Amelia Earhart: Showing What Women Can Do

March is Women’s History Month! Today’s post comes from Danielle Sklarew in the National Archives History Office.

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Amelia Earhart prior to her last takeoff, 1937. (National Archives Identifier 6708612)

Like previous flights, I am undertaking this one solely because I want to, and because I feel that women now and then have to do things to show what women can do.

Amelia Earhart sent these words to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, just a year before her famous flight around the globe that ended with her mysterious death. Her words shine with a clear desire to inspire other women and show that women can be successful at daunting tasks, just as Earhart had done over and over again. 

 

In the letter, Earhart asks FDR for his assistance in getting the Navy to allow her to stop at Midway Island to refuel her plane. Midway Island, also known as Midway Atoll, is a U.S. territory about halfway between the United States and the continent of Asia. Earhart thought the 2.4-square-mile island would be the perfect place to refuel so she would not have to fly straight from Hawaii to Tokyo.

Before Earhart took on this ambitious mission, she had already broken several records and achieved quite a number of accomplishments as a pilot. In 1922, Earhart set a record for reaching the highest altitude for a woman pilot, flying to 14,000 feet. Six years later, Earhart became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. These achievements elevated her status as a celebrity; Earhart wrote a book about her record-breaking experience across the Atlantic and toured the country giving lectures.

In the following 10 years, Earhart continued to set aviation records for speed and distance. She also helped create a women’s aviation club, the Ninety-Nines, and was elected the first president. The organization still exists today and works to promote female pilots.

Earhart remains famous today not only for her achievements but also for her unresolved disappearance. Earhart disappeared in 1937 while attempting to complete the flight around the globe that she wrote to President Roosevelt about. Her plane was lost, and her body was never recovered. There are a few leading hypotheses about what happened to the daring pilot, but the mystery of her disappearance has somewhat become synonymous with the story of her life.

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Amelia Earhart, 7/30/1936. (National Archives Identifier 6708609)

Earhart’s story is remarkable not just for her achievements as a pilot but also because of what she accomplished at a time when women were constrained in what they could do. The 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote was not passed until 1920, only a year before Earhart began flying lessons.

Women in the 1920s had a bit more freedom to work than they had in earlier decades; however, it was still generally assumed that women should be home doing housework and be the primary caretakers for children. Earhart was married, but she did not let that constrain her from pursuing an incredibly bold career as a pilot.

While she may be the most famous, Earhart was not the first female pilot. In 1911, Harriet Quimby became the first woman to receive her pilot’s license. She was a barrier breaker, but the progress for women in the aviation industry was a slow one—by 1930 there were still only 200 female pilots. In the 1930s, the decade of Earhart, the number of women pilots multiplied drastically. By 1935, between 700 and 800 women had pilot’s licenses.

U.S. involvement in World War II opened more doors for women in the aviation industry. Because the war effort needed a larger workforce, more women had an opportunity to work for the military. Women were mechanics and flight controllers as well as pilots and also held other supporting jobs.

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The first Air Force all-female flight to fly an overseas mission: from left to right, Capt. Guiliana Sangiorgio, aircraft commander; Capt. Barbara Akin, 1ST pilot; 1st Lt. Terri Ollinger, copilot; Tech. Sgt. Donna Wertz, flight engineer; Staff Sgt. Denise Meunier, flight engineer; Sgt. Mary Eiche, load master; and Airman 1st Class Bernadette Botti, 5/11/1983. (National Archives Identifier 6376407)

Despite this growth in opportunity for women in the aviation industry, women pilots today are still vastly outnumbered by men. Women make up an estimated 7 percent of pilots in the workforce today. While the numbers are small, the progress is apparent, and we can thank Earhart and the female pilots of our past for blazing the trail for these women to participate in the world of flight.

To learn more about records related to Amelia Earhart at the National Archives visit our website.

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