This story appears in the March 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
Be sure you’re the first woman somewhere,” an editor advised budding photographer Dickey Chapelle as World War II escalated. Chapelle took the advice and sneaked ashore with a Marine unit during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, flouting a ban on female journalists in combat zones. She temporarily lost her military press accreditation but went on to earn a reputation as a fearless war correspondent.
Since National Geographic’s founding in 1888, women have churned out achievements in science and exploration, often with only fleeting recognition. They mapped the ocean floor, conquered the highest peaks, unearthed ancient civilizations, set deep-sea diving records, and flew around the world. They talked their way onto wars’ front lines and traveled across continents.
“There is no reason why a woman cannot go wherever a man goes, and further,” explorer Harriet Chalmers Adams said in 1920. “If a woman be fond of travel, if she has love of the strange, the mysterious, and the lost, there is nothing that will keep her at home.”
Yet in the magazine women were often a side note, overshadowed by famous husbands. Matthew Stirling’s byline was on more than a dozen articles detailing his discoveries in Mesoamerican archaeology, but his wife, Marion, who helped run the expeditions, had only one story published under her own byline: on keeping house in the field. “Damn, damn, damn!” a frustrated Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote in her diary in 1933, about life with her famous aviator husband, Charles. She was the first American woman to earn a glider pilot’s license, and she won awards for her navigation skills. “I am sick of being this ‘handmaiden to the Lord.’ ”
Others were ignored by contemporaries. When geographer Marie Tharp offered proof of the theory of tectonic plate shift in the early 1950s, a colleague dismissed it as “girl talk.” At least one, 1920s-era journalist Juliet Bredon, found it easier to publish in National Geographic under a man’s name. Even world-renowned women of their time, such as 19th-century astronomer Maria Mitchell, struggled to get fair pay.
National Geographic’s archive holds millions of photographs and documents from stories, research grants, and films since the Society’s start. Stacks of microfiche filled with faded manuscripts and folders of typewritten correspondence reveal the stories of National Geographic’s trailblazing women. Today’s community of explorers and contributors is as diverse as the places, people, and species they study. But even in 2020, many of them are a rarity in their chosen profession. We salute some of our past and present explorers here.
Maria Mitchell (1818-1889)
First American recognized for discovering a comet by telescope; first woman to work as a professional astronomer in the U.S.
In the 1800s, residents of Nantucket, Massachusetts, famously kept their telescopes trained on the sea, awaiting the return of local whaling and fishing boats. Maria Mitchell turned hers to the stars. Mitchell grew up helping her father, an amateur astronomer, make complex navigational calculations for whaling captains, determine eclipse times, and record movements of astral features.
At 10:30 p.m. on October 1, 1847, the 29-year-old was on the roof of the Pacific Bank, where her father had built a simple observatory. Wielding her telescope, she spotted something that wasn’t on her astronomical charts: a comet.
Sixteen years earlier, King Frederick VI of Denmark had offered a gold medal to the first person to discover a comet by telescope. Mitchell claimed the prize. Her discovery and ensuing career made her the first professional female astronomer in the U.S. Within the year, she was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences—the first woman invited to join. She visited observatories around the world and became an outspoken advocate for women in science, as well as an abolitionist and a suffragist.
Mitchell taught astronomy at the newly opened Vassar College, where she studied planets, stars, comets, and eclipses—and fought to be paid the same as her male colleagues. Comet 1847-VI, which she’d discovered, became known as Miss Mitchell’s comet. A crater on the moon was named for her, as was a World War II cargo ship, the S.S. Maria Mitchell. In 1888, a year before Mitchell died, her brother, oceanographer Henry Mitchell, helped found the National Geographic Society.
Harriet Chalmers Adams (1875-1937)
First female journalist allowed to visit the French trenches during WWI; inaugural president of the Society of Woman Geographers.
In the 1880s, long before she became her era’s greatest female explorer, eight-year-old Harriet Chalmers traveled through the Sierra Nevada on horseback with her father. When she was 24, Chalmers married Franklin Pierce Adams, and they set off for Latin America, where they covered 40,000 miles by horse, canoe, foot, and train. When they returned nearly three years later, she gave a lecture at National Geographic and launched a 30-year career as a contributor.
