, Bessie Coleman made an amazing impact in the world of aviation. She was the first Black person to earn an international pilot’s license, the first Native-American to hold a pilot’s license, and the first African-American woman to hold a pilot’s license. Bessie was inspired by stories of World War I pilots and worked two jobs in Chicago, hoping that she could study abroad, since neither women nor Blacks were allowed to become pilots in the U.S. at the time. A newspaper and bank in the Chicago African-American community raised money to help Coleman. She traveled to France, and on June 15, 1921, Coleman gained her license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Back in America, in September 3, 1922, Bessie made her debut as a “barnstorming” stunt flier at an airshow honoring veterans of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. Flying daredevil tricks was her best way to earn a living as a pilot, but Coleman also took opportunities to lecture about aviation and goals for African Americans. Coleman hoped to start her own school for Black aviators. Unfortunately, she died at age 34 when her poorly maintained plane crashed. While there have been several documentaries about Bessie Coleman and IMDB shows at least 4 projects announced, it’s certainly time to get a decent frock flick off the ground!
Would you watch a frock flick about these women? Who else would you nominate for a biopic?
I love this idea, and the chance to learn a bit about these fascinating women, who with the exception of Coleman, I’d never heard of! Ms. Unpronounceable from Iceland would be a great subject for a flick, but I fear with the current over the top treatment of Viking, Medieval, Renaissance etc. stories, we’d end up with way too much leather, metal, buckles, helmets, lame and panne velvet, flowing hair on both sexes, gritty battles, CGI, all in Technicolor.
Roughly Good-rid Thor-byarn-ar-do-ter
LOL, that is unfortunately true about the costumes!
Sure! I’d also watch flicks about the 3 squadrons of Russian women aviators in WWII, especially the night bomber unit that flew open cockpit planes with only map and compass navigation, and WWI’s Battalion of Death, commanded by Maria Bochkariova
The Night Witches! :-)
What a wonderful list! I’d like to recommend Swiss adventurer Ella Maillart https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ella_Maillart
and British antiquarian and traveller Gertrude Bell https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gertrude_Bell
Both of whom deserve to have their stories shared!
Gertrude Bell was the subject of this flick:
Of course I only noticed that after I made my initial post!
Which was apparently fairly awful according to A historian looks at Films. It made it look like her explorations were all to escape unhappy love affairs!
There was a pretty good documentary about Bell, but I, too, wish for a feature film: http://www.gertrudebellthedocumentary.com/
I’d also like to see a movie about Richard and Isabel Burton. “Mountains of the Moon” was not bad, but there was even more to their marriage and partnership than it suggested. (I visited their tomb in Mortlake, London, which Isabel designed as a (stone) “Arab” tent; you can climb a ladder to a window onto the interior, and see the camel bells and other artifacts, photographs of the Burtons, etc.)
Of course I missed that you’ve already covered Gertrude Bell!
Starting from her early Bohemian days dipping into the occult in Paris with the Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society & being a youthful feminist around 1905-1910’s era to her extensive travels through China, India, Southwest Asia,and finally: Tibet – her bio is what writer’s dream of writing about.
She lived and traveled these places from being a high end socialite pseudo ambassador to a lowly pilgrim disguised with her adopted son. Her books are free in E book format at https://www.gutenberg.org/ & other sites if you just search her name.
So much political intrigue followed her – the British, the French, – and several other European countries thought she was a spy and she had many close calls with life and death and seeing many strange occurrences and mysteries in Tibet when she lived as a Tibetan nun and wandering pilgrim.
She lived to be 100 – what a century of amazing accomplishments.
I read her book about Tibet.
Mary Kingsley, explorer, ethnographer and writer: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mary_Kingsley
M.K. is a famous Victorian heroine in Britain, not so well-known here.The Wikipedia article neglects to mention that she was the daughter of her father’s cook, born a few days after her parents’ wedding. She was also self-educated, and spoke with a working-class London accent, and at 30 went off to West Africa on her own, because she was fascinated by what she had read about it. There was a chapter about her in the television series “10 Who Dared,” but I wish Vanessa Redgrave had starred in a feature film about Kingsley.
Ah! I think I remember that episode!
A fictional tale, but one well worth filming. Sur [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sur_(short_story) ] by Ursula K LeGuin is about a group of Edwardian era South American women and their expedition to the south pole. While they’re the first people to have made the journey, they don’t announce it, as they don’t seek glory, just the thrill of adventure.
I’m part HELLA YASS but also I’d be worried that the TV people would make them strong on the outside, but yearning for a menz underneath and the invented romantic subplot where they are head over heels will be accompanied by menz talking about them all the time and the whole thing being more about how it was for the menz- like the Cilla Black one. I would rather it never happened
Always a risk, true. But at least we’d get some stories about different women instead of just repeating another version of Little Women or another Queen Elizabeth I drama.
Maria Sybilla Merian
super interesting! thanks for sharing–I would love to see (well-made) movies about these folks.
Aloha Wanderwell. “A real-life Indiana Jones!”–“Brains, Beauty and Breeches!”–“World’s Most Traveled Girl!”–“The Amelia Earhart of the Automobile!”
How is it that there is no film or series about her? She was a filmmaker, author, explorer, aviatrix, vaudevillian, journalist, radio broadcaster. She holds the Guinness World Record as the 1st woman to circumnavigate the globe in a car. She made a dozen documentary films which are now in the Academy Film Archive and the Library of Congress. She’s even at the center of an unsolved murder mystery.
Please, someone bring her to life on screen! https://www.alohawanderwell.com
Jeanne Dieulafoy, wearing pants and short hair, a fighter during the 1870 Prussian war, archeologist, photographer, writer ( memories on Google books) and, on the other hand, a very traditionalist catholic married woman.
I would like a movie about Dutch explorer Alexandrine Tinné
I’ve been waiting for years a movie or series about Mary Wortley Montagu; such fascinating life and travels; her letters are quite a screenplay ready-made!
Let’s not forget the life and Middle-Eastern travels of lady Hester Stanhope, such a remarkable plot!
Gorgeous frocks for both of them too! I was hoping someone would raise Lady Mary W-M. Her story has everything – travels, introducing vaccination for smallpox, friendship with, then bitter enmity with Alexander Pope, Top Poet but poisonous, political intrigues at the highest level. She knew everybody and went everywhere she wanted. Wearing paniers and a fontange.
Would love to see a movie about Nellie Bly’s trip “Around the World in 72 Days.” So far, adaptations about her have focused on her “10 Days in the Madhouse” piece, but maybe it’s time for something a little more light!
Isabella Bird, in 1873 travelled all around Colorado, being the first white woman to reach to top of Longs Peak. She also went to Hawaii and Australia. Romance, adventure along the way.