Broads Abroad

The rise of the female travelogue

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Illustration by Emma Kelly / Handsome Frank for TIME

"I never travel without my diary," says one of the heroines of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest. "One should always have something sensational to read in the train." Increasingly, that sensational read can be another woman's travel diary--like Elisabeth Eaves' Wanderlust: A Love Affair with Five Continents or The Lost Girls: Three Friends, Four Continents, One Unconventional Detour Around the World, by a trio of women who ditched their jobs, boyfriends and apartments to circle the globe--and then sold the entertainment rights to Jerry Bruckheimer. These daughters of Eat, Pray, Love are giving new vogue to the female travelogue, but they also raise the question, Is there such a thing as women's travel?

Historically, men have certainly had more freedom to roam. But as author Paul Theroux points out, modern exotic travel--which began in the 1970s with the advent of the jumbo jet--has been an equal-opportunity affair, as it was for the bohemians trekking through southern Asia in Theroux's The Great Railway Bazaar. "The hippie trail was always men and women," he says. Among them were Tony and Maureen Wheeler, who stapled together copies of their first guidebook, Across Asia on the Cheap, and went on to found the Lonely Planet imprint. "Our assumption is and always has been that both sexes have equal interest in travel," says Imogen Hall, Lonely Planet's publisher.

"On most fronts, such as types of trips and who they're traveling with, men and women are actually pretty similar," says Carroll Rheem, director of research at PhoCusWrite, a company that collects travel data. Rheem points out one survey showing that 62% of men and 59% of women took at least one leisure trip in the past 12 months. Theroux, who has just published The Tao of Travel, about travelogues that inspired him, agrees that travel--and travel writing--is largely gender-neutral. "I had a section of the book called Great Women Travelers, but then I decided that I didn't want to put them into a category," he says. And Sloane Crosley, editor of Best American Travel Writing 2011, says, "What's weird about a subgenre of women's travel writing is that it implies we're agoraphobic."

Perhaps the most remarkable travel writer today is the category-defying Jan Morris, who accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay up Mount Everest; she published as James Morris until the 1970s, when she had gender-reassignment surgery. "Half her life she's traveled as a man, and half her life as a woman," says Theroux, "and she's always said that she prefers the latter."