Adams made it her mission to visit every country that was or had been a Spanish colony, and retraced the trail of Christopher Columbus from Europe to the Americas. She traversed Asia and attended Haile Selassie’s coronation as emperor of Ethiopia. During World War I, she was the first female journalist allowed to photograph the French trenches, where she stayed for months.
She wrote 21 articles detailing her exploits for National Geographic, more than any other woman published in the magazine’s first half century. In those pieces, she criticized the injustices that she’d observed. “What blessing has European civilization brought to them, which they did not already enjoy?” she wrote after a visit to Peru. “What have they not suffered in the name of the cross which surmounts the hill?”
Adams had no professional training as a geographer and had never been to college, but her color photo slides and adventurous travel style garnered her invitations to speak around the world, often from organizations that had never invited a woman in before. She was the third American woman asked to join the Royal Geographical Society in England. However, the New York-based Explorers Club gave her and other prominent female adventurers the cold shoulder.
Men “have always been so afraid that some mere woman might penetrate their sanctums of discussion that they don’t even permit women in their clubhouses,” Adams once said, “much less allow them to attend any meetings for discussions that might be mutually helpful.”
Several female explorers decided to form their own club. In 1925 the Society of Woman Geographers launched with Adams as president. She served until moving to France in 1933, where she died four years later at 61.
Reina Torres de Araúz (1932-1982)
First female Latin American grantee of the National Geographic Society; helped preserve Panama’s history.
In 1961 an American-owned company demolished a colonial building called La Pólvora in a coastal city in Panama to make room for a highway. Reina Torres de Araúz, a 29-year-old anthropologist, was outraged and complained to Panama’s president, Roberto Chiari. He listened: Panama created the National Commission of Archaeology and Historical Monuments and put Torres de Araúz in charge of ensuring that important sites were preserved.
Torres de Araúz was already a well-known anthropologist and cultural heritage defender by then. She’d been tapped to take part in the expedition to identify the best route through Panama for the construction of the Pan-American Highway, which eventually would stretch, unofficially in parts, from Alaska to Chile.
She spent her honeymoon scouting the road’s path on the Trans-Darien Expedition, which was documented by National Geographic. The team left Panama in a Jeep and a Land Rover and ended up in Colombia four months later, having completed the first motorized crossing from North to South America.
Her influence on Panama is deeply ingrained. She founded the archaeological research center at the University of Panama, set up scholarships to encourage students to embark on field research, and created departments for Panamanian prehistory, ethnography, and cultural anthropology. After serving as the director of the National Museum of Panama, she helped open six museums and an archaeology park.
In 1971 Torres de Araúz became National Geographic’s first female Latin American grantee, which gave her the funding to catalog pre-Columbian gold artifacts. She successfully pushed for a law that halted the flow of such artifacts abroad.
Torres de Araúz died at 49, in 1982, but her legacy lives on in Panama City, where a sprawling museum named in her honor holds 15,000 priceless relics of Panama’s past.
Electa ‘Exy’ Johnson (1909-2004)
Circled the globe seven times with her husband, Irving.
“I don’t suppose many mothers have a chance like this!” Exy said. She was cooking sperm whale harpooned by our 18-year-old son, Arthur. We were cruising among the Galápagos Islands for the sixth time in twenty years of voyaging around the world in the brigantine Yankee.
This moment, included in a draft of a story Irving and Electa, or Exy, Johnson co-authored for National Geographic in 1959, was just an average day on the water for the seafaring family. By the time they furled their sails permanently, the couple had made seven circumnavigations of the world in two ships named Yankee.
For their circumnavigations, they had a routine: They’d sail the world for 18 months and then spend 18 months in the U.S. Other trips brought them to the Baltics, down the Nile, and through Europe’s canals, where Exy used some of the several languages she spoke. They even participated in the search for missing aviator Amelia Earhart in the South Pacific. The couple wrote nine stories and numerous books together, and made three films for National Geographic during more than 40 years at sea.
Irving passed away in 1991, and when Exy died in 2004 at age 95, she had sailed the distance between the Earth and the moon and back. Their legacy continues in Los Angeles, where kids learn about teamwork and problem-solving aboard two brigantines: the Irving Johnson and the Exy Johnson.
