Over the last year many of us have found walking to be both mentally and physically therapeutic as we navigate the restrictions imposed upon our liberty caused by the Coronavirus pandemic. Since Christmas I have walked over 500 kilometres with my dog from my own front door and discovered green spaces, woods, canals, bridleways and pathways I didn’t know existed or had previously overlooked as the need to stay local restricted my access to more usual walking haunts such as the Lake District. As my confidence walking has grown however, so has my interest in what it means to be a woman walking, especially in different periods, landscapes and cultures and what this could potentially mean in the wider social narrative. The above is an inspiring and informative book of ten women who have been pioneers in walking, mountain climbing, and forging their own identities as walkers through breaking both gender and class barriers.
Dorothy Wordsworth is perhaps best known for being sister to William and friend to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, however Dorothy was a formidable walker who alongside William traversed 70 miles from Stockburn in County Durham to Kendal in Westmorland as part of their journey home, as they returned to the Lake District after a long period of familial separation from the area. Once established in their home at Grasmere, Dorothy would regularly walk with William and their friends, but she would also engage in solo walks to complete domestic duties and would meet all kinds of characters which she documented in her journal. Dorothy, along with her friend Mary Barker, also made a pioneering ascent of Scafell Pike in 1818, the highest mountain in England which she wrote about to friends and that would later appear in William’s guide to the Lake District under his own name. Andrews highlights in Wanderers the economic and social factors which afforded Dorothy the opportunity to walk for pleasure and how on occasion this was stifled by domestic duties. Sarah Stoddart Hazlitt experienced a more brief but intense period of walking in the early nineteenth century when she arrived in Edinburgh from London where it was arranged that she was to ‘catch’ her husband William Hazlitt in a compromising position with a prostitute so they could dissolve their marriage, leaving him free to pursue a younger woman he had become infatuated with. During her time in Scotland, Sarah would embark on solo walks whilst waiting for her domestic situation to resolve itself. It appears that the harder and more painful these walks the better, as Sarah relished in the aches and pains of a long day walking, the distances of which she often kept a daily tally of. As she undertook no more arduous walks after her divorce was finalised, it seems these walks may have been a cathartic experience or an act of self-flagellation, but Andrews draws out the emotion, vulnerability and loneliness of Sarah during this period, identifying another reason why women walk. When Andrews reaches the twenty first century and the story of Cheryl Strayed there are some striking differences between her and the women who have come centuries before – the equipment she carried alone is a vast contrast to Dorothy and Mary’s ascent of Scafell Pike, as is the freedom to make her own decision where she would walk, when and for how long. Striking similarities between many of the women however stretch across the centuries and continents as the fear of solo walking is often apparent, and the cathartic nature of walking is present in many women’s accounts, it is never just the distance achieved or the summit reached alone which drives these women.
Andrews book is inspiring and necessary to establish a clear and concise history of women walking, but as we continue to navigate the Anthropocene, I think it also aids in establishing a tangible and material relationship between women and the physical earth which has always existed and which can challenge the essentialist view of women as having a mysterious connection with the earth based partly on reproduction which ecofeminism suggests is what allows the physical world to repeatedly be abused and exploited. Therefore, on International Women’s Day, I think it is important to acknowledge all the women who have walked, to celebrate their achievements, establish their history within the activity, and to also think about how this has the potential to touch other issues and help to change the narrative.