Amelia Earhart: the flying feminist

Amelia Earhart: the flying feminist

by marlies|dekkers

She became a star as the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932, and a legend when she disappeared without a trace in 1937. But what made Amelia Earhart a feminist hero was the way she showed women worldwide that the sky is NOT the limit.

Amelia was born in Atchison, Kansas on July 24, 1897, a time ‘when girls were still girls’, as Amelia wrote in her biography ‘The Fun of It’. Her parents, however, stimulated her love of adventure, and when the lanky, grey-eyed girl wasn’t climbing trees or hunting rats with a .22 rifle, she was working on her scrapbook of newspaper cuttings about accomplished women. She took a car mechanics course, volunteered at a military hospital, but didn’t find her true calling until, at age 23, she took a 10-minute plane ride during an air show: “As soon as I left the ground, I knew I myself had to fly.”

But Amelia had to earn her wings: “Some of us have great runways already built for us. If you have one, take off. But if you don’t have one, grab a shovel and build one for yourself!”. She chopped off her hair and took several jobs, from photographer to truck driver, till she had earned enough money for flying lessons from pioneer female aviator Anita “Neta” Snook. Soon, she surpassed Anita with her sharp mind and brave heart; Amelia was born to fly. In 1928, she became the first woman to cross the Atlantic in a plane. (Although she was not at the controls of the Fokker, she was definitely in charge). The world fell in love with Amelia’s androgynous glamour -the tousled bob, the flat, lace-up knee boots, the heroic leather jacket- and so did George P. Putnam, the publicist who became her manager. After proposing to her 6 times, Amelia said yes, but on her own terms. In a letter, written to George on the morning of their wedding day, she rejected a ‘medieval code of faithfulness’ and claimed space to go and be herself, now and then, “for I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinements of even an attractive cage.”

The place where Amelia could be herself was, of course, the cockpit of a plane (and, some speculate, in the arms of dashing aviation pioneer Gene Vidal). In 1932, she flew the Atlantic on her own, becoming the first woman and the second person, 5 years after Charles Lindbergh, to do so. In 1935, she was the first pilot to solo across the Pacific -from Honolulu to Oakland- and to solo non-stop from Los Angeles to Mexico. Her flights were feats of courage and endurance, but when she was not in the air, Amelia fought just as bravely for the rights of women, urging them through her writing and lectures to realize their fullest potential. “Women must pay for everything,” she said. “They do get more glory than men for comparable feats, but they also get more notoriety when they crash.” Thanks to Amelia’s tireless endeavors female pilots were included in the army, and eventually, in space exploration.

Amelia’s biggest dream was to fly around the world. In 1937, a few months before her 40th birthday, she took off to circle the globe. “Please know that I am aware of the hazards,” she wrote to her husband in her last letter. “Women, like men, should try to do the impossible. And when they fail, their failure must be a challenge to others.” On July 2, 1937, Amelia became the world’s most famous missing person when her Lockheed Electra disappeared in the Pacific. Did she die in a crash? Did she become a castaway on a Pacific island? We are still speculating and obsessing; we are still writing books and making movies about her (the most recent one starring Hilary Swank as Amelia). The truth is, we may never find out. In our minds, however, Amelia is forever in the sky, urging us to try the impossible and enjoy every second of it. Like Amelia said when being asked why she flew the Atlantic: “I did it for the fun of it.”

 

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