Women of the Bathysphere Expedition
In 1930 underwater explorers William Beebe and Otis Barton were lowered into the Atlantic Ocean near Bermuda in a tiny steel orb. Above the water, a group of female scientists ensured that this bold new contraption—called the bathysphere—operated without a hitch. It was the first serious foray into crewed deep-sea exploration, and soon it would be international news.
From the boat deck, laboratory assistant Jocelyn Crane Griffin helped identify the marine life. At the phone was Gloria Hollister Anable, the chief technical associate for the Department of Tropical Research at what is now the Wildlife Conservation Society, which supported the mission. This phone connection, via a cable that ran from the vessel to the ship, was Beebe’s only lifeline to the outside world, and it was never supposed to go silent. Anable transcribed Beebe’s observations as he watched the deep-sea life swim by and relayed information to him on depth, time, and weather. They bantered throughout. She and Griffin took turns in the bathysphere as well. Descending 1,208 feet on one of those dives, Anable set a record for the greatest depth reached by a woman.
After each dive, Beebe’s sketches and transcribed descriptions would be delivered to Else Bostelmann back at the lab in Bermuda, where she transformed them into dramatic paintings. Though she didn’t watch from inside the bathysphere, she often would put on a diving helmet, tie her brushes to a palette of oil paints, and drag her canvas underwater to paint and find inspiration. Her drawings of fantastical marine life—fish with giant fangs, psychedelic crustaceans, a never-before-seen black-skinned fish—made the expedition come alive in National Geographic.
Beebe was mocked for hiring women, but he stuck by his team. After the mission ended, Bostelmann continued to illustrate for National Geographic, and Anable led a scientific expedition to what is now Guyana. Griffin went on to manage field stations in the Caribbean and took Beebe’s job as director of the Department of Tropical Research after his death in 1962.
In an interview in 1991, underwater explorer Sylvia Earle was asked what inspired her to get into oceanography. She cited Beebe’s tales. “The aquariums of the world, as wonderful and diverse as they are … do not have the sort of creatures that Beebe described from his exploration back in the 1930s,” she said. “And that certainly I found utterly inspiring.”
Barbara Washburn (1914-2014)
First woman to summit Denali; with husband Bradford Washburn, mapped the Grand Canyon.
Barbara Washburn’s life atop the world’s highest peaks began with a job tip from her mail carrier in 1939. The position he recommended—as a secretary for Bradford Washburn, the director of the New England Museum of Natural History—did not appeal to her. “I don’t want to work in that stuffy old museum,” she recalled thinking, “and I certainly wouldn’t want to work for a crazy mountain climber.”
A year later, the young woman who’d never been camping was standing atop 10,151-foot Mount Bertha in Alaska. She had married that mountain climber.
One year after that, the couple, along with their team, became the first to successfully summit 13,628-foot Mount Hayes. She wore men’s cold-weather gear because none was made for women then. Along a particularly treacherous ridge, Barbara took the lead because the team felt she’d be light enough to haul up if the ground crumbled beneath her. In 1947, Barbara and Bradford left their three children at home to climb Mount McKinley (now called Denali). After nearly two months of trekking, Barbara stood on the summit as the first woman to look out from North America’s highest point.
Bradford was a trained cartographer, and the pair took on ambitious mapping projects. Starting in 1970, they used aerial photography, laser measurement tools, and a wheel-mounted odometer to fully map the Grand Canyon for National Geographic. The project took seven years and nearly 700 helicopter trips. They also mapped the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Mount Denali. In 1988, the couple were among 15 explorers—including Edmund Hillary, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and Mary and Richard Leakey—to receive the National Geographic Centennial Award. Into their later years, the Washburns still applied for grants from National Geographic for projects such as a snow-depth survey on Mount Everest.
Barbara died in 2014, seven years after her husband and just two months shy of her 100th birthday. She said she never understood the fuss about her gender, describing herself instead as “an accidental mountaineer.”
Marie Tharp (1920-2006)
Mapped the ocean floor and advanced the theory of continental drift.
World War II gave Marie Tharp the chance to make an earthshaking discovery. Male students were off fighting, and universities had desks to fill. Tharp, who already had degrees in English and music, seized the opportunity to study geology, a field that had been hostile to women. After a stint as a field geologist for an oil company, she was hired as a technical assistant at Columbia University’s Lamont Geological Observatory, where she met a graduate student named Bruce Heezen. Together Tharp and Heezen embarked on a bold project: to map the ocean floor.
