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Pioneers of Womens' Aviation
Literally rising up to fly in the face of the widespread notion that women were unfit to do anything as wild as piloting aircraft, Aviatrixes like Harriet Quimby, Neta Snook and Amelia Earhart paved the way for others of their gender to make their mark on the aviation world. It was women like these who set the stage for later female pioneers of aviation, like the WASPS of World War II and those serving in the militaries of today. It was their actions, their drive and their tenacity, their need to shove aside the preconceptions and gender biased traditions of society that defined them, earned them a certain celebrity status, and inspired countless others to follow in their footsteps. It was women like these that set the records, smashed through the boundaries, and opened the way for those who would follow, even in times when advances in feminism began to backslide toward domesticity and a more Victorian ideal. They were the true pioneers of flight, the people who proved that the sky was not just a playground for the rich and male, and their contributions to aviation history have had a far reaching effect for countless pilots, regardless of sex, in the years that have followed.
In August of 1911, nine full years before the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment and just eight years after the invention of the first heavier-than-air aircraft by the Wright Brothers, Harriet Quimby, like many of her increasingly more active feminist contemporaries, smashed the stagnant Victorian ideas of an earlier time to earn the first pilots license ever issued to a woman in the United States of America. With women’s power rising and the Feminist movement rallying for the right to vote, Quimby stood out in the pages of magazines and newspapers as an icon of everything women could be. She was brilliant and beautiful, a journalist for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly and an author who had taken to the air like a homesick eagle, ready to make the flight which would become a part of history just eight months after receiving her pilot’s license, the flight that would earn her the title of the first woman pilot to make the flight across the English Channel. Unfortunately, it would be a long time before her efforts would be recognized by any country, let alone the United States. Garnering minimal coverage in the mainstream media back in America, word of Quimby’s historic flight was quickly crushed under a tide of frantic headline news when the titanic sunk just two days afterward and stole the limelight from other, less marketable causes. Members of the Suffrage movement criticized Quimby for this lack of coverage and quickly turned their backs on her achievement, claiming that her image of “The Bird Girl” did not support the goals of the Suffrage movement or the progress of feminism toward those goals. Less than three months later and just one year after obtaining her pilots license, Quimby was killed in a tragic accident at the Third Annual Boston Aviation Meet in Squantum, Massachusetts– she would never live to see the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment or the impact her historic flight would have on the lives of later female pilots, women like Neta Snook and Amelia Earhart, who were still fifteen and sixteen respectively when Quimby died.
Despite many setbacks, including the restriction on civilian flying that was put in place during World War I and the barrier of initially being denied admittance solely on the basis of her gender, Neta Snook became the first female pilot to graduate from the Curtiss School of Aviation in Virginia in 1920, the same year that the Nineteenth Amendment was passed. Even as the feminism movement tapered off and domesticity became even more attractive and popular, Neta Snook continued to pursue the then stereotypically masculine path of a pilot, even going so far as to become the first woman ever to run her own commercial airfield. It was there, at Kinner field in Los Angeles, that Snook met and tutored the then young pilot Amelia Earhart and gave her the start that she needed to grow into the famous aviatrix she would one day become. Snook herself was a strong woman, a driven woman, and someone who didn’t hesitate to assert herself, even if it meant defying gender-discriminatory social customs that stand even to this day. When she married Bill Southern in 1922, she did not take his last name as her own (as per accepted social custom,) but rather took a hyphenated last name to show a sort of co-dominance.
If Snook was seen as an unconventional woman who defied social norms, then Amelia Earhart was by far her superior as a progressive. Like Quimby, her achievements and work within Aviation earned her a certain celebrity status, though Earhart’s (within the context of a time when flappers were the rage) was much stronger and much longer lived. She was part of a younger generation who rejected the Victorian ideals of previous decades and held notions about women and marriage that were seen to be very liberal for the time. She was extremely politically active when it came to promoting aviation, writing articles for newspapers and magazines specifically encouraging women to enter into the field, and when she eventually married George Putnam in 1931, she made a point of keeping her own last name (without hyphenating, as Neta Snook did) speaking openly about her beliefs that both men and women had equal responsibility when it came to going out and earning money for the household. When the Bendix Trophy Race in 1934 made a point of banning women from competing, she even openly refused to fly the then popular actress Mary Pickford to the race, where she was scheduled to open the event as a sort of sideshow for the main attraction. As the first woman to fly solo on a transatlantic flight, Earhart also became the first woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross. Her work in aviation was instrumental to the formation and strength of the International Organization of Women Pilots (The Ninety-Nines) and she was elected as the organization’s first president in 1930 with a scholarship program for female pilots put forth in her name that still exists to this day. Earhart’s tragic disappearance in 1937 had a profound effect not only on the psyche of mainstream society, but also on that of her old flight instructor, Neta Snook, since retired, who upon hearing the news set out once again into the aviation world, inspired by Earhart’s spirit and tenacity as she began lecturing about her own career and even went so far as to write an autobiography entitled I taught Amelia To Fly.
Proving that feminism and the raising of consciousness in regards to female power doesn’t have to be earned in the street at the end of a picket sign, female pioneers of aviation like Amelia Earhart, Neta Snook and Harriet Quimby used the power of flight to change the course of history and secure a better future for others of their same sex. It was their drive to rise above the Victorian conventions of the time and achieve those things that women had never achieved before, to set and raise the bar on what could be done by women, and even in some cases, by men, that defined them and earned them the image they needed to awaken a populace blind to the ideas of equality. Their work, their striving for equality within aviation echoed that of those whose work took them to the streets, but it was the message their historic flights imparted that was truly memorable. Women can do anything men can do– even fly.