Encyclopedia Womannica

Explorers & Contenders: Jeanne Baret

Episode Summary

Jeanne Baret (1740-1807) sailed the world identifying previously unknown plants -- all while hiding her own identity -- and became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

This episode of Encyclopedia Womannica is sponsored by BetterHelp. We're all trying to figure out how to best support our mental health during these uncertain times. Visit betterhelp.com/WOMANNICA to join the over 700,000 people talking charge of their mental health with the help of an experienced professional. Special offer for Encyclopedia Womannica listeners: Get 10% off your first month at betterhelp.com/WOMANNICA.

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan and this is Encyclopedia Womannica. 

Welcome to a brand new month and therefore a brand new theme! All April we’re going to be talking about Explorers and Contenders, women who veered outside of prescribed gender norms to accomplish feats in fields strongly associated with men. These women literally discovered new paths and/or participated in incredible athletic endeavors. I personally find this group inspiring, especially at this moment when many of us are stuck indoors.  

Today’s Explorer made history. Despite having to hide her identity, she sailed the world identifying previously unknown plants and became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. Meet Jeanne Baret. 

Jeanne was born on July 27, 1740, to a poor family in Autun, in the Burgundy region of France. Some accounts say that her father was a day laborer in the fields. 

From an early age, Jeanne was interested in the nature around her. She learned to identify plants and their medicinal properties, garnering a reputation for such knowledge and attracting the attention of a man of higher social status, Dr. Philibert Comerçon. While Jeanne was known as an “herb woman,” Philibert was a nobleman and trained botanist. In any event, both were plant experts and shared a professional and personal bond that evolved into a partnership. 

Philibert was asked to join a French expedition planning to sail around the world from 1766 to 1769 as the trip’s botanist. He brought Jeanne along as his assistant. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, but not without risk. Women were not allowed on French Navy ships so Jeanne was forced to hide her gender and dress as a man. For the duration of her time on the ship, she would present as a man and go by the typical men’s name Jean. 

The expedition sailed across the Atlantic and around the southern tip of South America. Along the way, Jeanne and Philibert collected plants from places like Uruguay and Brazil. They encountered more than 70 different kinds of unfamiliar plants and named one such plant after the leader of the expedition. To this day, that particular, much-loved vine with bright pink and purple flowers is known as  Bougainvillea.  

Jeanne successfully hid her gender all the way until her ship reached Tahiti in 1767. There had been a bit of suspicion around her identity at first, as she would never undress or use the bathroom in front of the other men. But Jeanne made up a story that she had been castrated and that seemed to appease the curious. 

It’s unclear exactly how Jeanne’s real identity was discovered and exactly what followed. Some say that it was the locals in Tahiti who unearthed the truth. Once outed, Jeanne’s ship was immediately a less hospitable place, perhaps even a violent one for her, and Jeanne and Philibert left the expedition when it reached the French colony of Mauritius. 

The couple lived in Mauritius until Philibert died in 1773. Jeanne had previously had at least one and perhaps two children whom she had placed for adoption. While living in Mauritius she had another child and did the same. 

A year after Philibert’s death, in 1774, Jeanne married a French soldier. The couple moved back to France, finishing Jeanne’s circle around the globe and making her the first woman to ever complete that feat in late 1774 or early 1775.   

Jeanne’s accomplishments in the field of botany have not always been recognized. The plants discovered on the 1760s expedition were credited to Philibert. Still, upon Jeanne’s return to France, she received a pension of 200 livres a year for her contributions. 

Jeanne died on August 5, 1807. She was 67 years old. 

This episode of Encyclopedia Womannica is brought to you by BetterHelp.

All month, we’re talking about Explorers and Contenders. Tune in tomorrow for the story of a famous fencer and opera singer. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter, Womannica Weekly. 

You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!