Women were barred from working aboard scientific research ships then, so Heezen used sonar measurements he collected on ocean expeditions, including some funded by National Geographic. In a basement office at Columbia, Tharp transformed the data and measurements from hundreds of other expeditions into maps.
As Tharp worked on the first map of the Atlantic Ocean, she noticed a valley running across the ocean floor and concluded that pieces of the Earth’s crust were shifting. Her theory of continental drift was “almost a form of scientific heresy,” Tharp would say later.
At first Heezen didn’t accept her theory, mocking her evidence as “girl talk.” But her conclusion was bolstered by sonar readings. This crack in the Earth convinced the scientific community that the continents had been one landmass, later separated by tectonic movement.
Backed by the U.S. Navy and National Geographic, the project spread from Columbia to Tharp’s home in South Nyack, New York. It was published in 1977 as the “World Ocean Floor” map, the first global depiction of the bottom of the oceans. It revealed a landscape covered in volcanic ranges and Everest-high peaks, split by a 40,390-mile seam running along the Earth’s surface.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime—a once-in-the-history-of-the-world—opportunity for anyone, but especially for a woman in the 1940s,” she wrote.
The year after the map was published, Tharp and Heezen won the Hubbard Medal, National Geographic’s highest honor, which recognizes lifetime achievement in research, discovery, and exploration. Tharp opened a map-distribution business after she retired from Columbia. By then, she finally had made it aboard a research vessel. She died in 2006.
Biruté Galdikas (Born 1946)
One of the female scientists dubbed Trimates mentored by anthropologist Louis Leakey; has researched orangutans since the 1970s.
Believing women to possess more patience and perception than men, paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey supported three young female scientists to live among the great apes. With funding from National Geographic, he helped set up field stations for Jane Goodall to study chimpanzees in Tanzania, Dian Fossey to live with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and Biruté Galdikas to observe orangutans in Indonesian Borneo. The three women, who became known as the Trimates, went on to complete groundbreaking research.
When Galdikas first entered Tanjung Puting National Reserve in 1971, orangutans were thought to be difficult—if not impossible—to study. More solitary than other primates, they roamed over large areas of dense tree canopy. But before long, Galdikas could spot them in the wild and even get close enough to interact with them. She transformed her home into a “halfway house” for animals transitioning out of captivity and raised the orphans almost as her own children, according to a 1975 cover story that she wrote for National Geographic.
During the first four years of research and nearly 7,000 hours of observation, Galdikas made major discoveries about orangutans in the wild—gathering details about their diets, travel patterns, and relationships. Crucially, she raised an alarm over the deforestation that was fueling the rapid loss of their habitats.
Nearly 50 years later Galdikas is still in the field, making her work one of the longest continuous studies of a single species ever conducted.
Marion Stirling Pugh (1911-2001)
Helped conduct expeditions that reshaped understanding of Mesoamerican history.
In a photograph taken during an expedition to Panama in 1948, Marion Stirling gazes at a recently discovered necklace made of some 800 human teeth. Her life had certainly changed since 1931, when she took a job in Washington, D.C., as secretary for Matthew Stirling, director of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology.
Marion and Matthew were married a few years later, and Marion began taking night classes in anthropology and geology. In 1938, while on a family trip to Mexico, Matthew, who would come to be known in the industry as “the golden shovel,” went to see a giant stone sculpture that explorers had found decades earlier. It was a colossal Olmec head.
Matthew obtained funding from the Smithsonian Institution and National Geographic to excavate the area. On more than a dozen expeditions to southern Mexico (Marion missed one to give birth to their daughter), the pair essentially rewrote Mesoamerican history. They unearthed stone heads and other remnants of the ancient Olmec Empire, determining it was likely the region’s first great civilization.
Marion supervised the scorpion-infested camp, and she cleaned and cataloged their findings. She co-authored many papers with Matthew and, in 1939, calculated that a calendar carved into an Olmec monument referred to the year 31 B.C., making it the oldest date recorded in the New World at the time.
The Stirlings later discovered pre-Columbian jade in Mexico, granite spheres in Costa Rica, and mounds built at Panamanian village sites.
Marion, who married again after Matthew’s death, served twice as the president of the Society of Woman Geographers. In 1975 she was awarded its gold medal for pioneering contributions to archaeology in Mexico and Central America.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh (1906-2001)
First woman in the U.S. to earn a glider pilot license; first woman to receive a National Geographic Hubbard Medal.
