How writing about women adventurers made me more brave

Ailsa Ross
Opinion - Books Monday, 10 June 2019

Ailsa Ross has written an adventure book full of women and girls - just what she'd have liked to read when she was young


I once read that authors write the book they wished they could have read at the time when they needed it the most. As a kid growing up in rural Scotland, I was a scaredy-cat who wished she could be a little braver - so it only makes sense that I'd end up writing a children's book about real-life women adventurers who've blazed a trail on every continent from 231 BC to today.

As it turns out, women have gone on adventures since our earlier ancestors began to walk - from Africa to ancient Mesopotamia, across the Bering Strait to North and South America, in rafts and boats from Asia to Australia. Along the way, we've solved problems and slept under stars. We've hunted, gathered, and used the night sky as a map to guide us around the world.

Researching the book wasn't easy. Though I grew up in rural Scotland, I now live in the Canadian Rockies. The nearest city - and its university library full of history books to pour over - is four hours away. Still, I could order books online. Dozens and dozens of books - about the life of the cabaret siren and spy Josephine Baker, about pirate queen Teuta, about ancient eagle hunters and Joan of Arc.

"For every Magellan or Columbus there's been a Queen Nzinga"


Now I know that the cosiest thing a person can do is to read the memoirs of the first ever travel writer - a Japanese woman who lived a thousand years ago named Lady Sarashina - with a cup of tea and candles lit while a -40°C blizzard swirls outside.

I also know that if you do have to go outside in order to get reception for a phone interview, if it's -40°C outside, then it's best if the woman you're interviewing happens to be Manon Ossevoort. She drove a tractor from her home in the Netherlands down to the South Pole. As we chatted, I could actually see the snow-laced winds and glaciers she had to deal with while traversing Antarctica.

There are so many amazing stories of women adventurers, yet few of these stories are well known. In a 2017 survey by Outside Magazine, just 13% of participants knew the name of the first woman up Mount Everest. That'd be Junko Tabei, a Japanese climber who reached the summit on 16 May, 1975.

According to some accounts, women make up only 0.5% of recorded history. King's College London historian Bettany Hughes says: "We need to actively look for women's stories, and put them back into the historical narrative."

We aren't taught this in school, but for every Magellan or Columbus there's been a Queen Nzinga - a 16th-century Angolan queen who became a fearsome warrior to protect her people from being enslaved by Portuguese colonists. For every Charles Darwin, there's been a Maria Sibylla Merian. In 1699, she adventured to Suriname in order to paint and record butterflies and other insects. These days, she's known as the very first ecologist.

I wrote The Woman Who Rode a Shark so there could be an adventure book full of women and girls: real-life girls who are brave and vulnerable and flawed and amazing. I wrote for girls, and boys, and grown-ups too. I wrote for myself at 10-years old. Because I wish that, back in 1998, I'd had counterpoints to Ally McBeal and Britney Spears as role models.

I wish I could have known that playing, dreaming, and being curious is just about the most serious thing you can do - at any age. And even the tiniest adventure - from watching a bug in the grass to jumping in the cold North Sea - is a way of being open to the world. It's a way of finding a way back to ourselves. Each day, I'm learning that a little more.

I'm learning that even on the tiniest adventure, we get to feel brave and vulnerable and flawed and amazing - all at once. And we get to feel that rare, real thing. Joy.

The Woman Who Rode a Shark: And Fifty More Wild Female Adventurers by Ailsa Ross is out now from AA Publishing.

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