arrow-downarrow-leftarrow-rightarrow-upchevron-upchevron-leftchevron-rightchevron-upclosecomment-newemail-newfullscreen-closefullscreen-opengallerygridheadphones-newheart-filledheart-openmap-geolocatormap-pushpinArtboard 1Artboard 1Artboard 1minusng-borderpauseplayplusprintreplayscreensharefacebookgithubArtboard 1Artboard 1linkedinlinkedin_inpinterestpinterest_psnapchatsnapchat_2tumblrtwittervimeovinewhatsappspeakerstar-filledstar-openzoom-in-newzoom-out-new

A Woman of Passion, Courage, and Style Explores the World

View Images
Women in traditional clothing stand by produce in a market in La Paz, Bolivia, circa 1909.

“Harriet Chalmers Adams Tells of Encountering Vampires, Shooting Monkeys, Creeping Along Dangerous Trails … ” begins the headline of an August 18, 1912, article in the New York Times. The piece profiled a woman whose voyages to remote areas of Latin America spoke to a life of dramatic adventure that’s today most often encountered in vintage film reels. To celebrate International Women’s Day, we reflect on the trail she blazed for women in exploration.

View Images
WWI soldiers warm themselves at a fire behind the lines in French Lorraine in 1917. “Here there was pain,” Chalmers wrote.

Adams fell in love with Latin America on a trip to Mexico with her husband, Franklin, in 1899. A few years later, they returned for a two-year voyage around northern South America and the Andes armed with the tools of storytelling: paper, pencil, and three years’ worth of film.

View Images
A broom vendor carries his merchandise down the streets of Rio de Janiero, circa 1920

Once back in the U.S., she presented the head of the National Geographic Society, Gilbert Grosvenor, with some 3,000 photographs that she had taken over her journeys. The result was her first byline in the June 1907 issue of National Geographic magazine. Twenty more would follow over her lifetime. A writer as well as a photographer, Adams was one of only a handful of women contributing to the magazine at the time, her extensive travels a record of life and people in faraway places. (Read more about the pioneering women photographers of National Geographic.)

View Images
AA letter-writer’s booth in Spain advertises “The Truth”—La Verdad—above the door. Other services include posting and filling out official documents, 1929.

Adams was both the vision of a stylish early 20th-century woman (one who gave lectures at National Geographic dressed in a red ball gown) and an intrepid adventurer who traveled along wilderness trails and scaled mountains. She became the first woman to travel overland from the Amazon to French Guyana and was also the first woman to climb the volcanic mountain El Misti in Peru. Her passion for Latin America extended to Spain and Portugal, and she was one of the few women correspondents to cover World War I, spending three months in the trenches of France.

View Images
Women in front of their bombed home make sand bags for the trenches. Lorraine, France, 1917.

At a time when geographical societies were dominated by men, Adams helped found the Society of Women Geographers and served as president until 1933, attracting accomplished geographers and scientists with her passion.

View Images
A peddler waits for customers on the streets of La Paz, Bolivia, circa 1909.

“I’ve wondered why men have so absolutely monopolized the field of exploration,” she told the New York Times in 1912. “Why did women never go to the Arctic, try for one pole or the other, or invade Africa, Thibet [sic], or unknown wildernesses? I’ve never found my sex a hinderment; never faced a difficulty which a woman, as well as a man, could not surmount; never felt a fear of danger; never lacked courage to protect myself. I’ve been in tight places and have seen harrowing things.”


Follow Nat Geo Photography

Community

Join Your Shot, our photography community. Submit to assignments and get feedback from our photo editors.

Join

From the Archives

Look through a curated collection of historical photos from our archives on National Geographic's Found Tumblr.

Explore

Picture Stories

Check out the latest work from National Geographic photographers and visual storytellers around the world.

See More