This one goes out to all my bold, strong, stubborn, never-back-down from a challenge, courageous women out there! If you are braving the skies, seas, stars, or anywhere in between, grab a copy of Fly Girls by Keith O'Brien and prepare to be encouraged by your predecessors. These five (really 99 but we'll get to that) incredible women stood toe-to-toe with post World War I flying legends and news reporting giants to ensure women were not overlooked in the history books during the dawn of aviation.
Florence Klingensmith, Ruth Elder, Ruth Nichols, Louise Thaden, and Amelia Earhart raced, set records, crashed, gave their lives, became friends, and banned together despite all odds to prove women could push the bounds of the skies the same as the men could. They did all of this on the heels of gaining the right to vote and during the great depression. In a time when so many were struggling to keep food on the table, they brought hope and inspiration to the masses around the world. I am embarrassed, and glad at the same time, to admit that before reading this book the only famous female pilot name I knew was Amelia Earhart. I'm embarrassed because I didn't take the time to research these amazing women prior to becoming a US Navy pilot but I'm glad for the same reason. These women paved the path for me, and so many others, well enough that when I had dreams of flying the only reason people looked at me like I was crazy was because I coupled it with joining the Navy.
When asked why they did all of this, Ruth Elder said it best: "I would rather give my life to something big and worthwhile...then to live longer and do less" pg. 33. They were visionaries in a time where just focusing on where the next meal would come from was common. They recognized the gravity of the moment in history in which they were living - the infancy of flight. "Out of roughly twenty-nine million adult women in American in 1928, less than a dozen had pilots licenses" pg. 53 of the total 1,943 issued pilot's licenses that same year. I'll do that math for you so you can save your phone battery...that's 0.6%. Uncommon is an understatement. They knew that and banned together in 1929 to form The Ninety-Nines, a name chosen because of the number of licensed female pilots that replied to the invitation to unify. "It wasn't about fighting the men...It was about women sticking together, looking
out for one another" pg. 115. "These women wanted more than the right to vote; they wanted the right to be heard and...most of all, they wanted respect" pg. 118.
This story isn't one filled of triumph, glory, and fame. If it were, you'd know more of the names than Earhart. It is filled with heart wrenching losses, major set backs, doubts (the public's and their own), and constant striving for inclusion, acceptance, and recognition. The eyes of the public were on them at all times criticizing every move - marriage, divorce, job, address change. They knew that in order to rise above and have a place in history they "couldn't just be good. They needed to be perfect. 'One hundred percent perfect...[and] unduly careful' " pg. 96 said Louise Thaden. But they weren't of course and the critics couldn't ignore it and the most famous aviator of the time - Charles Lindbergh - didn't have their back.
Some of the struggles these women endured - trying to have a demanding career and a family; unequal pay; patronizing criticism - are stories all to familiar to modern women. Earhart recognized that these story lines would outlast her moment in history. She knew that the battle for gender equality in the air (and beyond) was just starting. "Women,' [Earhart] explained, 'must try to do things as men have tried. Where they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others" pg. 247. And that challenge is being met! It was met by me, several friends, dozens of predecessors, and I'm sure many up and coming successors in the aviation industry. As an organization, The Ninety-Nines are alive and well; in fact I just submitted my application.
I dare to believe that if I were alive back in their historical moment, I would have answered the call. The book has certainly re-inspired me to get back in the cockpit, explore, and push my boundaries. I hope it inspires you as well. Nothing new is ever accomplished on the first try. "It [takes] dedication,' Thaden explained. 'And the courage to accept defeat, after defeat, after defeat" pg. 259. Don't let the fear of the unknown keep you rooted in place; dare to try!
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