Archive for the ‘Feminists’ Category

PANCHO BARNES (1901 – 1975) Pilot, Proprietor, Partier

In American History, Ballooning, California History, Feminists, Hollywood, Pilots, women on March 16, 2011 at 9:17 AM

Pancho Barnes

Pancho Barnes was a force of nature, and she didn’t do anything in a predictable way.  She was born into wealth, but couldn’t stand the obligations living in high society demanded.  Her first marriage was arranged, but subsequent ones were based on passion.  Her friends, mostly men, included movie stars, test pilots and anyone who could keep up with her adventuresome spirit.  There wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do except for one: conform to what other people expected of her.

Barnes’ grandfather, Thaddeus Sobieski Constantine Lowe, was an inventor and pioneer balloonist.  He was the first person to take photographs from a balloon and helped the Union Army with reconnaissance during the Civil War.  When he moved his family from Pennsylvania to Pasadena, California in 1888 they settled in a 24,000 square foot mansion on Millionaire’s Row.  Among other business ventures, he created the Mount Lowe Railway in the local San Gabriel Mountains which ended up costing him his entire fortune, and he died poor.

Barnes’ father was Thad Junior, the seventh child of ten.  He worked in his father’s businesses, but he preferred to spend his time outdoors and was an excellent horseman.  He married Florence Mae Dobbins, a staunch Episcopalian from another moneyed family who also had moved west from Pennsylvania.  The bride’s parents gave the couple a house in neighboring San Marino and eight years later upgraded it to a 35 room estate with servants, a pool, tennis courts and stables.  Barnes’ older brother, William Emmert, was constantly sick and died when Barnes was 12 years old.  While her mother cared for her brother, the rambunctious tomboy was spoiled by her father.

Barnes inherited her passions from her grandfather and father, and they treated her like the boy they wanted.  When she was three, her father gave her a pony.  For her fifth birthday, she got a Thoroughbred, and she won her first equestrian trophy that year.  When she was nine, her grandfather took her to the first American aviation exhibition near Long Beach.  From her mother, she inherited her name and, unfortunately, her masculine looks.

GIRLS JUST WANNA HAVE FUN       After a few years of home schooling, Barnes was enrolled in the Pasadena Elementary School, the only girl in a class of 23 boys.  She could run faster, spit, curse and fight better than most of her classmates.  Her behavior became an issue, but her parents didn’t know what to do about it, so they moved her to a prestigious prep school, Westridge School for Girls.  Barnes proved that she just wanted to have fun and didn’t care much about rules, so her parents moved her to a nearby Catholic boarding school, Ramona Convent.  During her second year there she ran away on horseback to Tijuana.  Now her parents were desperate, but the only option they could think of was to move their daughter away to the Bishop School in La Jolla, an Episcopalian boarding school.  Somehow Barnes managed to survive the two years until graduation.

After she graduated, Barnes announced that she wanted to be a veterinarian.  That was such an appalling idea to her mother that she promptly enrolled the teenager in Stickney School of Art for a more ladylike course of study.  This did not offer any real long term prospects, however, so Barnes’ maternal grandmother arranged for her to marry the rector of the local Episcopal church.  It seemed like a win-win situation, if not a perfect match.  The groom would be appeasing a major contributor to the church and get a new bell tower.  The bride would be able to stop living with her parents and have a shot at independence.

THAT’S NOT A LADY, IT’S MY WIFE          Barnes and Reverend C. Rankin Barnes were married in January 1921.  The first time the couple kissed was at the wedding, and the only time they were intimate was on the honeymoon.  Nine months later a baby boy, William Emmert Barnes (“Billy”), was born.

As was to be expected, Barnes was totally bored being a poor pastor’s wife, but she tried to fill the role for a while.  She taught Sunday school and bribed the kids in catechism class with jackknives to entice them to behave.  She had no maternal instinct, and nurturing a baby was asking too much of her.

Relief came from the burgeoning film industry in Hollywood.  Barnes started riding her horses in movies and was so adept she could carry a camera on her shoulder while riding.  She was earning at least $100 a day, and as soon as she could she hired a cook, housekeeper and full time nanny.  She was so successful Aimee Semple McPherson hired Barnes as her stunt double in shows.

When Barnes was 22 years old, her mother died.  Her father’s way of coping with the loss was to marry a woman only three years older than his daughter and move to Lake Arrowhead.  Barnes coped by running away, traveling across the country by herself for several months.  When she returned she took up with a college student and discovered how much fun physical intimacy could be.  Their affair lasted several months, and it was followed by another.  Barnes’ occasional attempts to act like a pastor’s wife didn’t overshadow her indiscretions, and she became an embarrassment to her upstanding family.  She left again, under pressure, on a cruise to South America.

