This week our series, Through The Looking Glass, features one of my all time heroes: Amelia Earhart. The publicity about the new film Amelia, in theatres now, triggers childhood memories for me; back to my grade school years. You remember them, when we all had to pick a famous person and either read a biography about them and write a book report or research and write our own little mini-bio on them. I always chose Amelia Earhart. She was my hero, someone I wanted to emulate and was often an influence in those long ago young-girl dreams and aspirations. We all know about Earhart’s accomplishments, the dry facts and stats, so I will not dwell on those. Rather, I will focus more on Amelia the woman, that extraordinary person who did so much for women and whose effects are still felt today.
Much has been written about Earhart, her daring and courage, her many accomplishments. Between 1930 and 1935 she set 7 women’s speed and distance records, set a world altitude record of 18,415 feet in 1931, completed the first solo transatlantic flight by a woman in 1935, and was the first woman to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross, to name just a few. But what about Amelia the woman? Little is known about the personal Amelia and much of her remains an enigma to this day. In order to glimpse the woman that was Amelia, we have to start at the beginning…
Amelia Mary Earhart was born to Samuel Edwin Earhart (1867- ) and Amelia “Amy” Otis (1869-1962) in Atchison, Kansas on 24 July 1897. Her father, whom she adored, was an alcoholic and, in later years, the family moved around a lot due to his inability to keep a job. Her mother was a patrician and Amelia’s upbringing was unconventional for the time; Amy Earhart did not believe in molding her daughters into “nice little girls”. Amelia wore trousers as a child and once said that she liked the freedom they gave her but she was always aware that “other girls didn’t wear them”.
In 1915 Amy Earhart left her husband and took Amelia and her sister to Chicago. Amelia deplored the abysmal high schools in her district and shopped around for a high school that had a good science department. A revealing clue to Amelia’s high school experience can be found from the entry about her in the high school yearbook: “A.E., the girl in brown who walks alone.”
In 1921 Amelia took her first airplane ride with Frank Hawks, who later became a famed air racer. It cost ten dollars and lasted 10 minutes but that 10 minutes was enough to trigger a passion for aviation that would last the rest of her life. After working and saving her money to take flying lessons, Amelia became the 16th woman to be issued a pilot’s license by the FAA on 15 May 1923.
While Amelia was known to be competitive, and much written about her leaves the impression of a tough female wearing masculine clothing, her compassionate side often revealed itself. In 1929 while competing in the “Powder Puff Derby”, an air racing competition for women, she and fellow aviator and friend Ruth Nichols were tied for 1st place. While taking off for the last leg of the race, Nichols hit a tractor at the end of the field and flipped her plane. Instead of taking off, Amelia jumped out of her plane and ran to her friend, pulling her out and dragging her away from the wreckage. Only when she knew her friend was uninjured did Amelia get back into her plane and take off, finishing in 3rd place. After meeting and speaking with Earhart, first lady Lou Hoover said to a friend that Amelia was “poised, well bred, lovely to look at, intelligent, and sincere…” Another first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, admired Amelia and counted her as a friend. On one occasion Amelia invited the first lady to take a flight over the capital at night. Eleanor accepted and to mark the occasion, Amelia wore an evening gown while flying the plane. Indeed, the inner Amelia had a playful and whimsical side.
In 1931 Amelia married publicist George Palmer Putnam (1887-1950), a man who with she had many common interests such as hiking, swimming, camping, riding, tennis and golf. A clue to the inner Amelia can be found in the devastating letter she wrote and had hand delivered to Putnam on their wedding day:
“Dear G.P., 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 to — so much to me. I feel the move just now is foolish as anything I could do. I know there may be compensations, but I have no heart to look ahead. In our life together, I shall not hold you to any medieval code — of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly … Please let us not interfere with the other’s work or play, nor let the world see our private joys or disagreements. In this connection, I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure all the confinements of even an attractive cage. I must extract a cruel promise, and that is you will let me go in a year if we find no happiness together” (1)
She later wrote to a friend about the relationship she shared with her husband, “Ours is a reasonable and contented partnership; my husband with his solo jobs, and I with mine; but the system of dual control works satisfactorily and our work and our play is a great deal together.” Like an adventurous male, Amelia would keep her heart to herself.
Earhart dedicated her life to proving that, like men, women could excel in their chosen professions and that they could have equal value. Earhart became involved with the implementation of the Ninety-Nines, an organization of female pilots advancing the cause of women in aviation and in 1930 she became the organization’s first president. When the Bendix Trophy Race banned women from the competition in 1935 she openly refused to fly screen actress Mary Pickford to Cleveland to open the race. In 1935, Amelia Earhart joined the faculty at Purdue University as a female career consultant and technical adviser to the Department of Aeronautics. On the “lighter” side, Earhart became involved in woman’s fashions. For years she had sewn her own clothes, and now she contributed her input to a new line of women’s fashion that had a sleek and purposeful, yet feminine, look.
In 1937 Amelia began planning a world flight. While it would not be the first flight around the world, it would be the longest at 29,000 miles. On 1 June 1937 she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, took off from Miami to start the journey. They flew toward Central and South America, turning east for Africa. From there the plane crossed the Indian Ocean and finally touched down in Lae, New Guinea, on 29 June 1937. She and Noonan had completed 22,000 miles of the journey; the last 7000 would take place over the Pacific Ocean. After recuperating from dysentery, they took off from Lae on July 2, 1937 at 12:30 PM, heading east toward Howland Island. She and Noonan never made it. On 3 July 1937 at 8:43 AM the last official communication from Earhart was received. Despite one of the largest task forces ever launched by the US Navy, the search for Earhart was unsuccessful and no trace of her, Noonan, or the aircraft was ever found. On 5 January 1939, Amelia Earhart was declared legally dead by the Superior Court in Los Angeles.
And so my hero flew into history, leaving behind an invaluable legacy for all women. In her passion for flying, she amassed a number of records but, beyond her accomplishments as a pilot, she also made a statement about the role and worth of women. Shy but charismatic, plucky but compassionate, Earhart opened doors and blazed a trail that remains a warm beacon for all women. I remember and honor Amelia Earhart, the girl in brown who walked alone, dreamed dreams and, despite knowing she was “different”, had the courage, determination, and perseverance to pursue them.
Courage is the price that
Life exacts for granting peace.
The soul that knows it not
Knows no release from little things:
Knows not the livid loneliness of fear,
Nor mountain heights where bitter joy can hear the sound of wings.
Nor can life grant us boon of living, compensate
For dull gray ugliness and pregnant hate
Unless we dare
The soul’s dominion.
Each time we make a choice, we pay
With courage to behold the resistless day,
And count it fair.
~ by Amelia Earhart ~
(1) Source: George Palmer Putnam. Soaring Wings: A Biography of Amelia Earhart. 1939. p. 76, 82.