From William Wordsworth to Alfred Wainwright, why is it that the most famous names in the record of walking for pleasure are overwhelmingly male? The voices of female walkers of the past receive less attention in later accounts than their male contemporaries. But despite facing barriers, women have been walking, and writing eloquently about it, from the very beginning. These oft-neglected accounts are the subject of Dr Kerri Andrews' book, which seeks to set the historical record straight.
Wanderers - A History of Women Walking traces the footsteps of ten women over three centuries, creating striking portraits of writers for whom walking was an essential part of who they were:
- Elizabeth Carter - A Kentish parson's daughter who began a lifetime of countryside roving back in the 1720s, before walking for pleasure was even really a thing.
- Dorothy Wordsworth - Sister of the celebrated poet William, and equally passionate about walking, in 1818 she made one of the first recorded ascents of Scafell Pike.
- Ellen Weeton - An ambitious walker of the early 1800s, who recounts a solo ascent of Snowdon, among other adventures, in letters and journals only published long after her death.
- Sarah Stoddart Hazlitt - Who in the 1820s, during an unpleasant divorce from the essayist William Hazlitt, 'found strength in walking' long distances alone across central Scotland.
- Harriet Martineau - A sociologist, novelist, abolitionist and campaigner for women and the poor in the first half of the 19th Century, who wrote an early (and much-read) walking guide to the Lake District, which she came to know on foot perhaps as well as any writer of her time.
- Virginia Woolf - Among the foremost modernist authors of the 20th Century, and for whose work - and life - walking was integral.
- Nan Shepherd - Free spirited doyenne of the Cairngorms, and author (among other works) of The Living Mountain, a small but beautiful book that has had a profound influence on the contemporary style of nature writing.
- Anaïs Nin - The famously emancipated essayist, diarist and novelist, for whom city walking served as both creative inspiration and escape.
- Cheryl Strayed - Author of the bestselling memoir Wild, the account of a life-defining, at times gruelling, solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail (since made into a film).
- Linda Cracknell - Contemporary Scottish writer whose book Doubling Back, about journeys taken on foot in various countries, was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. "It seems to be important I engage bodily with my writing" she says "so getting mud on my boots, sleeping high up in the hills, or being slapped by salt water can all be part of my process."
A Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Edge Hill University, author Dr Kerri Andrews is also a keen hillwalker in her own right, a shared passion that connects her with her subjects.
We spoke with Kerri about the historical challenges and rewards of being a woman who walked in previous centuries; the influence of conventional gender roles and social attitudes on how these women both were seen, and saw themselves; and about how the lives and work of the writers in Wanderers might touch on the experience of female walkers today.
UKHillwalking: The established canon of early walking-writing is overwhelmingly male, and yet you've cited examples in Wanderers of women who equally deserve a place alongside their better known male peers. For instance, you write of Lakeland expert Harriet Martineau: "Recognized in her own time as a walker-writer to rival the Lake poets who put the area on the literary map, it is important we recognize that the map we carry of walking's history is incomplete without her." For most people, I'd bet that history is very much incomplete. What inspired you to undertake this reclamation of the role of women in the literary history of walking?
Kerri Andrews: A combination of bloody-mindedness and disbelief. I was reading Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways in 2014, and thinking of writing a book about how differently we used to move through the landscape, but nagging away was the appearance in the books I was reading that walking was done by men. I made a note in my journal querying this, and noting to myself to look into women's accounts '(if they exist)' I think I wrote. They most certainly do exist. But every book about walking I read – all by men – dismissed even the possibility that women might have walked, might have enjoyed it, might have found it creative and powerful.
The decision to look at the literary history came from a sense, gained from the books that I was reading, that walking had acquired its cultural significance because of its relationship with writing, especially the Romantic-era writers. And, in part, those writers had acquired kudos because they were powerful walkers. I felt that if I was to disrupt that narrative, which I was increasingly sure was totally wrong, I needed to demonstrate that walking was significant for women writers, too.
As a writer, sociologist and anti-slavery campaigner Martineau was an outstanding intellect of her age, a real polymath. And no slouch when it came to feats of walking endurance over the fells, written up in an engaging style. But until reading Wanderers, I hadn't even heard of her. To what extent can we put that down to the fact that she was a Harriet, not a Harry? Why do you think women walker-writers of the first calibre have been more easily forgotten, while male contemporaries such as William Wordsworth remain household names (at least in better read households)?
I think it's a combination of intellectual laziness, if I'm being brutally honest, and condescension. There are lots of factors at play in the process of how society decides which writers to remember and why. And it should be noted that Martineau was very famous at the time she was writing. When she moved to the Lakes she was a literary celebrity, and the guidebook she wrote based on her walking was one of the most popular guides to the Lakes of the nineteenth century. The problem came after, but where exactly I don't know. She was popular, critically acclaimed, part of the same social circles as the Wordsworths and the later Coleridges… so I think part of the problem is that we have inherited ideas about what women could and couldn't do, and for too long we haven't bothered to actually check the historical record to see if those ideas are true.
