No one can forget Amelia Earhart. Her magic was such that every young girl even today can relate to her. She died many years ago when she and her navigator failed to find the tiny island in the Pacific where she needed to put down to refuel her plane. She was on a first-ever round-the-world-at-its-waistline flight. It was the one and only record flight she ever attempted where she was not flying solo.
Her record-setting flights had made everyone aware of her courage, and when her plane went missing it riveted the world’s attention, in fact ascertaining her whereabouts was the most important story in the world for days on end. For the first six of those days The New York Times ran Earhart search articles in banner headlines.
She was not only the most famous aviatrix of her day, she was the most famous female of her day. Her only rival was the infamous Wallis Simpson, who caused Edward VII to give up the British throne. No one had been able to repeat Lindbergh’s feat of soloing the Atlantic (many tried, many died) until Amelia did five years later. Her solo flight from Harbor Grace Newfoundland to a farmer’s field in Ireland caused columnist Walter Trumbull to put into words what every American felt. “So now Charles Lindbergh and you are the only two who have flown the ocean alone and the championship as John L. Sullivan would say, remains in America.” In fact she was even more famous than Lindbergh. When the Franklin Institute Aviation Hall opened in Philadelphia in September 1933 she, standing next to the Vega in which she had flown the Atlantic, and Orville Wright, standing next to the engine that had powered his flight at Kitty Hawk, were the twin attractions.
And she was photogenic. She hit all the buttons-fashion model attractive—5 foot 8 inches—118 pounds. Tall, slender, with short, slightly curly hair that was brown just approaching blond. With a classic face, a small, upturned nose, gray eyes, freckles, and a quick flashing smile. And she was so capable.
She was not only the most famous aviatrix of her day, she was the most famous female of her day. Her only rival was the infamous Wallis Simpson, who caused Edward VII to give up the British throne.
She had been catapulted into fame in the first place when she was chosen to be the first female to cross the Atlantic—as a passenger—in a plane. Before that happened she was on the way to being a significant force in the field of social work, the rare occupation of that day where women were allowed to reach a level where they could exert influence. She was working and living at Denison House, a settlement house in East Boston, following in the steps of Denison House founder Emily Balch, who was so respected she would go on to win the Nobel Prize for Peace. Before being chosen Amelia had mapped out a future for herself as a social worker and relegated flying, which she did on weekends, to be her secondary interest, much as hard-working people now treat golf.
Fame was thrust on Amelia when she was interviewed by some wealthy Americans who were looking for the “right” American woman to be the first female to fly as a passenger across the Atlantic Ocean: possibly a pilot but with no expectation of touching the controls of the huge tri-motored seaplane being readied for the journey: two male pilots would be at the controls. Amelia was a social worker, living and working at Denison House, a settlement house in East Boston. A Boston man was doing the searching. Amelia was a pilot, one of the first women to get a National Aeronautic Association license, she had written an article about flying for The Bostonian, the magazine that all Boston read, and so the interviewer started with her—and ended with her—she was so perfect the search concluded with her acceptance. She expected that if she and the two male pilots made it across the ocean she would return to Denison House and resume her life there, flying in her spare time. But her life was never the same again. Her notoriety made living at Denison House impossible. Seeking anonymity she moved to Greenwich House, a settlement house in New York City, harder for curiosity seekers to find, hoping to maintain an association with social work “as active as her altered way of life would permit.” When that did not work, she gave up the idea and accepted the fact that fame had changed her life.
Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “Atalanta in Calydon,” had been her favorite poem, a poem that celebrates a virgin huntress “Maiden most perfect, lady of light,” while at the same time warning of the dangers for females who compete in the male world.
She became Aviation Editor of Cosmopolitan, the fabulously successful magazine that published the top writers and personalities of the day. She authored articles pushing the excitement and the possibilities of flying for women, while being featured as a chic young fashion plate wearing the latest fashions in clothes.
She was in such demand in those pre-radio days she quit and went on the lecture circuit with the help of George Palmer Putnam, public relations genius, publisher of all the adventurers of the day: Lindbergh, Lincoln Ellsworth, Richard Byrd, General Billy Mitchell. Putnam had shepherded the publication of her book about her trip as the first woman to fly the Atlantic, 20 Hours, 40 Min: Our Flight in the Friendship. She ended up marrying Putnam, who from then on devoted himself to helping her become the most highly paid, most successful lecturer of her day.