A LONG WALK HOME          When she returned, she moved into her parents’ house, but she didn’t stay put for long.  When some friends got the idea to get hired on as crew on a banana boat bound for South America, Barnes, the only woman, didn’t hesitate to join them.  She dressed as a man and signed on as “Jacob Crane.”  As soon as the boat left the dock, the adventurers discovered they were running guns and ammunition to revolutionaries in Mexico.  When they arrived in San Blas, the ship was boarded by armed guards who used the vehicle to shelter the town’s money from the rebels.  The crew was held hostage for six weeks.  Barnes and the helmsman, Roger Chute, were the only two courageous enough to escape.

The pair stole a horse and burro and set out through the Mexican countryside.  Barnes quipped that her partner looked like Don Quixote, and he said that made her “Pancho.”  She corrected his reference, saying the character’s name was “Sancho Panza,” but Chute liked “Pancho” better.  Barnes liked the sound of Pancho Barnes, and the name stuck.

The journey continued on foot, and Barnes and Chute walked over 250 miles from Mexico City to Vera Cruz where they became stowaways on a boat.  With help from a connection at the American Embassy, they eventually got on another boat to New Orleans.  From there they walked, hoboed and hitchhiked to California.  For all of the challenges of the trip, Barnes saw it as a total adventure, and finally she knew who she was and what she was capable of.

TAKING FLIGHT         It didn’t take Barnes long to need another adventure, and she turned her attention skyward.  In spring of 1928 she started taking pilot’s lessons.  Her instructor was a World War I pilot, and the airplane had one instrument in it: an oil gauge.  A key chain hung from the control board to determine if they were flying straight, and they looked over the side to judge altitude.  To know how much gas they had, they dipped a string in the tank and estimated how far they could go.  Barnes was immediately hooked, and she bought herself a Travel Air biplane for $5,500.  She was more captivated by the thrill of the early days of flying than deterred by the dangers.  In 1928 on a trip to San Francisco her engine quit, and she had to make eight emergency landings.

The enterprising woman found various ways to earn income as a pilot: test pilot for airplane manufacturers, making promotional flights for Union Oil, and stunt pilot and technical director for the movies.  Barnes helped Howard Hughes capture authentic audio of planes for Hell’s Angels by flying past tethered balloons with sound equipment attached to them.

Her interests took a political bent when she founded the Association of Motion Picture Pilots (AMPP) in 1932 so the pilots could get fair wages for their often death defying work.  That year she also tried to parlay her popularity into a bid for Supervisor for the Third District in Los Angeles.  Even with an endorsement from fellow pilot Amelia Earhart, Barnes wasn’t able to convert her generosity and clout into political office.

Barnes worked constantly, but she was better at spending money than saving it.  Her home was party central, constantly full of flying and movie industry friends.  She had an open door, open bar policy, and she never expected her guests to help foot the bill.  In addition to spending lavishly, she used her house and other properties as collateral to buy more real estate investments without any regard as to how she would make payments.

STARTING OVER  By 1935 Barnes was broke.  Conceding that she would never become famous because she didn’t have the requisite good looks or personal backers, she decided it was time to reinvent herself.  She rented out the San Marino estate until she was ready to sell it, and she traded an apartment building in Los Angeles for a four-room house and hay barn on an 80-acre alfalfa ranch in the Antelope Valley near Muroc Dry Lake.  She moved her horses and airplane to the middle of nowhere.  The nearest town was 20 miles away from her Rancho Oro Verde, but there was an encampment for an Army Air Corps squadron to conduct exercises and bombing practice.

Barnes was by no means isolated in this desert wasteland.  She created an air strip out of the hard earth and built guest quarters so her friends could fly in for a visit.  By 1941 she had 360 acres with a farmhouse, stables and swimming pool.  She knew nothing about alfalfa farming, so she expanded her venture with dairy cows and pigs.  Billy had been living with his dad, but the teenager joined his mom to help out and enjoy new freedom, and Barnes tried to act more like a mother to him.  Barnes opened her home and heart to the local fly boys, and even Colonel Clarence Shoop, the commanding officer of the Flight Test Center, used Barnes’ facilities to host parties for visiting dignitaries.

In 1939 the Civilian Pilot Training Program was established to train pilots, and Barnes got a government contract to supply planes and instructors for the local school.  One of the students distinguished himself from the others.  Barnes had had many lovers, but she met Robert Hudson Nichols, Jr. (“Nicky”), about the time her husband asked for a divorce, freeing her and Nicky to get married.  The pilot training program lasted two years.  The marriage lasted two weeks.

