The Most Interesting Women in the World: A Century of Explorers

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In honor of the women's suffrage centennial, we are highlighting women who were pioneers in exploring the world in the past 100 years. These real-life wild women threw caution and convention out the window—such as the first women to ride solo across the U.S. in motorcycles; the first woman to summit the tallest peaks on every continent; and the first Black woman to host her own travel TV show, flying her own plane to remote islands around the world. While we won't be taking the freedom to travel for granted ever again post-pandemic, we owe a lot to these trailblazing women who paved the way for all of our adventures—even the ones yet to come.

First Black Woman to Host a Travel TV Series

Kellee Edwards
Indonesia to Alaska

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Courtesy of Kellee Edwards

Dubbed "The Most Interesting Woman in the World" by Outside magazine, Kellee Edwards, host of Mysterious Islands on the Travel Channel, is a licensed pilot and expert scuba diver who flies herself to remote islands for high-adrenaline adventures. They include exploring Indonesian caves with thousands of buried bodies, freediving with matriarchal divers in South Korea and piloting an aircraft in Alaska's temperamental Aleutian Chain.

"I wanted to change what the face of exploration and adventure looks like. It is not solely white males, despite what history and media would have you to believe," says Edwards on what motivated her to take this uncharted path.

Read our Q&A with Kellee Edwards.

Who were the "Most Interesting Women in the World" before her?

Globetrotting Journalist

Nellie Bly
Hoboken, New Jersey

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Bettmann/Getty

An American journalism pioneer who championed women's rights, Nellie Bly once spent 10 days in New York City's infamous Blackwell's Island women's asylum for an investigative exposé. She is also known for beating the "around the world in 80 days" record inspired by the Jules Verne novel. In 1889 she circumnavigated the globe by steamship, train, rickshaw, horse and donkey—all in 72 days.

Suffragist Motorcyclists

Van Buren Sisters
New York City to San Francisco

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www.vanburensisters.com, the Van Buren Family Collection

Sisters Augusta Van Buren and Adeline Van Buren were the first women to ride solo motorcycles across the continental U.S in 1916—a trip that spanned 60 days and 5,500 miles. Their cross-country ride demonstrated that women could serve as military couriers for intelligence reports in the First World War as well as men.

First Black Female Pilot

Bessie Coleman
Le Crotoy, France

Bessie Coleman
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

"The air is the only place free from prejudices," said American Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman to earn her pilot's license. When she did, in France in 1921, she was also the first Black person to earn an international pilot's license. Of African American and Native American descent, "Queen Bess," as she was known, performed aerial stunts and raised funds for an African American flying school.

First Woman to Drive Around the World

Aloha Wanderwell
Nice, France

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Bettmann/Getty

"World's Most Widely Traveled Girl," Aloha Wanderwell lived the life of an adventure movie: Over a seven-year expedition she drove across six continents behind the wheel of a Model T Ford. She was only 16 years old in 1922, when she joined a caravan of automobiles circling the globe, and quickly became both the star and director of the films taken throughout the expedition, along with her pet monkey.

First Woman to Summit Mount Everest

Junko Tabei
Himalayan Mountains, Nepal

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John van Hasselt/Corbis/Getty

This pioneering Japanese mountaineer defied naysayers who told her to "stay at home and clean the house," becoming in 1975 the first woman to climb to the top of Mount Everest, the world's highest peak. Next, she took on the "Seven Summits," the highest mountain on each continent, and was the first woman to conquer those as well.

First Woman to Sail Around the World Solo

Krystyna Chojnowska-Liskiewicz
Canary Islands, Spain

San Francisco Maritime National Park Association
Courtesy of San Francisco Maritime National Park Association

It took two years, but the Polish sea captain and shipbuilding engineer became the first woman to sail solo around the world, completing the circuit in 1978. Enduring a bout of kidney stones and treacherous conditions through the Great Barrier Reef, the "First Lady of the Oceans" single-handedly sailed 28,696 miles across the seven seas.

First Black Woman to Trek to Both Poles

Barbara Hillary
North and South Poles

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Courtesy of Barbara Hillary

Defying stereotypes of age and race, African American adventurer Barbara Hillary was the first Black woman to trek to both the North and South Poles, arriving at ages 75 and 79, respectively—and after surviving breast cancer in her 20s and lung cancer in her 60s.

The Most Interesting Women in the World: A Century of Explorers