Her approach to marriage was unique. In those years women’s roles were still carefully circumscribed. Women were supposed to stay home and obey their husbands, limiting their aspirations to learning to be good housekeepers and mothers. Amelia would have none of that. Even as a child she had cherished her freedom, her individuality and did not plan to give it up for marriage. Her dreams were not of marrying the right man but of having a great career. Algernon Charles Swinburne’s “Atalanta in Calydon,” had been her favorite poem, a poem that celebrates a virgin huntress “Maiden most perfect, lady of light,” while at the same time warning of the dangers for females who compete in the male world. Amelia memorized great chunks of the poem, and following her lead, so did her close companion and cousin Katch Challiss Pollock, who still remembered and could recite the poem, so important to Amelia, seventy years later.
On the morning of Amelia’s wedding to Putnam she had handed him a letter that shows, more than any other action, her strong sense of self and her certitude.
There are some things which should be writ before we are married. Things we have talked over before-most of them …. You must know again my reluctance to marry, my feeling that I shatter thereby chances in work which means so much to me …
Please let us not interfere with the other’s work or play …. I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all the confinements of even an attractive cage ……
He married her anyway, and from then on devoted himself to promoting her career. After being the first woman and second person to solo the Atlantic ( only Lindbergh preceded her) and the first woman to fly non-stop across the United States, Amelia beat out male pilots to set an altitude record for autogiros that stood for years, was the first pilot to solo the Pacific, flying from Hawaii to San Francisco, and the first pilot to fly nonstop from Mexico City to Newark, New Jersey.
Her legacy, her fame, is partly due to her constant fight for women’s rights, and partly due to the fact that in what was almost exclusively a man’s world she made it to the top so seemingly effortlessly, and gave up so little in the process. She floated, so to speak, on the higher echelons of fame and she had fun. In fact, her second book, written after her solo transatlantic flight, was called The Fun of It. She even mesmerized FDR. She had but to ask to talk to him and an appointment was arranged. He bowed to her wishes and countermanded the appointee his advisors recommended to head the Bureau of Air Commerce in favor of the man she recommended. She took Eleanor night-flying, and talked her into getting a pilot’s license (FDR found out about the project and made her drop the idea.) Eleanor was a feminist too: she rode a bobsled at the opening of the 1932 Olympics in Lake Placid, rode horseback most mornings in Washington, made news organizations hire female reporters because she would only grant interviews to female journalists. But Eleanor never looked the part, and certainly never lived it.
Amelia was all about opening doors for women by setting an example and talking about it. She not only lived the life that gutsy American females aspired to but at the same time took it as her role in life to help women get there. She urged women to be independent, not dependent. She was instrumental in setting up the women’s flying group, the Ninety Nines, that set up female air competitions and encouraged women to fly and to this day helps women become flyers. She was, inevitably, its first president.
If we begin to think and respond as capable human beings able to deal with and even enjoy the challenges of life, then we surely will have something to contribute to marriage than our bodies.
Her life took on a routine. After she made a record, she went on the lecture circuit to talk about it. Her usual charge for a lecture was $1.50, more than the cost of a movie, but not an inordinate amount for the time. When she lectured, she looked entirely different than when she emerged from her plane after a record flight. Instead of a drawn face, disheveled hair, wrinkled blouse and pants, lecture audiences saw a slender, fashionably dressed, beautifully groomed woman. She had a lively interest in well-cut clothes, at one point signing a contract to design clothes that were practical as well as attractive: shirts with tails long enough to stay tucked in, dresses that tended not to wrinkle.
Her legacy, her fame, is partly due to her constant fight for women’s rights, and partly due to the fact that in what was almost exclusively a man’s world she made it to the top so seemingly effortlessly, and gave up so little in the process.
She spoke without notes, and by the mid-1930s could capture an audience and hold it riveted. She emphasized the casual. A favorite lecture opening anecdote was about the young boy who thought she was Lindbergh’s mother.