After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the government discontinued the civilian training program and the Muroc Army Air Base became Edwards Air Force Base.  With the influx of Air Force test pilots, there were even more guys who joined Barnes’ Hollywood friends to hang out, get a good meal and be entertained.  She could match them with flying stories, jokes, drinking, smoking and swearing, and they loved her.  Barnes was totally unaware of how much it cost her to host her friends.  She often ran out of money to feed the horses or pay bills, and she accrued several liens on her property.  But, if all you need is love, Barnes was happy.  In 1944 she met Don Shalita, a very handsome show dancer six years her junior.  His career was winding down so he moved to the ranch, and a year later they were married.  This time Barnes broke a longevity record for actually living with a husband: four months.

HAPPY BOTTOM RIDING CLUB            Barnes received an inheritance from her uncle, and after World War II she used it to improve her property, calling it Pancho’s Fly-Inn.  On 300 acres she opened her own airfield with two runways.  Anyone could tie down their plane for free, but they had to buy gas and oil from Barnes.  There was a hanger, repair shop and flight school.  She added rooms with air conditioning and private baths to her guest house.  Barnes built a racetrack, and there was even a fishpond in the shape of the Air Force emblem.  She advertised in the Los Angeles newspapers for families to enjoy her “modern flying dude ranch” for $49 a week, per person, meals included.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, the likes of General Al Boyd, Commander of Edwards AFB, and Chuck Yeager were regulars at Barnes’ place, but it had become so popular that she felt she was missing the spirit of the old days.  She converted the bar and grill into a private club for her Edwards AFB and Hollywood friends and called it the Happy Bottom Riding Club.

One of the newer Happy Bottom guests was pilot Eugene McKendry (“Mac”), who ended up at the ranch after returning from a tour of duty overseas.  His wife was divorcing him and giving him custody of their son, and Mac needed some encouragement and a place to live.  He found both with Barnes, and he was there for her when she needed support.

When Barnes was 45 years old, she suffered from hypertension and had a retinal hemorrhage.  She ignored the symptoms until she collapsed and a ranch hand called the doctor.  Barnes consented to experimental surgery called sympathectomy which destroys nerves in the sympathetic nervous system to increase blood flow.  It required two operations with 18-inch incisions on both sides of the spine and partial removal of four ribs.  Mac was by her side during her lengthy recovery from the operation and a bout of pneumonia.

Life at the Club continued to be one big party, and liquor was flown in illegally from Mexico.  Barnes sponsored air shows, rodeos and aerial treasure hunts with other airports.  She hired hostesses to wait tables and dance with the men.  Barnes denied that she was running a brothel, but the wives of the pilots resented that they spent their free time there, regardless of what they were doing.

In addition to the usual carousing, in June 1952 Barnes was involved in planning another bash, her fourth wedding, to Mac.  The bride was 51 years old, and the groom was 32.  Commander Al Boyd gave the bride away, and Chuck Yeager stood up as her attendant.  The 58 second ceremony was presided over by Judge J. G. Sherrill and witnessed by 650 guests.  Then the couple exchanged vows again in a Native American ceremony officiated by Chief Lucky and Little Snow White of the Blackfoot tribe.  The wedding banquet included four whole roasted pigs, 80 pounds of potato salad, 16 gallons of Jell-O and a 50 pound wedding cake.  One of the entertainers at the reception was Lassie.

DEALING WITH CHANGE    That same year the leadership of Edwards changed, and Brigadier General J. Stanley Holtoner took command.  He was all business and didn’t enjoy Barnes’ hospitality as his predecessors had.  In addition, the government was buying up all the property adjoining the air base.  This seriously jeopardized what took Barnes almost 20 years to build.  The FBI investigated Barnes for possible illegal activity, but the worst they could accuse her of was bad credit.  There were enough law suits and counter suits to keep both sides busy for a long time, and Barnes always acted as her own attorney.  The government finally got legal title to Barnes’ land and gave her $185,000.

A few months later, Barnes was driving home from shopping when she saw smoke coming from her property.  She lost everything in the house, barn and dance hall to the fire.  Conspiracy theories circulating around implicated the government, Barnes and even a drifter who was hanging around.

The disastrous fire was the beginning of the end for Barnes.  She tried to start over a few miles north in the Mojave Desert and took out mortgages on over 1,000 acres with a little café and gas station.  She treated herself to horses, a Stinson airplane and catamaran, but she lived in an abandoned rock building with a dirt floor and broken windows.  She had big plans for Gypsy Springs, but she still hadn’t learned to manage her money, and Edwards Air Force Base had grown into a self sufficient community and no longer needed her hospitality.

To compound her problems, Barnes had health issues and relationship issues.  She was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a double mastectomy.  Mac moved to Gypsy Springs and was there for her during the two surgeries, but their relationship was rapidly deteriorating beyond reconciliation.  In 1962, Barnes sued her husband for divorce.

