Moms of thrill-seeking daughters will not be surprised to learn that there’s nothing new about girl explorers.
But as recently at 1932, Roy Chapman Andrews, of the male-only Explorers club, told the women at Barnard College that “women are not adapted to exploration,” and that women and exploration do not mix.”
The Girl Explorers by Jayne Zanglein tells the inspiring story of the Society of Women Geographers origins. Available on Kindle and Audiobook, as well as hardcover, the book follows adventurous female world explorers who climbed mountains and crossed the oceans, leading the way the women scientists of today.
We caught up with the author to learn the story behind the book.
An Interview with Jayne Zanglein
What inspired you to start the “Girl Explorers” project?
I am an avid traveler and love to read books about exploration. I wanted to learn more about the obstacles faced by women explorers in the early 1900s.
Can you tell me a little about your background, are you a “Girl Explorer” yourself?
I am a lawyer by profession and recently retired from a full-time teaching job at Western Carolina University. I have taught at law schools in China and Mexico, which is a great way to combine travel and work.
Before the pandemic hit, I traveled to 58 countries. My love of travel started at an early age. When I was 20, my future husband and I bicycled around Europe for three months, sleeping in tents and fixing a lot of ruptured tires, sometimes several in a day.
I came to know the kindness of strangers who would give us money for ice cream. I suppose they were recalling the days when they went on bicycle tours in the heat of the summer. One family, the Schmidts, even replaced a bent bicycle wheel for me.
Since then, I have traveled whenever I can. My favorite trips were to Turkey, Ecuador, India, and New Zealand. And, any time I can, I go to the ocean.
What was the most surprising thing you discovered in your research?
I was surprised to learn that most of the women explorers I researched were remarkably free of prejudice in the 1930s. I was also surprised by the eclectic vocations of these women. I expected explorers, authors, scientists, and artists.
But I was surprised by the Russian spy, the Chickasaw storyteller, the nurse who wrote of her harrowing experiences working with the wounded in hospitals during WWI, and the woman who recorded 2,500 American Indian songs.
How have your discoveries impacted your view of the role of travel?
It reminds me that travel broadens the mind. Travel gives us time to learn about others and, perhaps more importantly, ourselves. Travel also provides us with opportunities to become better versions of ourselves. It is especially important to give children a broader world view.
I have also learned that professional women who work in remote areas (such as the Arctic or on the ocean) often face hostile work environments and sexual harassment. For them, travel is essential to their work and they don’t have the luxury of being able to avoid bad travel conditions. We need to support their efforts to promote safe travel and work environments.
What advice do you have for the next generation of girl explorers?
Remember the women who paved the way for women explorers. Join the Society of Woman Geographers to meet some like-minded women.
Having visited 58 nations, do you have any recommendations for embarking on educational travel?
Look for educational opportunities abroad from job-profit organizations. For example, I study Indonesian gamelan (a type of music) here in the US. I found a three week intensive course in Bali where we practiced (outdoors sitting on floor with legs crossed) for 6 hours a day. I learned from experts and teens. It was an incredible experience.
Always expect the unexpected and don’t fret about the small things.
Don’t spell your name wrong on a visa! I got stuck in Sri Lanka because India wouldn’t accept my visa because I left a letter out of my middle name, so proof-read carefully.
Do a ton of research before you travel so you find the best places to visit on your trip. But don’t be frustrated when plans change. For example, to get a better sense of my main character in The Girl Explorers, I traveled to Devil’s Island in French Guiana.
During my research for the trip, I learned about the European Space Station in Cayenne. The website said that you could request an invitation for a space launch, and so I did. We got to see a satellite launch for free! It was amazing to see a space launch on the outskirts of a jungle.
Try new things! I’ve slept in a treehouse, an elephant watch house, and a Dyak longhouse. I’ve traveled by bullock cart, hot air balloon, a dozen different types of boats, helicopter, and coal-powered railroads.
Where do you plan to travel next?
During the pandemic, my husband and I have taken short trips from our home in North Carolina. We went to Lake Norman in the summer and Myrtle Beach in December and stayed at rental houses. We were able to travel without worrying about being around a lot of people.
I am planning a trip to South America, perhaps in 2022, cruising around Cape Horn and visiting Chile and Argentina for the first time. Then I plan to return, for the third time, to the Django Reinhardt festival in Fontainbleau, France, with my husband, who plays Gypsy Jazz. I also might try and fit in a trip to the Greece Isles while I am in Europe.
Is there anything else you would like us to know about “The Girl Explorers?”
It’s a story about women who broke barriers so that women today can travel freely and explore the world.
As a result of my travel to a dozen countries researching the book, I was invited to become a member of the Society of Woman Geographers.