In 1935 she spoke before 136 groups: civic groups, libraries, clubs, totaling 80,000 attendees. Talking to a mixed audience of men and women she pushed flying, speaking of the importance of making arrangements for children to fly, of how Europe was now hours away, of the fact that flying was safer than getting in the car to drive to the airport. She also spoke of the sensation, the beauty of flight.
When talking to women’s groups she of course spoke of the new world of aviation but she had a clear message of equal importance: stand up for yourselves, be more than wives and mothers. She touched on the career possibilities for women in the air industry, still in its infancy and expanding, urging women to consider being pilots, navigators, or going into public relations—wherever there was an opening. Usually she was quite upbeat about the possibilities for careers, but occasionally not. She told one group of college women, “In aviation as a whole, women are outnumbered forty to one but I feel that more will gain admittance as a greater number knock at the door. If and when you knock at the door, it might be well to bring an ax along; you may have to chop your way through.” If things are rigged against you, she told another women’s group, try harder.
Simply by being such a record-setter she forced the men who were exposed to her to rethink their cherished belief that women could not be trusted for serious work because they fell apart not just physically but mentally during the menses. But she wanted to make sure that she was not taken as an anomaly. She began collecting proof that women did not, as men assumed, collapse or become unreliable. Two of her interviews survive. One with the ballet mistress of Radio City Music Hall, the other with the wardrobe mistress of a circus who dressed female high-wire trapeze artists. Both told her the same thing she noted: that the women performed without regard for their periods. It would take years before the idea that women became disabled was completely demolished. The idea was behind the thinking of the Airline Pilots Association refusal to grant a female mail pilot membership which meant commercial airlines would not hire an aviatrix, as female pilots were called, in 1934.
When her friend Helen Richey, a well-known top pilot, who had been hired by Central Airlines to fly a regular route was fired on trumped up charges simply because the male pilots did not want her, Amelia took up her cause. A woman’s group in Hawaii, about to put up a marker memorializing Amelia’s Oahu take-off agreed to publicize her letter to them, in which Amelia explained that Helen had been fired “not because of lack of ability—all her co-workers admitted she was okay as to flying-but because she was female. The result of this action was that the Department of Commerce refused to let her fly passengers in bad weather, so the poor girl could not do her part at all and had to resign.” The Pan American Press Bureau, as Amelia hoped for, got hold of the letter and published it and her remarks were picked up around the world. Even Alice Paul, the famous suffragette who had picketed the White House in Wilson’s presidency took up the cause. “Certainly Miss Earhart herself has demonstrated the fallacy of that old idea of women’s physical inferiority which we meet on a thousand fronts every day,” she wrote, her comment also hitting the front pages. Even in 1943 the idea still caused the Air Transport Command to order its female pilots grounded for the week they menstruated. It was not until 1945 that the U.S. Army ran a study demonstrating that menstruation had no effect on pilot performance.
She told one group of college women, “In aviation as a whole, women are outnumbered forty to one but I feel that more will gain admittance as a greater number knock at the door. If and when you knock at the door, it might be well to bring an ax along; you may have to chop your way through.”
In 1934, The New York Herald Tribune asked Amelia to speak at their annual Conference on Current Problems, joining a distinguished group of newsmakers that included among others New York City’s mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Eleanor Roosevelt, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the superintendent of New York City schools, the president of the Girl Scouts of America, the Attorney General of the United States, Conference Hostess Helen Rogers Reid, vice-president of the Tribune, and several University presidents, including Edward C. Elliott, president of Purdue University. The Conference was so popular 38,000 women applied for tickets, and 25,000 actually signed up for the five sessions. At the initial session the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria in New York City was jammed to its 3,000-seat capacity.
Elliott had just opened the first residence for women at Purdue and completed the first hangar for planes at the new Purdue airfield (the first airport owned by a university) where students could learn to fly and study aeronautics. He had been mesmerized after listening to Amelia talk about the future of aeronautics, the part she hoped women would play, the difficulty women were having in obtaining jobs in the aviation industry, and decided to hire her on the spot to educate Purdue co-eds, as women were called back then, to the new future she spoke of. Her job, Elliot made clear, was not just to teach women about the future of aviation and their part in it, but to inspire women to contribute to the economic well-being of the nation by becoming productive, contributing citizens.