In her late 60s, Barnes found herself alone.  An old friend offered to let her live rent free in a 20 by 25 square foot house.  She started breeding Yorkshire terriers, but they just contributed to the increased squalor that she lived in.  Her best asset was storytelling, and she was invited to speak at local clubs and banquets, regaling audiences with the spellbinding tales of her life.  In the summer of 1971 some of her old friends at Edwards, including Buzz Aldrin, threw a party for her 70th birthday on the base.

Barnes could not create a future for herself, and she ended up living off memories and dreams.  In the spring of 1975, she never showed up for a speaking engagement and was found dead in her home surrounded by putrid filth.  Two friends got permission to fly over the old Rancho Oro Verde and scatter her remains.  As the ashes started to drift toward the ground, a crosswind came up and redirected them back into the cockpit of the Cessna.  Even in death Barnes still loved a good joy ride.

QUESTION:  How are you different than what you think other people expect you to be?

© 2011 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved


Kessler, Lauren, The Happy Bottom Riding Club: The Life and Times of Pancho Barnes.  New York: Random House, 2000.

Tate, Grover Ted, The Lady Who Tamed Pegasus.  Maverick Publications, 1984.

Schultz, Barbara Hunter, Pancho, The Biography of Florence Lowe Barnes.  Lancaster, California: Little Buttes Publishing Co., 1996.

JEANNE BARET (1740 – 1807) First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe

In Explorers, Feminists, French History, Sailing, Scientists on February 7, 2011 at 8:00 PM

Jeanne Baret

When Jean and Jeanne Baret had their daughter they did the obvious and named her Jeanne.  From a family of day laborers in the fields of Burgundy, France, she was destined to be poor and never venture farther than 20 miles away.  But Baret’s love of plants was her ticket to a worldly adventure that was at times more challenging than the life she left behind.

Baret came from a mixed family: her father was Catholic and her mother was Protestant.  Protestants tended to be more literate having learned to read the Bible on their own, and Baret’s mom taught her how to read.  Perhaps the freedom and ability to learn about the world also instilled in the young girl the curiosity and desire to discover more about it.

Baret’s broader education took place in the fields where she played.  She became an expert in the medical properties of plants.  As an “herb woman” she supplied druggists, physicians, dentists and veterinarians.  One day when she was picking and analyzing in the fields she met her future.

MEETING MR. RIGHT      Philibert Commerson was born near Lyon, France 12 years before Baret.  He appeased his father by studying law and medicine and then followed his heart and became a botanist, at the risk of losing his inheritance.  When he was 26 years old, this passion led him to explore and collect samples in the fields not far from Baret’s home where they had a fateful encounter.

Commerson was married to a rich heiress, but he spent a lot of time with Baret learning about the curative properties of the local flora.  When his wife died giving birth to their only child, Baret became more integrated in his life.  She moved into his house and assumed the duties of nanny, household manager, lover and assistant.

Baret became pregnant when she was 24 years old, which complicated their lives.  For Commerson marriage was not an option, so the couple had to deal with the fact that their lifestyle was unacceptable.  The best solution seemed to be to move away.  With the money Commerson inherited from his wife, they turned the need to escape the condemnation of their neighbors into an opportunity to broaden their horizons.

Commerson and Baret each did something to help facilitate a clean break.  It was mandatory for an unwed mother to have a certificate of pregnancy which named the father.  However, somehow Baret was able to make the appropriate connection which allowed her to decline to state who fathered her child, and she gave him her last name.  Commerson gave his two year old son to his brother-in-law, a priest, to raise.  The couple went to Paris to create a new life for themselves.

In December 1764 Jean-Pierre Baret was born.  Commerson, having already proven he did not have much paternal instinct, hated the inconvenience of having a newborn around.  Apparently Baret’s maternal instincts were not very strong either, and one month later she abandoned her baby at the Paris foundling hospital which then turned him over to a foster mother.  Less than one year later Baret received news that her son had died.

In a way, Baret had been relieved of one burden, but another one manifested.  Commerson had pleurisy.  Baret became the caregiver of her lover and his collection of plants.  As he healed he was able to write a book, but he continued to look for the perfect project that would really put his name on the map.

RUNNING AWAY TOGETHER         Britain, the Netherlands and Spain had already sailed around the world, and France wanted to get in the game.  The goal was to find a land mass in the southern hemisphere.  An expedition was planned, and Commerson was selected to be the naturalist on board who would discover and collect unknown species of flora and fauna.  It was the perfect opportunity for Commerson, but not for Baret.  Women were not allowed on French naval ships, but the couple came up with a solution: dress Baret as a man and have her work as the naturalist’s assistant since she had the experience to be convincing.  To facilitate the ruse, she started using the masculine spelling of her name, Jean.