The status of women in 18th and 19th Century society was not enviable, and perhaps it's only to be expected that over time contemporary women walking, and writing about walking, became sidelined. But even today women seem less prominent in writing about nature and the outdoors, and we still see fewer books and articles by women. Is this gender imbalance something you've noticed, and how much does it bother you?
You're right, in some ways being a woman was far from enviable – especially if you lost control of your fertility through marriage. But that doesn't excuse ignoring women's accounts. I think we have lots of inherited ideas about what mountains are, what they are for, and those ideas (mountains are big, scary, dangerous, difficult etc) inflect who we think can, and should, go there. I'm writing at the moment about Dorothy Wordsworth's ascent of Scafell Pike in 1818. 'Mountaineering' as an idea had only been invented in 1802, so she was one of the first mountaineers at all, and yet what she saw there, and what she appreciated about climbing, has only recently been accepted as being of value. Her writing has a lot in common with Nan Shepherd's – and she had to wait thirty years after publication (and another 30 before that) for her words to find their audience.
There are also dynamics within publishing – akin to the discussions with women's sport being televised. Commercial providers are reluctant to offer content because they don't know if they'll have buyers. Meanwhile, their potential audience is sitting there waiting for content. Sponsorship, prizes, and salaries then don't go to women because there 'is no market'. Someone somewhere has to take a chance, because women are 50% of the global population. I think there are similar issues in publishing, where booksellers are reluctant to shell out on books that might not sell, and I was told by an agent I submitted to that she loved my book but didn't think 'I can sell it'. But talking with people who've read my book so many have said how long they'd waited for a book like this, how much it matters to see themselves represented. The audience is there, but commercial pressures, and behind that social attitudes, are strongly minded to continue the status quo.
Why has it persisted into our own century, and what steps do you think we can take – and I very much include the outdoor media here – to work towards a more levelled-up representation?
I've perhaps jumped the gun on this question and answered it already! But I think there's a lot we can do. For a start, stop making lazy assumptions about what women do and do not want, what they can and cannot do. Women are everywhere, in every sport, in every activity. But I think the most important thing the media can do is showcase women's faces and voices. I know amazing writers who are also ultra runners, climbers, endurance cyclists, hillwalkers, but the number of articles, mountain photography competitions, accolades and press coverage given to men is overwhelming. How are girls to know the mountains are for them if all they see are men? It's a self-perpetuating cycle that excludes women, and leads to those lazy assumptions again that 'oh well, it's not like women could really even do it anyway'.
Historically, conventional female roles such as motherhood and marriage must have served as very effective barriers to women getting out walking, or even thinking of that as an option. How big were those obstacles in the 19th Century, and are you surprised that anyone managed to overcome them?
Yes they did serve as barriers, but only because we refuse to (and continue to refuse to) see fatherhood and marriage as barriers to men. William Wordsworth was a father, Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a father, but no one discusses how they just left the kids behind with their wives, or how fatherhood might have inflected their decisions about walking. We need to change the debate on this, and to rethink not only what it meant to be a woman walker, but to be clearer sighted about the fact that men also had domestic responsibilities. Wordsworth for instance had to write to earn the money to support his family. His friend Robert Southey, also an ardent walker, had the same duty. But there are no books lamenting the effects of fatherhood. So, I think we need to recognise that personal circumstances affect all people, not just female people. Being male is not gender-neutral, yet the male experience is somehow universal while the female is 'different'.
Being less bloody-minded, women were also pretty adept at managing social attitudes and responsibilities – and finding ways to do what they wanted, or needed to do. Plus, poorer women would have had to walk anyway, with their children and to work. So we also need to remember that our discussion here is inflected by class.
We'd like to think we live in enlightened times, but to what extent are there still similar barriers today?
I don't think what I've to say here is anything new, but I think women still suffer from bearing a disproportionate share of the burden of domestic work, childbearing and rearing, and often having less money because they are more likely to take career breaks. Something that is very clear in the history of women's walking is that it helps to have money, as it would buy you leisure time. I think that still applies. In terms of wider social attitudes, many women I talk to report being told to fear walking alone or with other women – they wouldn't necessarily have thought to be frightened of it alone. For many women it's their family's worries that are more of an impediment, rather than there being any actual physical barrier to women's access. So, it comes back to assumptions again, about what it is safe and appropriate for women to do.
The governess Ellen Weeton, "found herself frustrated in her ambitions [to walk all over Wales] by anxieties about the social propriety of being a solitary woman on the road". How much of an influence were social attitudes, and notions of feminine propriety, in dissuading Victorian women from walking?
