Updated: Oct 17, 2020
Do you admire women who seize the chance to do what few other people have done? To count down the days to National Kick Butt Day, October 14, I am honoring ten adventurous members of the Society of Woman Geographers. They were courageous during an era when it took courage simply to don the trousers necessary to explore the Earth’s mountains, jungles, oceans, and skies. Today, I am honoring Amelia Earhart.
The “right sort of girl”
When Amelia Earhart joined the Society of Women Geographers, she had already flown over the Atlantic Ocean as a passenger. As a pilot with 500 hours of solo flight, she was not pleased to be relegated to the back of the plane, like a “sack of potatoes.” But she relished the opportunity because it was offered to her.
When Charles Lindbergh flew The Spirit of St. Louis across the ocean in May 1927, he inadvertently triggered a race to see who would be the first woman to cross the Atlantic—as either a passenger or a pilot. Eight flights by men had been successful; none of the pilots or passengers had been women.
So far, four women had died attempting to cross the Atlantic or Pacific Oceans. Passenger Princess Lowenstein-Wertheim, Canadian pilot Mildred Doran, American pilot Frances Grayson, and her crew of three, British actress Elsie Mackay and her co-pilot, had all been lost at sea trying to cross the ocean. Ruth Elder, 25, and her copilot crash-landed into the sea, and a Dutch oil tanker rescued them. Austrian Actress Lilli Dillenz attempted to cross the Atlantic westbound on October 4, 1927, but her propeller was damaged.
In 1928, Amy Guest, 56, a wealthy woman, wanted to be the first woman to fly across the ocean, but her family convinced her to leave the honor to a younger woman. She discretely asked around to find just the “right sort of girl” for the job. Guest thought the perfect woman would be “a pilot, well educated; preferably a college graduate. She would be physically attractive and have manners that would be acceptable to members of English society, who would undoubtedly welcome her on arrival there.” As an attractive, college-educated social worker, Amelia fit the bill.
Amelia did not immediately accept the offer. She weighed her options. Did she want to take the risk, only to be a passenger? Finally, she decided to accept the challenge. She rationalized:
“My family’s insured, there’s only myself to think about. And when a great adventure’s offered you—you don’t refuse it, that’s all.”
The flight took 20 hours and 40 minutes. Amelia had hoped to spend time in the cockpit, but she had little experience flying a tri-motor plane, and so she was stuck in the back of the aircraft. She complained: “All I did was lie on my tummy and take pictures of the clouds. We didn’t see much of the ocean. Bill Stulz did all the flying—had to. I was just baggage, like a sack of potatoes.”
After the flight, reporters hounded her with questions about whether she was engaged, expressing irritation that her white kid gloves concealed her ring finger. She replied, “I wish people would forget that I am a woman. I forget it. I am interested primarily in aviation. I regard the opportunity which came to me as a remarkable one and I took it. Women cannot serve in the Army and be paid to learn to fly. We have to take the opportunities which come to us when they do come.”
“I am doubtful of my qualifications”
After the flight, publisher George Putnam, who had a knack for showmanship and inventing celebrities, hid Amelia away in his house and gave her six weeks to write a book about the flight. The book was a bestseller. His wife, Dorothy, did not mind the attention that Putnam was lavishing on Amelia: she had already given up on their marriage. But Amelia was reluctant to marry. She turned down George’s proposals five times. She told him: “You must know my reluctance to marry, my feeling that I shatter thereby chances in work which means most to me. I feel the move just now as foolish as anything I could do.” Two years later, when Amelia finally accepted George’s proposal, she wrote: “I must extract a cruel promise and that is you will let me go in a year if we find no happiness together. (And this for me too.)” She kept Earhart as her “flying name.”
In 1932, when she accepted the Society of Woman Geographer’s invitation to join, she demurely replied, “I am very much honored but doubtful of my qualifications. However, if the other members will bear with me a while, I’ll try to make up the deficiencies.” By then, she had already broken several aviation records:
· 1928: Women’s altitude record
· 1928: First woman to fly across the Atlantic
· 1929: Third place in the First Women’s Air Derby
· 1930: Women’s speed record
· 1930: Speed record
· 1930: Woman’s autogiro altitude record
“There’s More to Life Than Being a Passenger”
Amelia was determined to fly her own plane across the ocean. She thought, “There’s more to life than being a passenger.” On May 22, 1932, Amelia became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, breaking several records. She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, the only person to fly it twice (once as a passenger, once as a pilot), and it was the longest nonstop flight by a woman.
She accomplished this on the fifth anniversary of Charles Lindberg’s 33-hour solo flight across the Atlantic. She had bested Charles Lindbergh’s record, reaching the British Isles in less than fifteen hours. It was a challenging voyage over the ocean in a howling storm in a plane with mechanical difficulties.
Although the public regarded Amelia as a hero, she accepted the honor on behalf of all women aviators. A newspaper editor noted that Amelia deserved the credit because she dared and succeeded at a goal took a heavy toll on the lives of others. She met adversity with unflinching courage.
But not all newspapers were so kind. One reporter called the flight “a magnificent display of useless courage, a stunt, not an achievement.” After the flight, another reporter asked her whether she had talked to her husband. She replied, laughing, “Oh yes, the first thing I do always is to check in like a good girl.”
Is it Reckless?
Amelia would continue to break records and advocate for equal treatment of women aviators. Before her final flight—her attempt to fly solo around the world—she pointed on a map to a place in the South Pacific near the Solomon Islands and told a fellow member of the Society of Woman Geographers, “If I don’t come back, I will be lost here.” She left a note for her husband, George:
“Please know that I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it. Women must try to do things as have never been tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.” She packed the Society’s flag and headed for her plane.
After her death, the Society held a memorial for Amelia, noting that “it was our flag that she took with her on those swift journeys which made her name a comet in the sky. On those solo flights across wide desolate waters, there must have been times when she was lonely. There must have been times when those thin, strong arms tired, and mind and body felt the strain. But although Amelia played a game where there was room for only one mistake, she took her chances willing and boldly. It was the game she chose to play.”
Amelia receives medal from Woman Geographers in 1935
We remember Amelia today as a woman who kicked butt and followed through on her belief that
“Everyone has oceans to fly, if they have the heart to do it. It is reckless, maybe. But what do dreams know of boundaries?”
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