The frigate La Boudeuse, under the command of Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, and the supply ship L’Etoile, with captain Francois Chenard de la Giraudais at the helm, set sail together on February 1, 1767.  Commerson and his assistant were on the Etoile.  Baret disguised her gender by wrapping her chest with linen bandages, so tight that she had trouble taking a deep breath, and wearing men’s clothing.  It was her job to carry onboard her boss’s bags and most of the extensive field equipment they brought along.  When captain La Giraudais saw how much they had, he knew it would not all fit in the small berth they had been assigned.  He offered the scientist and his assistant the 30 x 15 foot captain’s cabin.

Suspicions about Baret’s gender were aroused immediately.  It was very unusual for a servant to sleep in the same cabin as his master, and Baret was never seen relieving herself at the “head,” holes cut out of the protruding part of the forward deck.  Such a breach of regulations could ruin La Giraudais’ career, so he ordered Baret to sleep with the other servants.  She did not feel safe in that environment, so she slept with one of Commerson’s loaded pistols and threatened to use it one evening when she was maliciously approached by some curious men.

La Giraudais called Baret in for questioning, and she explained her situation by claiming to be a eunuch who had supervised a sultan’s harem in the Ottoman Empire.  While the captain may not have been totally convinced, it was good enough to be allowed back in Commerson’s cabin.  In addition, a previous dog bite in Commerson’s leg had become ulcerated.  The infirmity was another justification to allow her to reside in the master’s cabin so she could tend to his needs.

Baret’s life on the ship was not easy.  Living in such close quarters with Commerson made him quite moody.  The temperature was consistently in the 80s, and the sweat-soaked linen wrap chaffed at her skin giving her eczema.  They were both living for the day when they could get off the ship.

The first opportunity to disembark was a brief stop in Montevideo, Uruguay before heading up the eastern coast of South America to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  In mid July, five months after leaving France, the naturalists were able to go ashore and start the work they were commissioned to do.

DOING A MAN’S JOB           The sores on Commerson’s leg were turning into gangrene.  Baret’s treatments prevented amputation, but Commerson’s mobility was severely restricted.  He was able to take the rowboat but he was in no condition to wander around collecting plant samples.  It was up to Baret to do all the physical work.  She carried the food for the day, the wooden presses for preserving samples and all the field equipment which included a spade, glass vials for seeds, tiny boxes for insects, magnifying glasses, a telescope, a compass and a butterfly net.  Commerson lightly referred to Baret as his “beast of burden.”

The most well known discovery Baret made was a colorful vine native to South America.  Commerson respectfully named it after Commander Bougainville: Bougainvillea brasiliensis, or what we call bougainvillea.

The Boudeuse and the Etoile continued their tandem journey back down the coast of South America where they spent 38 days feeling their way through the perilous maze of the Strait of Magellan.  There were no charts for navigation since this was the first time French ships were in the region.  They stopped in Patagonia and started across the Pacific Ocean at the end of January 1768.  Whenever they stopped, Baret and Commerson went botanizing.

COMING OUT OF THE CLOSET        If Baret’s gender had been a secret up to that point, that changed when they hit Tahiti.  A native Tahitian named Aotourou, with previous experience with foreign ships, came onboard the Etoile.  He saw Baret standing with several other crew members, pointed to her and identified her as a girl.  Undoubtedly confused by the accuracy of the observation and visibly angry at being outed, she ran into her cabin.  Aotourou, unaware that he had said anything wrong, offered an explanation.  In his culture it was very common for some men to dress like and perform the duties of women (called mahu).  In fact, they held a respected place in the society as having the best qualities of men and women.  Aotourou believed Baret to be a mahu, someone who dressed and acted like a person of the opposite sex, with a specific purpose on the crew.  Now that Baret’s identity was revealed, she was afraid of being attacked and carried a pistol with her whenever she left the cabin.

After leaving Tahiti in April 1768, the conditions of the trip got progressively worse.  They sailed for three months without being able to find a suitable port.  They used up all the fresh water, and the cases of scurvy increased daily.  They couldn’t seem to catch any fish and had to resort to eating the rats onboard.  When they finally landed on the island of New Ireland (part of Papua New Guinea) Baret had a few days of successful collecting before her life became a nightmare.

Each day Baret went botanizing, accompanied by a pistol to protect herself from her fellow crew members more than the natives.  Several days after their arrival Baret joined the other servants who were doing laundry.  They had been plotting to confirm Baret’s sex for themselves, and she unwittingly gave them the opportunity they were waiting for.  They stole her gun and proceeded to rape her.  In relating the incident in his journal, the ship’s doctor justified the actions of the men by conveying the benefit to Baret: she no longer had to bind herself to hide her identity.  Back on board, Commerson feigned surprise at the news that Baret was a woman in order to protect his job.  For the rest of the journey, Baret secluded herself in their cabin.

