LODI, Calif. — For a few blustery days in late October, they gathered here from across the nation to show that a woman's place is in the home--as long as it can be parallel-parked.
Indeed, the first convention of RVing Women, billed as "women's history in the making," was perhaps the only event where one could learn cross-stitchery, self-defense and basic diesel mechanics all in one weekend.
Pat Montague cruised up from Huntington Beach in a 24-foot Robin Hood motor home to join 600 sister enthusiasts for the occasion. She credits the 4,000-member club with helping her into the driver's seat after her husband died in 1993.
"All these women are adventurers at heart," she said, gesturing to the 300-plus motor homes and campers aligned in neat rows on the Lodi Grape Festival fairgrounds. "I found out I wasn't the only one."
Women-only travel, long the stuff of bus tours to distant shopping malls, has quickened its pedestrian pace and is moving into the fast lane.
Rising incomes, delayed marriage, divorce and longer life spans have produced a burgeoning number of women with the means to see the world, but without husband or family to accompany them. Social change and sheer demographics are shattering lingering taboos that once discouraged women from traveling far without a male protector.
Many are going solo, inspired by a crop of new books and magazines spotlighting women's voices from the road. Other are opting for the camaraderie and safety of groups, hooking up with like-minded women through travel clubs. Still others are turning to a growing number of companies that specialize in women-only vacations.
Fifteen years ago only a handful of such offerings existed. Now, more than 100 companies are designing trips exclusively for sister travelers, often to locations well off the beaten path.
Outfitters with names such as Woodswomen and Dirt Roads and Damsels are taking women into the wilderness to climb mountains, shoot the rapids, cast fly rods and learn other outdoor skills in a supportive environment.
Other tour operators are putting a matriarchal twist on more civilized destinations, focusing on women's art, history, culture, even religion. These include the upcoming "Goddess Tour" of Hawaii and the English "Wicca/Druid Spiritual Adventure" offered by women-owned Earthwise Journeys of Portland, Ore.
There are lesbian-only getaways, women's wellness retreats, and cultural exchanges where Westerners can discuss women's issues with their Third World counterparts.
Then there are firms such as Sebastopol-based Wild Women Adventures, whose feminist sensibility is more on the order of Lucy and Ethel meet Thelma and Louise. Promotional materials for the travel agency's women-only tours feature owners Carol Rivendell and Martha Lindt decked out in Carmen Miranda regalia, complete with fruit headdresses. Among the offerings in their road show is an excursion to Ireland dubbed "Erin Go Braghless."
"It can be a transformational experience of just a big ol' slumber party," said Rivendell, 49, who has led several of the trips. "The whole point of traveling with other women is to have fun. It's our turn now."
Author John Gardner once said that in all of literature there are just two stories: going on a journey and a stranger comes to town.
Denied the journey for centuries, women are taking to the road with a vengeance. Females make up about half of all domestic leisure travelers, but experts say more and more of them are traveling without a spouse or family--through circumstance and by choice.
Women hitting the road alone or in the company of other women accounted for 238 million trips in 1995, according to D.K. Shifflet & Associates, a McLean, Va.-based travel research firm.
Lynne Sorensen, a professor of tourism at Canada College in Redwood City, has watched the demographic shift transform the face of eco-tourism and adventure travel over the past decade.
An adventurer setting out for the rain forest or veld today is most likely to be a college-educated woman over 40 traveling without a mate, Sorensen's research shows.
"They are widowed, divorced, never married or their husband doesn't share their interest," she said. "They represent an incredibly powerful market segment. And it's only going to grow."
Like the Big Three auto makers, which found themselves peddling gas guzzlers when the oil crunch hit, mainstream travel suppliers are misjudging their market with couples-oriented advertising and pricey singles supplements that make solo travelers feel like pariahs, Sorensen contends.
Enter companies specializing in women-only travel.
Although only a fraction of the $440-billion U.S. travel trade, these enterprises are tailoring their products to partner-less women, and winning a growing following among consumers such as 60-year-old Adela Cruz of San Antonio.