It’s International Women’s Day today and I wanted to share some ways feminism has influenced the way I experience travel. To travel as a solo female is still considered a bold and sometimes risky move, traveling or boycotting a country can also be a political statement, and assuming everyone can act on their wanderlust is ignoring the privilege of travel. In my experience, all of these dimensions of travel are informed by feminism.
Travel is a Gender Issue
I feel so grateful for all the women who made it possible for me to travel. I’m not talking about the travel agents, the airport staff, or the guidebook authors, although major kudos to all those instrumental ladies. I’m talking about the movement of women in the 19th and 20th centuries that fought to claim the freedom to travel without judgment for women in the Western world. They proved with their own adventures and writings, that travel was not just for men and that women should have more options than a life of domesticity.
According to a review of Yaël Schlick’s Feminism and the Politics of Travel after the Enlightenment, in the 1870s—women’s nature and roles were contentious issues in French society. “At the same time as ideas about women’s domestic role gained intensity, feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft, Germaine de Staël, Flora Tristan, Suzanne Voilquin, and George Sand challenged them.” They knew that traveling gave them more freedom and access to public life, such as politics.
During the Enlightenment, travel was seen “as a means of critically investigating other societies, gaining knowledge and becoming a responsible, informed, and cosmopolitan citizen” but this was clearly only reserved for men.
Dunlaith Bird‘s Travelling in Different Skins: Gender Identity in European Women’s Oriental Travelogues also highlights how rebellious the female traveler seemed. Bird argues that “For travelers including Olympe Audouard, Isabella Bird, Isabelle Eberhardt, and Freya Stark, vagabondage is a means of pushing out the physical, geographical, and textual parameters by which ‘women’ are defined.”
I also think back to early female journalists in Canada. In 1904, the Canadian Pacific Railway sent 16 Canadian women to cover the St. Louis World’s Fair for their respective publications. They got the nickname ‘The Sweet Sixteen‘, and they were “opinionated women who nurtured their writing craft within the cramped space of the Women’s Pages.” It’s of note that thanks to that trip, the Canadian Women’s Press Club was born.
Travel is a Privilege
More than ever I’m aware of my privilege. Being able to go on vacation, travel for work, or even to leave the country is a luxury. I received an education at home and at school that encouraged me to be curious and unafraid. I’m physically well and can get around without difficulty and I have a job that allows me the freedom to travel. I have a passport that is welcome in most countries, and I have money to spend on experiences. All of these factors (and more!) are examples of why it’s wrong to say travel is accessible or that “anyone can travel”.
When I was in university, one of my professors decided to use the last class of our 15-week semester to lecture us on our forthcoming summer plans. “Go get a life,” he said, which I’m sure he meant as inspiration. But to a class of Print Journalism majors, it seemed like a cruel joke.
I understood he was encouraging us to use the summer to travel, volunteer abroad, or do something interesting that would add to our life experience. But his speech was riddled with blind spots and patronizing assumptions. He was a white middle age man, able-bodied, educated, and employed. The fellow student he praised for working in an African orphanage, was a wealthy white girl with a parent working at the U.N. The whole thing reeked of privilege before I really knew what that meant.
The class bothered me so much because as he told us to “get a life,” I thought about the girl in another class who was supporting a child. I thought about my classmate with a disease that sometimes made regular school attendance difficult. I thought about many of my friends that worked two jobs over the summer.
All of us “had a life” and most of us weren’t in a situation where we could travel or could afford to volunteer or intern for free. Most of us didn’t live at home or have free tuition, and most of us would be spending the summer making sure we didn’t sink into debt.
Travel is Political
We know with the recent travel ban just how political our freedom and right to travel can be. With any foreign nationals crossing political borders, even for tourism, there a lot of dynamics at play. Where we choose to go, where we are allowed to go, how we spend our money, and where we feel safe are often tied to geopolitics, culture, and our own political values.
I also feel strongly that we have a responsibility as travelers to be respectful to the people and culture in the foreign countries we visit. This means traveling humbly, respectfully, without cultural appropriation or mockery, and being aware of the historical dynamics your ethnicity bears.
I was reminded of this when I came across an article on Everyday Feminism by Taté Walker, about the problematic vacations to ‘Indian Country’ in the American Southwest, where white tourists regularly demand to partake in Native culture as part of their travel experience.
“The people who attend events like these are often cultural tourists and drive-by looky-loos with absolutely no desire to understand or involve themselves in the rich spiritualities, complex histories, or modern day issues of actual Natives.”
Walker writes: “The best advice I have here for tourists is to seek out public events sanctioned by the tribe you’re visiting. Powwows are an excellent way for visitors to experience tribal culture, so long as the rules of etiquette (which can vary from tribe to tribe, so ask) are followed.”
I believe these general suggestions apply to any culture you encounter on a trip. Be humble, be aware, and ask yourself if you’re taking advantage of another culture for your own “enlightenment” and to “broaden your horizons”.
I am grateful for what feminism has done and how it continues to highlight and overturn antiquated gender, racial, and privilege dynamics.
Happy Women’s Day and happy travels xox