After leaving New Ireland, the explorers traveled for six weeks without any real food, and starvation was a constant threat until they could get provisions on the Dutch island of Buru.  This posed a problem especially for Baret because she was pregnant.

In early November 1768 the expedition landed on the island of Mauritius, near Madagascar.  Commerson had known the civil administrator from Paris, and he invited the couple to stay in his home at Port Louis.  Baret was given her own room in the servants’ quarters, and she had some privacy for the first time in almost two years.  When the Etoile and Boudeuse headed back to France about a month later, Baret and Commerson stayed on the island.

When it came time to deliver the baby, Baret and Commerson went to a plantation in Flacq in the northern part of the island and stayed with a Mr. Bezac.  The new mom didn’t feel any more affection for this child than she had for her first one, and she left him to live with Bezac.

Baret and Commerson went to Madagascar for four months and collected 500 species of flora and fauna.  When they returned to Mauritius they had to find a new place to live.  They rented a house and lived together as a couple for the first time since leaving Paris.  The contentment of this arrangement did not last long, however, because Commerson was diagnosed with rheumatism and then dysentery.  Bezac welcomed them again in Flacq where Commerson died in 1773.

GOING HOME        Baret was ready to return to France, but she had no money and no place to live until she could get some.  She said goodbye to her son again and moved back down to Port Louis.  She worked as an herb woman and barmaid for survival.  While she was serving drinks she met a French soldier, Jean Dubernat, on his way back to France after serving in one of the colonies.  Whether it was for love or convenience we can’t be sure, but Baret and Dubernat were married on May, 1774.  Presumably to give herself a fresh start in life, the bride signed her name with a new spelling: Barret.

When Baret landed on French soil near the end of 1774, she became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.  But unlike the arrival of Bougainville and the crews of the two naval vessels five years earlier, there was no ceremony or recognition of her achievement.

The new couple set up house in Dubernat’s home town of Saint-Aulaye.  Commerson had provided for Baret before they left Paris, leaving 600 livres to her in his will which she collected when she returned to France.  That was about six times the annual wage of a servant.  She finally had the means to buy a house and give her life some stability.

Baret did receive recognition for her contribution to society as a naturalist.  Nine years later, the Ministry of Marine granted her a pension of 200 livres a year.  On August 5, 1807, at age sixty-seven, Baret died.  She left behind a legacy of plants, seeds, shells and insects that are housed in the Museum national d’histoire naturelle, giving future generations insight into the world around them.

QUESTION:  What would you like to be remembered for accomplishing when you die?

©2011 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved


Ridley, Glynis, The Discovery of Jeanne Baret, A Story of Science, The High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe.  New York: Crown Publishers, 2010.

GERTRUDE BELL (1868 – 1926) Explorer, Instrumental in Founding Iraq

In adventure, Biography, Explorers, Feminists, People from England, Victorian Women on January 12, 2011 at 10:27 AM

Gertrude Bell

Gertrude Bell followed where her curiosity led in ways no woman had before.  She broke the ultimate glass ceiling by becoming a friend and confidant to numerous sheiks in Mesopotamia, with enough influence to be considered one of the founders of the country of Iraq.  The literal heights she scaled and emotional low she felt bookmarked her remarkable professional life as someone who intimately understood that home is where your heart is.

Bell had an upper class upbringing near Newcastle, England.  Her father, Sir Hugh Bell, inherited a fortune from the Bell Brothers Ironworks, but education was a priority, and he studied in Edinburgh, at the Sorbonne and in Germany.  He married Mary Shield, but she died three weeks after Bell’s younger brother, Maurice, was born.  Sir Hugh was devoted to his children, but he was lonely and knew the children needed a mother.  He married Florence Olliffe who was easily integrated into the family.

Bell’s commanding, adventuresome spirit manifested itself early on, and she took it out on her little brother.  One time when she led the terrified boy along the edge of the greenhouse roof, she crossed handily but he slipped and fell, and it was his turn to break through the glass ceiling.

Formal elementary education was traditionally reserved for boys, so while her brother was at boarding school, Bell spent lonely days devouring books from the family library.  When she was 16, she was sent to Queen’s College in London and excelled in every class except scripture, declaring herself an atheist because she did not believe a word of the Bible.  Ironically, as an adult she would carve out a life for herself in the cradle of the world’s three most important religions.

She matriculated at Oxford University, and Bell’s confidence and intellect had prepared her for the rigors of such a demanding education.  During her oral final exam, when the professor, a distinguished historian, asked a question about Charles I, Bell had the audacity to say that she held a different opinion of the monarch.  Then, when another professor asked about a German town that was on the left bank of the Rhine, Bell casually contradicted him before answering, saying that she was positive town was on the right bank because she had been there.  Her assertiveness did not blight her evaluation, and she set her first record as a woman by becoming the first female student to receive the highest grade possible in Modern History.