It's hard to know for sure, because of course the people I wrote about in Wanderers were those who ignored such attitudes! I don't think we can ever know just how many women might have walked if they had had the total freedom accorded to men. Again, though, we need to remember that this is a class-inflected issue. For many women of low income, walking would have been part of their daily lives, a perfectly ordinary thing to do. Prurient attitudes are more to do with walking for pleasure, I think. But even there, women were creative at working with or round social restrictions, and notions of 'propriety' also shifted over time. Walking matches between women were not uncommon, for instance.
Though it must have been a minority pursuit, not least by dint of class, it's interesting to speculate how many women might have found time and motivation to walk for pleasure, despite the difficulties, but simply not written about it. Absence of evidence not being the same as evidence for absence, do you think the 18th and 19th Century writers you have looked at here are exceptional in that sense, or are they just the ones we know about for obvious reasons?
I'm not sure there are grounds yet to claim absence of evidence, because so many of the accounts I've read have been in journals and letters – unpublished and therefore undervalued forms. I think if we were prepared to really trawl through the archives we would find thousands of women who walked – just writing about it to close friends, or noting briefly in their diaries their route – rather than publishing their accounts for a general audience. I found dozens more women I could have written about if the book had been set up slightly different. I'm not sure the ones I focus on are as exceptional as they might appear.
The stronger walkers in this book seem to have regularly outpaced the men they encounter, and yet often to have met disapproval or patronisation for being women in a man's pursuit. Do you think they would have enjoyed leaving the men in their dust, and would any have felt that this was in some small way one in the eye for the patriarchy (or 19th Century words to that effect)?
There is lots of evidence to suggest that these women took huge pleasure in their physical prowess. It wasn't always about 'beating men', so much as enjoying their own capacity for difficulty. Dorothy Wordsworth for instance writes in 1818 about climbing Scafell Pike with an almost youthful easiness. For others, like Sarah Stoddart Hazlitt, the hardships of walking were about taking control of your own body – choosing what, when and how it suffered. I don't think there was much explicit interest in doing men down, so much as taking pride in what they as individual women could accomplish.
It's interesting to speculate how empowered women might have come to feel through walking, which is after all a way of literally taking charge of your own destiny. This feeling seems to come out in a lot of the writing quoted in Wanderers. In the course of your research, did you come across anything you might describe as proto-feminist?
As I mention above, I don't think women's walking is about doing men down, so much as seeking, and claiming, a space to be a strong and capable individual. Elizabeth Carter jokes about leaving all her friends in the dust, for instance – male or female – and I think Harriet Martineau has her tongue in her cheek when she laughs at the plight of her slower male companions.
The book introduces a number of women that it's probably fair to assume most readers will be hearing about for the first time. How did you encounter them all?
Haphazardly! Some I knew about through my earlier work as a scholar of the eighteenth century, so I knew Dorothy Wordsworth, and I knew a bit about Virginia Woolf. Many of the others were leads that grew from brief mentions in other books, or happy chance. I was put onto Harriet Martineau by my friend Jo Taylor who is an expert on Lake District writing. Elizabeth Carter was the subject of a random conversation in Los Angeles while I was working at a library there, and Nan Shepherd I encountered through Robert Macfarlane. A lot of the work for the book was tracking down these mentions and seeing if there was any substance to them. I will remain forever disappointed that the lead that suggested Barbara Bodichon, founder of Girton College, Cambridge, walked across Europe in outlandish get up, could not be verified in the archives. I so wanted that story to be true!
While you can find works both by and about William Wordsworth or Coleridge in any bookshop, and it's relatively easy to form a picture of these men, some of the writing you cite in Wanderers must have been harder to come by. Where did you find your sources, and how much research did you need to put in, in order to build such rounded portraits of the women in the book?
It looks like I had to do a lot of archival digging, but I really didn't. Elizabeth Carter's letters are all available online through Google Books – you can even search them for references to her walking. Writing by Virginia Woolf is relatively easy to track down, as are Anais Nin's diaries. Harriet Martineau's books are on Google Books, and you can buy copies of Wild, Doubling Back and The Living Mountain as easily as you can The Prelude. Ellen Weeton's writing, and Sarah Stoddart Hazlitt, were the only two that were tricky, and even then Abe Books will sort you out with a cheap copy of Weeton's work. Really, the difficulty was trusting that the issue was just that no one had bothered looking for women's writing about walking, rather than that writing being hard to find.
