June – August 1997
The women featured in this exhibition did not stay at home, but instead set out to experience the world on their own terms. In the second half of the nineteenth century Western imperialism had stretched around the globe, bringing with it explorers, missionaries and tourists. Improved means of transportation and other technological developments such as the camera encouraged travel as never before, and adventurous women packed their bags.
Returned travelers frequently gave lectures and published descriptions of arduous journeys often made at great personal risk. Their books were popular and sold well, captivating a growing number of armchair travelers.
Their reasons for travel were many. Isabella Bird Bishop forsook a confining and semi-invalid life in Victorian England and traveled to regain her health. Sarah Bernhardt traveled extensively because she was an actress in great demand. In an 1889 publicity stunt for a newspaper, journalist Nellie Bly rushed around the world in 72 days to break the record of Phileas Fogg, the fictitious creation of Jules Verne in Around the World in 80 Days.
For some, travel was a secondary but significant part of a more altruistic or pragmatic goal. At the turn-of-the-century thousands of women became missionaries or teachers, following these socially acceptable paths to independence and adventure. Their diaries and letters reveal dedication, zeal and the survival skills necessary for everyday life. Women like antilynching crusader Ida B. Wells and evangelist Aimee Semple MePherson traveled long and hard to promote their causes.
Others pursued unique vocations such as mining, which took Nellie Cashman traveling to every part of the western frontier and Alaska. Writer Mary Hallock Foote accompanied her mining engineer husband in the 1870s’ Southwest, at the same time selling her stories and illustrations to literary periodicals in the East.
Young single women found safe employment and adventure when, in the 1880s, Fred Harvey began establishing his chain of restaurants in the many Southwestern depots of the Santa Fe Railway. Adventure fueled the writings of a Mrs. Gatchell who took her ailing husband and twoyear-old son camping in Wisconsin every summer in the 1890s—not unusual until you discover she did it all by horse and wagon.
In the social upheavals following World War I, women found their freedoms expanding. However, some occupations which involved travel were still considered almost the exclusive province of men. Amelia Earhart and Katherine Stinson were anomalies in a maledominated and dangerous occupation—flying. The barnstormer, Bessie Coleman, was an even greater anomaly because she was African-American.
Like their counterparts around the world, Iowa women traveled far and wide to destinations as varied as Shanghai, the Sinai Desert and the Grand Canyon. Papers in the Iowa Women’s Archvies chronicle these and other journeys: Laura Gibson Smith homesteaded with her husband in Wyoming in the 1910s; in 1942, Marie Schultz set out with three classmates from the University of Iowa’s nursing school on a two-week car trip through the western United States. And Martha Furgerson experienced first-hand the Jim Crow Laws as she traveled by train from Iowa to Alabama to attend Talladega College in the mid-1940s.
By 1950 travel for women was no longer primarily the pursuit of the wealthy, the missionary or the occasional adventurer. It was becoming commonplace. To be newsworthy in the 1990s, Nellie Bly would not be circumnavigating the globe on ships and trains, but on a space shuttle launched from Cape Canaveral.
This exhibition was prepared by Kathy Wachel, Rijn Templeton, Karen Mason, Margaret Richardson, Dean Koster and Pamela Spitzmueller with assistance from Lucy David, Anna Embree, Scott Marron, Justin McNaughton, Nick Milovsky, Cynthea Mosier, Marguerite Perret and Joel Spector.