Bell came out as a debutante in London and was presented to Queen Victoria.  But if the goal of the formal debut was to find a husband, no one suitable presented himself.  Without romantic prospects or many career options, she jumped at the opportunity to go with her aunt and uncle to Persia.  Sir Frank Lascelles was the British ambassador to Tehran.  Six months before leaving, Bell started learning Persian and was able to understand the locals when she arrived in June 1892.

This was the beginning of two great love affairs.  First, she was totally captivated by the people and culture of Persia, her introduction to the Middle East.  Second, she was smitten by the British legation secretary, Hon. Henry Cadogan.  Finally she had found someone to give her heart to and who returned her affections, and they got engaged.  When her parents heard of the impending nuptials, they didn’t approve because Cadogan didn’t earn enough money in foreign service to support their daughter well enough, and he was a gambler.  Bell was heartbroken, but she obeyed her parents and returned to England.  One year later Cadogan died of pneumonia.

During the ensuing years, Bell studied Persian and Arabic.  Ultimately she would become fluent in both languages as well as German, French and Italian.  She continued to travel, following her personal philosophy of the pursuit of personal happiness coupled with the moral responsibility for the welfare of others.  She became proficient in horseback riding, hunting, dancing, shooting, fishing, gardening and mountain climbing.

AIMING FOR THE TOP      In 1899 Bell made her first major ascent, climbing to the top of the Meije in the French Alps, over 13,000 feet.  There were no proper clothes for female climbers then, so Bell took off her skirt when she and her guides roped up together and continued in her underclothes until they descended back to the glacier.  After more hair-raising, confidence-building ascents, Bell decided to be the first person to climb all the peaks of the Engelhörnerrange in the Swiss Alps.  She accomplished her goal during two weeks in 1901 wearing a blue climbing suit with pants, although she always changed back into her skirt at base camp.  Of the nine peaks, she was the first person to summit seven of them.  One mountain top was named after her, Gertrudspitze.

After her record-breaking mountain climbing adventures in Europe, Bell headed east to a warmer clime.  When she was 31 years old she went to Jerusalem at the invitation of friends.  Her days were filled with language lessons (Arabic, Hebrew and Turkish), horseback riding and socializing.  Bell rode “astride” the horse for the first time, and the sisters at the local convent stitched a long, split skirt so she could still be ladylike.

IT’S ALL ABOUT THE JOURNEY      From Jerusalem, Bell took extensive journeys into the desert on horseback accompanied only by cooks, muleteers and her guide, all local men.  During her first expedition she painfully learned the need to protect herself from the severe desert environment.  From then on, she wore the traditional keffiyeh (scarf) over her hat and around her face and a lightweight veil with eye holes.  She covered her feet with cloth so the sun wouldn’t scorch them through her boots, and she made a muslin sleeping bag to protect against sand fleas while camping at night.  To help pass the time while crossing the vast landscape, Bell learned how to read and nap on horseback.

Gertrude Bell in Iraq, age 41 (photo: University of Newcastle)

In addition to learning survival techniques for traversing the desert, Bell had to learn the protocol of presenting herself to the sheiks of the tribes as she passed through their territories.  Her knowledge of history and languages and the fact that she was a woman traveling alone impressed and endeared her to most of the sheiks.  Because of the style in which Bell traveled, her small entourage became a substantial caravan.   She earned the respect of the local rulers, and they referred to her as Queen.  In camp she always had two tents for herself, one that was erected immediately with a writing table and comfortable chair.  The other had her convertible bed and a bath, which was prepared for her as soon as a fire was built and hot water was available.  In her trunks she packed clothes for every occasion.  When she was in a city she had evening dresses and fur coats.  She carried linen skirts, sweaters, scarves, boots, hats veils, parasols, lavender soap, hair brushes, Egyptian cigarettes in a silver case, insect powder, maps, books, and blankets.  For dining she had a Wedgewood dinner service, crystal glasses, linen tablecloths and silver candlesticks.  She had binoculars and guns to give as gifts to the important sheiks, and she carried her own weapons, cameras and film hidden under her petticoats.

Bell’s curiosity about the Middle East went way beyond tourism.  She took courses in archaeology and cartography, and she was an accomplished photographer.  It became her mission to document ancient ruins and the current landscape, and she published numerous books of her work and experiences which, in many cases, became the definitive reference for the region and influenced policy decisions.

LOVE AND LOSS        Despite a deep affinity for the people and places of the Middle East, Bell’s heart and mind were distracted by the growing affections for an Englishman, Major Charles (“Dick”) Doughty-Wylie, a decorated war hero.  Unfortunately, Dick was married.  The pair shared a common view of the world and enjoyed each other’s company, but the time they could spend together had many limitations.  The couple’s correspondence from various foreign lands evolved from conversational to include the passion and angst of distant love.