Elizabeth Carter, the daughter of a parson, "treasured the desire to be mistaken for a vagabond" but of course in the mid-18th Century only the fact of her privileged upbringing made it possible for her to walk for leisure at all, let alone find the leisure to write about it. Much like later upper class would-be vagrants, she was indulging a comfortable fantasy, while the real vagrants walked out of necessity, not romance, and risked sanction just for existing. But what's remarkable is that she seems to have acknowledged her privilege. "…[T]he only status she was conscious of as a walker was her class; her gender was, largely, incidental" you write. I don't recall noticing a similar social sensitivity in the writing of male contemporaries. Carter was ahead of her time, as you point out, both for being a woman who walked and for walking for pleasure at all – something that had yet to catch on at that time. Would it be plausible to add class consciousness to her list of achievements?
Yes I think so. And it's a feature of many of the women's writing about walking, not just Carter's. Dorothy Wordsworth ponders the different fate she has from a poor woman walking with her young family to find work, for instance. Sarah Stoddart Hazlitt enjoys encountering women on the path, taking pleasure in their fellowship. Whether it's because their own status is insecure that they notice others who might feel similarly, I don't know, but some of the women see the world quite differently to men, and their accounts offer rich new perspectives we are the poorer for having ignored.
It's tempting in discussing a book about female walkers to concentrate exclusively on gender. But should the example set by Elizabeth Carter remind us to look at the subject in the round - considering factors besides gender, such as class and economic status?
Absolutely. I wish male walker writers would open up about the massive privileges they enjoy. When Robert Macfarlane or other fathers go wandering, could they perhaps mention that someone else is doing the childcare? Because someone is, and it is obvious that they are, but somehow men's writing gets to be free of such markers of status, and taken to be universal. If you've the time, the body, the leisure, the money to be in the wild you're benefitting from privilege. It hasn't done us any good to ignore that – and it might open up adventure literature to other voices who don't benefit from all, or any, of those privileges.
From Ellen Weeton confounding local (male) Victorian assumptions with a solo ascent of Snowdon, and a solitary Sarah Stoddart Hazlitt ranging on foot across 19th Century Scotland, to the more contemporary account of Cheryl Strayed remaking herself through suffering on the Pacific Crest Trail, many of the women in the book walk alone. But for the solo female walker it's often assumed there'll be an undercurrent of anxiety, a fear of assault that a lone male might never consider - and some of these writers do voice such concerns. From both what you've read, and what you've experienced as a woman walker yourself, does a sense of vulnerability ever influence women's attitudes to walking alone? Might this still deter people?
As I mention above, anecdotally it's other people's concerns that are actually more of a problem, rather than women themselves being afraid. I've never felt afraid on a hill, though I remember being uneasy in urban environments. For me the issue is compass competence – while I can read a map really well somehow bearings confound me. I'd therefore not venture too far into the wilds alone, but it's not social attitudes that's the problem. For other women, it's more a fear of being talked about than any sense of transgression that proves the difficulty. And for someone like Nin, what would seem vulnerability is actually a source of profound strength – men's eyes, sexual possibility – are all sources of creative power for her.
Periods. "By reading accounts of walking only written by men" you say "such matters must rarely, if ever, have assumed any importance in our understanding of what it means to walk." Yet menstruation is the experience of half the world, and any woman who walks will know what it is like to be on her period somewhere inconvenient. So why is Cheryl Strayed seemingly so unusual in giving full voice to this inevitable "embodied perspective of a woman" in her book Wild? Are we all simply too squeamish to bear it, or is this a sign that the female experience of the outdoors, at least as is written, remains subordinate to the male?
I think it's both. Social squeamishness is evident in tampon adverts or sanitary towels being filled with mysterious blue liquid (I'd be very worried if something that colour ever emanated from my body), but I think a discussion of the subject in outdoor literature is only surprising to us because we're used to non-menstruating bodies telling the stories.
Looking back at the early women in Wanderers, being female was clearly a disadvantage when it came to having the freedom head out, and attitudes to unaccompanied females, but were there any senses in which it could also be an advantage? Could women walkers in the 19th Century experience things not open to men? Can they still?
Yes I think so, both then and now. Dorothy Wordsworth is invited into a female-led household and witnesses a private act of mourning over the death of a child: men would not have been allowed in. Sarah Stoddart Hazlitt has lovely conversations with local women, and Wild and Doubling Back are both full of experiences that are particular to women. Admitting that these sorts of domestic, private, familial moments are important in walking literature makes our history of walking more fully human. These moments aren't lesser because they don't (only) involve grand views and enormous danger – these are people's lived experiences possible only on foot.
For my own part, I've had wonderful conversations with women while walking that I doubt would happen if I was walking with men, or if the other woman was. I've been invited to someone's house, I've been invited to join a family group (on Ben Cruachan after my husband and sister-in-law turned back – that family kept me going and I stopped them taking a very dangerous wrong turn). All sorts of things have happened to me as a woman walking alone that I really treasure and value.
- Wanderers by Kerri Andrews is published by Reaktion Books
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