Festival of the Body: Exploring Women Explorers

by Antony Ramm, Local and Family History, Central Library

Throughout March our multi-use arts space – Room 700 – will be playing host to Festival of the Body, a wide-ranging celebration of International Women’s Day organised by F=, an interdisciplinary research group based at Leeds Beckett University.

Part of that eclectic programme of events will be “Women, Visibility and Playful Acts 3”, a series of talks and performances by Yorkshire-based artists, researchers and cultural workers. Taking place on the 15th of March, from 10am-4pm, the event takes the form of an unconference: an attempt to challenge the conventions of the academic conference by breaking down the barrier between speaker and listener.

One strand will be a talk by Rachel Chapman on women and their journeys, entitled “Ladies on the Loose: Women, Travel and Exploration”. At that talk we will be displaying a selection of books from our Collections that focus on women explorers, adventurers and travel writers. Here are a few highlights.

The oldest item in our Collection is an account by the Austrian Ida Pfeiffer of her travels in Egypt, Italy and the Levant. Beautifully illustrated, the success of this volume allowed Pfeiffer to fund further travels, including two round-the-world trips in the 1840s and 1850s.


The most well-represented explorer in our Collections is Freya Stark, the British traveller who found the long-fabled Valley of the Assassins after venturing to parts of Iraq no Westerner had previously encountered. You can read about Stark’s phenomenal achievements in accounts like The Valley of the Assassins (1934) and her three volumes of autobiography (1951, 1953 and 1961).

One woman whose life in travel and exploration is represented by just a single-volume in our Collections is Edith Durham. An anthropologist focusing on the Balkan peninsula – especially Albania – Durham was also a trained artist, whose accounts of her journeys were richly illustrated by her own hand. The volume held at this library – The Burden of the Balkans (1905) is no exception.


Our Collections also feature woman connected to the local area. While the achievements of Amy Johnson are justifiably well-known, those of Isabella Bird are perhaps less familiar today. Born in Boroughbridge near Harrogate, Bird was a household-name in the late 19th-century and the first woman elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Her exploratory travels took in Australia, Hawaii, the USA, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Turkey and Asia – including Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, Singapore and Malaysia. It is those Asian journeys that are represented in our Collections, including her final exploration of China in 1897 – as told in The Yangtze Valley & Beyond (1899).

You can find out more about our holdings in this subject by browsing this Collection Guide. Our colleagues in the Art Library have also put together an excellent guide to their Collections focusing on Women and Feminism in Art.

To view any of the books mentioned here, contact the Local and Family History department.

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