Bell wanted to serve her country in World War I, so in November 1914, she went to France to work for the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Department.  She took the initiative to create a workable system to keep accurate records of the wounded soldiers.  Surprisingly, despite her apparent restlessness, she found she loved the desk work.

With his wife in Europe, Doughty-Wylie sent word to Bell that he would be in London for a few days before being deployed to the front lines.  Bell jumped at the opportunity to be alone with him.  They spent four days together, and this time, there was only one limitation that imposed itself.  Bell’s Victorian morals would not allow her to consummate the relationship since Doughty-Wylie would never get a divorce.

Bell returned to France, and Doughty-Wylie was deployed to Gallipoli.  He was killed heroically in a battle with Turkish troops.  Bell had been called back to London to set up a new office for Wounded and Missing.  She found out her lover’s fate when, at a party, someone casually mentioned what happened in Gallipoli.  For the second time in her 47 years she was devastated by losing the love of her life.

A NEW HOME       Since Bell had spent almost two years in the Arabian Desert as an explorer, cartographer, photographer and archaeologist and was an expert in the policies and personalities of the region, she was summoned to Cairo, Egypt with the rank of Major.  She was the first woman officer in the history of British military intelligence.  The British agenda included fighting the Turks to retain access to oil and preventing India from annexing Mesopotamia.  Bell’s desire was for a unified Arab nation, but she acknowledged that that would be impossible and worked to establish independent Arab states.

Bell moved to Basra and was given the title of Oriental Secretary with status as an Assistant Political Officer.  She was instrumental in establishing order in the Basra vilayet (province).  In April 1917, Bell was 49 years old, and she moved to Baghdad to continue her work.  This would be her permanent home for the rest of her life.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION          In Baghdad, Bell became active in nation building.  The British occupied Iraq, fighting the Turks for rights to the oil, but mistakes were made, and the occupation was becoming very expensive for Britain.

In 1918, the incoming Judicial Officer, Sir Edgar Bonham-Carter, after conferencing with Bell, took the first steps toward creating an independent nation by setting Arabic as the official legal language of Iraq and establishing a new court system for civil and Sharia law in an effort to appease Sunnis and Shia.  Five new schools for girls were opened with female faculty.

Eventually boundaries were agreed upon to divide Mesopotamia into individual countries, and Bell and her colleagues lobbied to have Faisal ibn Hussain, a direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad and son of Sharif Hussain ibn Ali, installed as the first ruler of the self-governed new Iraq.  Faisal officially became king in 1921, and Bell’s dreams of Arab independence were realized.

Bell knew Faisal personally, and he enjoyed her company and relied on her as a confidant in political matters.  He commissioned her to help design the first flag and his personal standard.  Because of Bell’s extensive archaeological expertise, Faisal appointed her Director of Antiquities.  Her first duty was to write antiquities laws that would balance the rights of the host nation and excavators.  Bell established the Baghdad Museum, maintaining that Iraq had the right to own its past.*  The principal wing of the museum was named after her.  Bell continued to go on many archaeological digs, and she won a coin toss for a Semitic statuette from 2800 BC.

LEAVING GRACEFULLY        When Bell was 55 years old, she had a third love interest, but this relationship never matured beyond a friendship.  For all her physical activities, she was sick a lot during her life.  She was a chain smoker, and she suffered from malaria twice, jaundice and bronchitis.  In 1925 Bell went to London for a visit.  Her family had lost their fortune and was forced to give up their mansion, which was demolished.  Bell’s doctor advised her not to return to the oppressive climate of the Iraqi summer, but Baghdad was her home, and she could not stay away.  When she returned she contracted pleurisy.

With her ill health, financial troubles, no husband and reduced political responsibility, Bell became depressed.  On July 11, 1926 she came home exhausted from the heat after a swimming party.  She told her maid to wake her up at six am and went to bed early.  Her maid dutifully checked in on Bell after a couple of hours and found a suspicious bottle of pills on the bed stand.  Bell died in the early hours of July 12 of an overdose, two days before her 58th birthday.

The British government duly honored Bell for her work.  In October 1917 Bell was made a Commander of the new Order of the British Empire, and five months later she received the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society.  When she died, King George V sent his personal condolences to Bell’s parents.

*  This is the same as the National Museum of Iraq that was looted during the war in 2003.

QUESTION:  Do you agree with the saying, “It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?”  Why?

©2011 Debbie Foulkes All Rights Reserved


Howell, Georgina, Gertrude Bell Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations.  New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.

Wallach, Janet, Desert Queen The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia.  New York: Nan A. Talese, 1996.

Winstone, H.V.F., Gertrude Bell.  New York: Quartet Books Inc., 1978.