When she arrived on campus the following year for her four-week stint she found she had to fight the preconceptions of the male professors. After counseling from Amelia co-eds had begun to register for classes in engineering—where they ran into professors who not only did not want females in their classes, but believed Elliott should not have hired Amelia in the first place. Even years later, one of the professors was quoted as saying, “Purdue had been wrong to hire Amelia because she was a very courageous woman but very poorly educated … she thought they should fix typewriters and washing machines. She thought an engineer was a mechanic. She was not a help in improving education.”
She changed the thinking of countless female students. She urged them not just to enter into what were considered male professions, but to put off marriage until graduate school had groomed them for careers in those professions. She did not merely lecture students, when she was in residence she held evening and late night rap sessions with students whose rooms were nearby. The male students regarded her as a definite threat: a superstar advocating female independence. An annoyed men’s student senior honorary group requested a face-to-face meeting with her. She asked them why they objected. “It’s hard enough to get the girls to marry us as it is,” they replied.
As Amelia came to realize how damaging male opposition was to women’s aspirations she changed. She became more single-minded. She continued to accept speaking engagements at men’s clubs, and was hardly ever overtly feminist, but she would only help women’s causes. Thus when her old friend Marion Perkins, the head of Denison House, asked her to fund studies for an unusually bright boy she refused. She would be happy to contribute to Denison House, she wrote her, but only if her gift was used specifically “for girls in some way,” underlining “girls” for emphasis.
I think, like most people who have studied the matter, that when the plane ran out of gas it hit the water and sank to the bottom of the ocean, in that part of the Pacific around Howland Island 17,000 feet deep. Because there is no oxygen at that depth, rust cannot form, so when the plane is found it will be much as it was when it hit the water.
Her last flight was to be around the world at the Equator. Purdue had given her a Lockheed Electra, a dream plane. The first fully pressurized plane, powered by twin engines, it had a range of 4,000 miles. It was a favorite of the airlines: the only other individual who owned one was Howard Hughes. The round-the-world flight was the only major flight she chose for selfish reasons, according to her best friend, Louise Thaden. “She wanted to fly around the world because it would be fun.”
A measure of Amelia’s fame is that when the plane went missing President Roosevelt sent the U.S. Navy out to look for her. Everyone the world over was gripped by the search as the USS Lexington, the Navy’s fastest aircraft carrier, accompanied by three destroyers, reached the scene and sent sixty-two planes circling the 150,000 square mile circle where the pilots thought the plane might be. For days, weeks and months, people stayed glued to their radio sets, hoping she would be found. Stories circulated about the possibility that her navigator failed to find Howland Island because he was drunk, even though such a possibility was remote: they had taken off at 10 a.m. and had been in the air for almost eighteen hours, intermittently reporting their position. But navigational instruments were in their infancy in 1937. Flying long distances was still claiming lives.
For years there were those who claimed she had been picked up and mistreated, possibly killed by the Japanese, but all those stories have proven false. I think, like most people who have studied the matter, that when the plane ran out of gas it hit the water and sank to the bottom of the ocean, in that part of the Pacific around Howland Island 17,000 feet deep. Because there is no oxygen at that depth, rust cannot form, so when the plane is found it will be much as it was when it hit the water. Autonomous underwater subs have already mapped about two-thirds of the ocean floor around Howland Island. (I went on one forty-six-day expedition in 2009). When the rest of the ocean floor is examined I am sure the Electra will be sighted.
Be all that you can be, Amelia had counseled women. Look at me, look at what I did—you can do it too. She made all women so proud to be American. She was more than Queen of the Air. Women are still looking at her. Photos of her abound wearing turtleneck sweaters, chic pants, she has the look of today. In a photograph by famed Luxembourgish-American photographer Edward Steichen she wears a white blouse and looks straight ahead—she looks timeless.
The flying cap she wore when she first came upon the world’s stage in 1928 recently came up for auction. Instead of going for $80,000 as expected, an anonymous buyer paid $825,000.
Amelia even went missing at the right time—she was about to be forty. She is still America’s dream woman. She is thirty-nine forever.