Anne Morrow’s first date with Charles Lindbergh was in an airplane over Long Island in 1928. Her suitor had just made the first nonstop transatlantic flight and was arguably the most famous man in the world. Three months after their wedding, Anne made her first solo flight. In 1930 she was the first woman in the U.S. to earn a first-class glider pilot’s license.
That year Charles and Anne flew from Los Angeles to New York in 14 hours and 23 minutes, breaking the transcontinental speed record. Anne was co-pilot, radio operator, navigator—and seven months pregnant. Then they flew to Japan, where Anne set a record for long-distance radio communication. She gained recognition as an aviator and author, and in 1934 she was the first woman awarded National Geographic’s Hubbard Medal, for flights totaling 40,000 miles.
By then, the couple’s lives had darkened. In 1932 their infant son had been kidnapped and murdered. Then Charles became enamored of Germany’s technological advances. He accepted a medal from the Nazi regime and became a vocal opponent of the U.S. entering World War II. Anne wrote a book in support of isolationism and called fascism the “wave of the future.”
The once adoring public—and Anne’s own mother—turned against the couple. In later interviews and published diaries, Anne regretted their stance, which she described as being mostly her husband’s. “My marriage has stretched me out of my world, changed me so it is no longer possible to change back,” she wrote. She found redemption through writing. In 1955 she released Gift From the Sea, a reflection on women’s lives that was lauded as a feminist manifesto and topped best-seller lists.
In 1979, five years after Charles’s death, Anne was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame. She lived another 22 years, editing and writing in seclusion in Connecticut.
Dickey Chapelle (1919-1965)
Fearless National Geographic photojournalist who covered WWII through the Vietnam War; first female American war correspondent killed in combat.
In 1959 Dickey Chapelle prepared to leap off a tower. The pioneering war correspondent was accompanying the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Kentucky and, at 41 years old, was parachuting for the first time. She was terrified. But fear never lasted long for Chapelle. She proclaimed parachuting as among “the greatest experiences one can have.”
By then, Chapelle had reported on dozens of conflicts, including World War II. She’d been held in solitary confinement during the Hungarian uprising and was the first journalist accredited by the Algerian rebels. Fidel Castro called her “the polite little American with all that tiger blood in her veins.” After training with the Screaming Eagles, she became the only woman at the time authorized to jump with combat paratroopers in Vietnam.
Born Georgette Meyer, Chapelle took the nickname Dickey from her hero, Arctic explorer Adm. Richard Byrd. She dreamed of being a pilot or aerospace engineer. At 14, she sold her first article to U.S. Air Services magazine; at 16, she enrolled at MIT. She married Tony Chapelle in 1940.
The couple began writing and photographing stories for National Geographic in the 1950s, but after they separated, Dickey took on both roles. Pinning Vietnamese paratrooper and U.S. Army parachutist badges to her bush hat, she ventured where other reporters didn’t dare go. If her presence was a novelty, it didn’t grant her special treatment. “Not once has a general ever offered to trade me a SECRET operations order for my fair white virtue,” she wrote to her publisher. She named her autobiography What’s a Woman Doing Here? after a refrain she often heard on the battlefield.
“There’s no question” that war is no place for a woman, Chapelle once told an interviewer. “There’s only one other species on Earth for whom a war zone is no place, and that’s men.”
In 1962 Chapelle became the second woman to receive the George Polk Memorial Award, the highest citation for bravery from the Overseas Press Club of America. She’d seen more fighting in Vietnam than any other American—17 operations in all. But her conflict tally would end there.
On November 4, 1965, Chapelle was on a Marine mission near the coastal city of Chu Lai. About 8 a.m. the patrol unit walked into trip wire, which triggered a grenade that was wired to a mortar. Chapelle was hit in the neck by shrapnel. She died on the floor of a helicopter—the first female American correspondent to die in combat. Years later, other journalists reported that Vietnamese Airborne troops still reminisced about the small, foul-mouthed woman who’d once jumped with them.
Editor's note: The print version of this article misidentified Asha de Vos's birth year. It is 1979. Additionally, Maria Mitchell was misidentified as the first person to discover a comet by telescope. She was the first American to do so.