Watch out for the Patriarchy: the Dangers of Travelling Solo as a Woman

Dear Sisters and Friends,

Dear Fellow Killjoys*,

Feminism still matters.

To my ears, it almost sounds absurd to start a blog post – or rather an open letter – on International Women’s Day (IDW) with such a cliché statement. After all, the 8th of March is a day to commemorate women’s achievements over time. We freed ourselves from male guardianship and oppressing private spheres. We obtained the right to work for our gain and open a bank account in our name. We won the right to vote. Over a year ago, our research unit created our own Feminist Circle: a safe space for academics to discuss and feel empowered – a space where assessments of powerful feminist texts inspire us to better advocate for gender equality within our academic community.

Then why am I still inclined to write that we are allowed into the public sphere – allowed to live, work or participate in feminist gatherings? Then why is it that I still do not feel safe when I am allowed access to the public sphere and when I travel in it?

My first solo travel trip to the States was due to a participation in a panel on ‘Travel writing, experience and emotion’, and, as a certified house cat, the experience was quite overwhelming. What started as a stimulating gathering of colleagues ended with theft, being perceived as a ‘loose woman’ because I wore shorts and a tank top in public at 30°C and a male hotel guest stalking me. The latter was the cherry on top. Believe me, it feels condescending, infuriating – and quite frankly  – scary to be forced to stay in your hotel room because a man refuses to leave you alone. Each time I entered the lobby, he would watch and question me. What’s your name? Are you married? Are you single? You are very pretty, do you know that? Ending his endless inquiry with: I wish I could marry a girl like you. Always the same method of operation: intrusive enough to be left feeling uncomfortable and distressed yet innocent enough not to have any solid ground for complaints. It seemed futile to complain to hotel management as he turned out to be a regular at the hotel. Nonetheless, the unnerving feeling remained. Sisters, when you know, you know.

It was so clear to me. As a woman, you are allowed into the public sphere…but do not get too comfortable either.

Dangers on the road, my word, sounds so familiar – so ironically in line with my research. After all, medievalists concede that medieval travel was risky business, yet many believe that narrating danger was characteristic of the genre of travel writing and also a rhetorical tool. In time, dangers bore partial responsibility for the genre’s increasing popularity. Whether each danger was truly experienced or a friction of the author’s imagination remains up for debate. Still, for the writer-travellers, such dangers carried self-serving functions as they facilitated the fashioning of an identity. Jerusalem-pilgrims, for instance, wrote about dangers to emphasise their suffering during the pilgrimage to complete the contemporary devotional practice of imitating Christ’s pains and labours. The numerous tribulations narrated in the biography of the infamous early fifteenth-century pilgrim Margery Kempe are excellent examples.

The story of Margery Kempe divides medievalists the same way she unsettled her contemporaries through her unconventional behaviour. She was born in Norfolk in 1373 to a wealthy merchant and politician. She married, had at least fourteen children, yet, after discovering her mystical talents, refused to live like a house wife should. Repeatedly, she was gifted with visions of conversations with Christ and the Virgin Mary. Similar to other mystics, her visions were affective, physical, loud and intense. Her reputation preceded her – and not always in a good way, as some viewed her as a madwoman, a hysteric. This viewpoint, this gendered discourse, penetrated modern scholarship. She is either adored or cast out – not taken seriously once again. Still, her tenacity to defy societal and gendered expectations – purposely or not – pushes me to view her as a proto-feminist Killjoy — a woman who means no harm but just wants to live her life. Regardless of her disputed reputation, her life and visions still made it into – what some scholars call – the first female autobiography and was written by two scribes. Even her choice to go on a pilgrimage alone in 1413 plays into the feminist reading of ‘The Book of Margery Kempe’. Women’s choice to go on a pilgrimage was even more criticised than men’s. Who was going to take care of the kids after all? Married women had to ask for permission from their husbands before they could go. Nevertheless, Margery persevered and journeyed to the Middle East via Constance and Venice. Her unusual tenacity to go against male authority is equally noticeable in her narrations of danger.

Male pilgrim reports and the Book of Margery Kempe show significant differences in how both genders constructed dangers. For male pilgrims, dangers were caused by external factors outside the pilgrim community, starting with natural phenomena and negative attitudes towards natural environments. Familiar tropes, including sea storms (perceived as torrid and soul-damning landscapes) and extreme climates, created ideal scenarios for devotional suffering. To a smaller degree, possible altercations with local Muslims were a second initiating category for danger. The Islamic or – as often referred to in medieval texts – Saracen Other was depicted as innately violent and dishonest, catalysing danger due to its discriminatory and stereotypical representation. 

Despite the danger in Margery Kempe’s travels, her narrations of danger do not align with such external catalysts as she conveys a particularly feminine experience wherein most tribulations stem from internal contributors – namely, the hostile behaviour of her travel companions, to which she refers to as ‘Sirs’ and with it indicating the male gender of the majority of her travel party. Interestingly, the most recurrent catalyst in male reports, sea storms, are utterly absent from her experience. Instead, she relays an almost sexual assault along with verbal abuse, shaming behaviour and abandonment by her male travel companions. On their way to the city of Constance, her biography states: “And so she […] went on with them […] in great turmoil, as they really shamed her […] and made her wear a white canvas made of shaggy sackcloth so she would be taken for a fool […] she hardly dared speak a word”( p. 161-162). Leigh-Ann Craig argued in her book on female pilgrims how women were expected to make themselves scarce and be invisible. As such, it was Margery’s unwillingness to fully conform her unconventional piety to the expectations of her male companions that triggered their violent behaviour towards her. In addition, whilst male pilgrims found solidarity in their forged homosocial bonds, Margery found solace in an unlikely ally when in the Holy Land. In contrast to male pilgrims, who openly represented local Muslims as inferior, Margery presented them as her allies: “the Saracens made much of her and escorted her […] wherever she wished to go. And she found all the people to be good and gentle towards her, except her own compatriots”(p. 181).

Funny, isn’t it? After more than six hundred years and after more than a century of International Women’s Day’s first instalment, feminism still matters because we still need protection from patriarchal dangers on the road. We still need feminism to guarantee safety for all in a modern global society. I felt compelled to speak out today, play my part within the broader community and share a story or two, as historians often do, yet feel frustrated – nay aggravated – that my experience is only the tip of the iceberg compared to Margery’s and compared to too many of my sisters.

How sad. How very sad.

Yours Sincerely,

Nathalie Franckaerts

*With the term Killjoy, I here refer to the conceptualisation of a Feminist Killjoy suggested by Sara Ahmed in her books ‘Living a Feminist Life’ (2019) and ‘The Feminist Killjoy Handbook’(2023). To Ahmed, a killjoy is someone who challenges oppressive social norms related to gender, race, sexuality, etc. As the term is often used to discredit individuals who point out injustice and inequality, Ahmed embraces the term as proof of (feminist) activism. 

Suggested Literature and Sources:

Leigh-Ann Craig, Wandering women and holy matrons. Women as pilgrims in the later Middle Ages, Leiden : Brill, 2009.

Margery Kempe, The book of Margery Kempe, translated by Anthony Bale, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2015.

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