Women’s Travel is Women’s Freedom
Ideological frameworks are all around us, influencing us, and determining the ways in which we move around in the world. According to Louis Althusser (1971), Ideological State Apparatuses (ISA) work behind the scenes — unlike governments, police, and prisons, which use the threat of violence to subjugate individuals into a systematic order. ISAs work at the level of culture and live in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. These stories are repeated to us endlessly through institutions like families, education systems, workplaces, and media of all kinds. Althusser argues that we are passively “interpellated” by hegemonic messages that surround us in every aspect of our lives (81). Media critic David Gauntlett (2002) explains, “interpellation occurs when a person connects with a media text [i.e. travel writing]: when we enjoy a magazine or TV show… this uncritical consumption means that the text has interpellated us into a certain set of assumptions, and caused us to tacitly accept a particular approach to the world" (27). When a work of art, a song, or a travel book, for example, resonates with us — when we identify with it — we have unconsciously accepted the values underpinning the stories therein. And because we accept those values and stories as truth, we ourselves become agents of the ISA, perhaps whether we want to or not.
Content creators of all kinds are influenced by these instruments of control, and they also reproduce them in the stories they tell. Travel writing (in its broadest sense) is a microcosm of the hegemonic processes that occur in all areas of daily life. Scholars repeatedly point out the ways in which travelers reify their own culture's superiority in their accounts of encounters with others. According to Mary Suzanne Schriber (1997), early American travel writing “served the construction of the American identity in reference to “the other” (21), and provided proof that “America was… God’s chosen nation, poised and indeed charged by God to lead the human race into the millennium” (22). “Americans drew on compendia of information that ushered them to foreign lands and mediated their understandings of the world” (16). Travel narratives told them where to go, what to do there, and how they should feel about it (Stowe, 1994:29) — and artists gave these messages attention-grabbing visual flare.
In his 1807 painting (above), Miseries of Travelling: The Overloaded Coach, satirical artist Thomas Rowlandson pokes fun at travelers who overpack. He visually associates people who travel with too much stuff with obesity, implying that overpacking and overeating are signs gluttony (one of the Bible's Seven Deadly Sins).
Early on, women were “accidental tourists” (Schriber, p.14) as dependants of their husbands or fathers, and they were expected to follow certain rules. Historian and author Shannon Selin (2017) recounts specific packing tips for Victorian women travelers, including:
“Take as little as possible,”
“Pack in this order,” and
“Don’t crush dresses and bonnets.”
Other travel rules included:
“Speak when spoken to,”
“Don’t pester your companion,” and
“Don’t check yourself in.”
A lady traveler's male attendant held all her money (ostensibly for safe-keeping) and took responsibility for planning her accommodations (Catcher, 2016). Women, obviously, could not take care of themselves (insert sarcastic voice).
As the Industrial Revolution ramped into high gear, ideological narratives needed to evolve. When mass production replaced craftsmanship, work life and home life became more separate, and gender roles were redefined in ways that protected patriarchy and also served industry. Men went out to work, and women were expected to delight in staying home and taking care of kids. The undercurrent throughout the culture told women that if they didn’t get pleasure and fulfillment from domesticity, it wasn’t because the culture was too prescriptive. The implication was clear: something was inherently wrong with the women who didn’t aspire to a life lived in the shadows of home.
Some women were allowed a temporary reprieve from the monotony of home life. However, acceptable purposes for traveling were narrowly defined. They were often expected to manage the children while visually exhibiting their husbands’ wealth. “What technology and economics made possible, ideology made probable and profitable” (Schriber, p.24). When she traveled in luxury, wore the right costumes, and displayed associated appurtenances, then her husband could gain social status and political capital. Plus, she could maintain her respectability.
By the 1950s, it became more acceptable for women to travel without a male escort — as long as it related to her role as mother and family manager. The headline in this vintage TWA advertisement pictured (left) implies that hapless women might struggle with traveling alone with children, but TWA is here to help! The headline reads: “I thought it would be hard to take the children so far! … (until another mother told me about TWA).” The body text goes on to highlight this mother’s frugality — another desirable trait for women.
The obvious mixed message is that women shouldn’t spend a lot of money and they shouldn’t want much, but they definitely need to catch a man who can provide it all. It's common to hear today's women say they want men to treat them “like queens,” and extravagant gifts (like ginormous engagement rings) become evidence of his wealth and worthiness as a mate. On the other hand, she can’t seem to expect too much, because then she becomes a “gold digger.” This derogatory slang for women who expect too much became popular in the 1910s and is still in use today (Donovan, 2020). Kanye West’s 2005 Grammy-award winning song Gold Digger starts like this:
She take my money when I’m in need
Yeah, she’s a triflin’ friend indeed
Oh, she’s a gold digger
Way over town, that digs on me
Since the early days of Western expansion, when women traveled for more self-centered purposes (like recreation, adventure, or self-discovery), they could be derided as reckless, deviants, or just plain eccentric. But, says scholar Carl Thompson, although record-keeping was poor, there have always been women travelers pushing the envelope (Shrikant, 2019), and indeed, rebellious women have been breaking boundaries in all aspects of life for centuries.
