Isabella Bird

(1831–1904) Yorkshire, England

Isabella Bird (née Isabella Bishop) was an English explorer and writer known for her elaborate solo travels to Australia, Hawaii, Colorado, Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, and more. She was the first woman to be made a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society because of her adventurous reputation and popular books.

When it comes to women's suffrage, little is known about Bird's stance, aside from the fact that she was generally not in favor of the cause. In her book, The Englishwoman in America, written during her travels through the United States, she shed some gruesome light upon the condition of politics during the mid-19th century in New York. The following excerpt perhaps explains some of her reasoning for wanting to steer clear from politics during this time.

This was the commencement of a sanguinary struggle for the preservation of order. For three days a dropping fire of musketry was continually to be heard in New York and Williamsburgh, and reports of great loss of life on both sides were circulated. It was stated that the hospital received 170 wounded men, and that many more were carried off by their friends. The military were called out, and, as it was five days before quiet was restored, it is to be supposed that many lives were lost. I saw two dead bodies myself; and in one street or alley by the Five Points, both the side walks and the roadway were slippery with blood. Yet very little sensation was excited in the upper part of the town; people went out and came in as usual; business was not interrupted; and to questions upon the subject the reply was frequently made, “Oh, it's only an election riot," showing how painfully common such disturbances had become.

In her writings, Bird gives us a clearer picture of how politics was perceived during her time. Political affairs were sometimes described as "pervaded by a coarse and repulsive vulgarity," which often even kept affluent men from getting involved for fear of losing their integrity.


Portrait of Isabella Bird. From Wikimedia Commons
Illustration from Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, v. 4 depicting a fight between gangs in New York during the "Know-Nothing" riots. From Wikimedia Commons


Learn More

Read Isabella Bird’s own writings in The Englishwoman in Americaavailable through the McKay Library.


Works Cited

Isabella Lucy Bird, The Englishwoman in America, available here

Isabella Bird Facts, YourDictionary, available here

Joe C. Miller, "Never A Fight of Woman Against Man: What Textbooks Don't Say about Women's Suffrage." The History Teacher 48, no. 3 (2015): 437-82. Accessed September 28, 2020. available here