The Issue of the “Female Traveler”

Everyone, I have a confession to make:

I am a woman, and I am a traveler. (There’s a lot more to me than these two things, but let’s just start here for now.)

Given those two pieces of information, you could begin to make any number of assumptions about me and my lifestyle. Some of them might be correct, and some might be miles off target. The most painfully obvious assumption of all is that I am a Female Traveler. It almost seems too silly even to mention. Of course I’m a Female Traveler. This is the category that all feminine backpackers, road-trippers, and vagabonders find themselves lumped into. There are endless guide books, nonfiction essay collections, memoirs and novels dedicated to and starring women who travel, either in groups or on their own. Within the Travel section of a bookstore, you’ll find a nice little niche devoted to Female Travelers. There are tour groups and there are travel agencies, all for ladies.

But why does the category of Female Traveler exist?

Well, there’s the issue of safety. It is an unfortunate reality of our world today that women who travel will often face more difficulty than men, especially in developing countries. Some places just flat-out aren’t safe for women traveling alone. I won’t go into examples, but worrisome stories abound. In this case, having specific information for Female Travelers makes sense.

However, if you look around and pay attention, you’ll notice that there is no gendered term that opposes the Female Traveler. Anyone who travels and is not female is simply considered a Traveler. (For example, I’ve never seen a “Male Traveler” section in a bookstore.) The word Female serves as a clarifier, making sure that we know which kind of traveler is the norm and which is the “other”. (I’ll give you a hint: the norm is not female.) This gender distinction is everywhere, but I find it most notably in travel literature. I find the gender distinction commonly takes two forms: omission and tragic catalysts.

For an example of the first form, take the book Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-term World Travel by Rolf Potts: the guide is organized well and provides an in-depth look at the practical do’s and don’t’s of hitting the road for long stretches of time. There are even short biographies of famous vagabonders such as Walt Whitman. Look closer, though, and you’ll notice that only one of these vagabond biographies features a woman (Annie Dillard). Where is Nellie Bly? How about Mary Kingsley? They can be found in the one-page section titled “The Pioneering Women of Vagabonding.” About 14 women are listed but none of them are provided a biography. When I see this in guidebooks and travel literature, it makes me want to scream. Really? Women only get one page in an entire book about long-term travel? This seems so obviously unfair, but is regularly overlooked by authors and publishers in this genre. If a young girl reads this book, will she see anyone that she identifies with? As Marie Wilson from the White House Project says, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” If a young girl sees that the only intrepid explorers of this world are white men, what does that say to her about the possibilities of her becoming an intrepid explorer?

The second form that I listed above is something I call “tragic catalysts”. This one might be a little confusing, but if you take the time to read memoirs, essays, or novels written by and/or about women, you will know exactly what I’m talking about. It was first made known to me when I read the book Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. The author recounts the darkest moments of her life, describing how her divorce and other unfortunate life events propelled her into a long-term journey to Italy, India, and Indonesia. In those three countries, she comforts herself, finds inner peace, and finds romance, leading her to a new, more grounded life.

On the one hand, I applaud women who take it upon themselves to pull their shattered lives together and take to the road. It take intense courage, resilience, and fortitude to fill a backpack, buy a one-way plane ticket and not look back. Travel can have extremely therapeutic effects on a person’s body, mind, soul, and perspective. I full endorse travel as a way broaden your horizons and get to know yourself better (for whatever my endorsement is worth).

On the other hand, if I read one more story about a middle-aged woman who goes through a divorce and decides to “find herself” in a developing country, I think I’m going to kick something. Is it a law of physics that all women who travel must have a tragic catalyst in their past that launches them into the world? Is it some social rule that only sad, 40-year old white women (whose children are finally in college) get to have adventures? Where are the recent college graduates? Where are the mountain climbers? Where are the women who decided, when they were three years old, that they want to devote their lives to travel and adventure? And, more to the point of gender distinctions, when is the last time you’ve read a memoir about a man crippled by a divorce who decides to become a vagabond in order to find himself? (I’m not saying this book hasn’t been written, I’m just saying I’ve never read it because I’ve been buried in Elizabeth Gilbert-esque novels.)

Please don’t get me wrong: there are really great things about having a Female Traveler subgenre. Because of the Female Traveler section in the bookstore and in the blogosphere, I can find women I identify with who are doing the kinds of things I aspire to. I can find up-to-date safety and security information written by women are living in countries I want to visit. I have a community of ladies that I feel connected to and inspired by. I just think that it’s time for this group to be more than a niche market. The world of Female Travelers can offer travelers of any gender sound information and entertainment. It’s time that we upped our equity.

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