In the 21st Century, travel media continues to be explicitly gendered, sometimes reinforcing traditional expectations about how women (and men) should look and behave both abroad and back at home. Meghan O'Dea recently wrote for the online travel blog Lonely Planet:
We’ve come a long way from the days when women were expected to have an escort if they ventured away from home, but even today women’s travel is still seen as a little transgressive (2021).
Women always seem subject to bespoke rules about their dress, their accommodations, their behavior, and where they should and shouldn’t go — always with the suggestion that their dignity and/or safety is at stake. Incidentally, all of these rules require women to accumulate particular props that signal their wealth, respectability, and virtue — which means they have to spend money (thereby supporting the system that oppresses her).
In 2018, Forbes published an article featuring "33 Best Trips and Tips for Solo Female Travel" including:
“Go shopping,” and
In case the "Go Shopping" tip isn't enough, another one simply states,
And, as a safety precaution, women shouldn't forget to
"Put a ring on it.”
Apparently, it's safer if people think women travelers are married, even if they're not (Bloom). Surprisingly unsurprising, then, would-be harassers are more likely to respect another man's "property" than to recognize women's right to their own autonomy.
Even those who break free from the limitations of womanhood are still trapped — obliged to perform as though they are some strange outlier to a naturally more appropriate way of being. According to Schriber, in the 1860s, a prominent newspaper woman who boldly reported about the ‘men’s world’ of politics, scolded other women reporters over small transgressions, and she always argued that real women belonged in the home (36). This contradiction attests to the power of the ISA, when even those who detest it also campaign for it. More recently, the late comedienne Joan Rivers — a woman who clearly went against the grain — was wildly popular, in part, because she used her public platform to criticize the appearances of other women in the entertainment industry (and by extension, their behavior in public spaces). In the clip below, titled “Bitch Stole My Look,” Rivers and her talk show panelists disparage Paris Hilton’s look, while praising Heidi Klum’s appearance — even though they were wearing the same dress. What goes unsaid is the implication that Hilton is somehow more sleazy than her counterpart. Rivers' continued to host Fashion Police until her death in 2014.
Ideologies and norms do change. There are ways to subvert ideological state apparatuses that invisibly keep us in our “place.” Today, solo travel for women is becoming more normalized. Solo traveler Ciara Johnson told REIs Co-op Journal, “You have complete freedom to spend your trip exactly how and where you’d like. . . You discover that you’re capable of more than you ever thought and this can really boost your confidence” (Gritters, 2019). A Booking.com study in 2014 found that seventy-two percent of American women travel alone. The company’s CMO remarked, “Our research spotlighted that American women have the desire and inspiration to find delight in unexpected destinations or simply indulge in peace and quiet. Regardless of motivation, we will continue to support solo travelers with our trusted and authenticated community of adventurers, road warriors, thrill seekers, and scholars.” Cultural norms seem to miraculously shift when there’s money on the table.
When there’s money to be made, freedom can follow — for White women and other, more marginalized groups. Black travel blogger Sojourner White shares her experiences and encourages other Black women to explore traveling solo. In a recent article for Vogue, Cheraé Robinson (2020) writes, “Travel opens up an experience and discourse that allows Black people to understand and define our position in the world. This becomes a lifeline when living within systems that are tainted by white supremacy, not designed for this level of self-discovery and actualization for our community. Travel for many of us has become a path to freedom, and the industry has never had to contend with what that means.” For Black and White women alike, travel can offer opportunities to try new things, build confidence, and find healing.
Social media also plays a role in changing cultural attitudes. In southern New Zealand, Instagram has been credited for a boom in tourism. In 2015, the region began a program to host social media “influencers,” then saw their visitation increase by over ten percent — a growth increase that topped other areas of the country by two to one (Mitchell, 2016). When more images and varied stories circulate through a culture, the more normal things appear — and people’s mindsets open up. Scientists at the Social Cognitive Networks Academic Research Center collected data that suggests only ten percent of people are needed before a new idea will spread throughout a particular population (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 2011). It seems women’s travel is well on its way to the tipping point.
A National Geographic article quotes Jennifer Haddow, who started Wild Women Expeditions (an all-female outdoor outfitter) in 1991: “women-only travel was the laughingstock of the outdoor adventure travel world” (Knorovsky, 2020). But today, the tourism industry sees women travelers as a huge untapped market. More women entrepreneurs are stepping up, not only by offering specialized services to women travelers, but also by employing local women in their own communities (Knorovsky). Change has been a long time coming for women travelers, and they’re taking advantage of it. Their efforts empower women in every area of their lives — and as their narratives change and multiply, so do the narratives of hegemonic ISAs that regulate the accepted belief systems and social values across the culture at large.
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West, K. (artist, producer) and Brion, J. (producer) (2005). Gold Digger (song/video) on Late Registration (album). Accessed from https://youtu.be/6vwNcNOTVzY