“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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
“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.”