Amelia Earhart: Pilot and feminist (+video)
Amelia Earhart broke aviation records and gained the respect of male pilots. But Amelia Earhart also held modern views about gender roles, and demanded equal status in her marriage.
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“Certainly Miss Earhart herself has demonstrated the fallacy of that old idea of women’s physical inferiority which we meet on a thousand fronts every day," said Alice Paul in response to the Richey situation. Paul was a well-known suffragist and activist who picketed the White House during the Woodrow Wilson administration.Skip to next paragraph
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Later, in 1941, Richey became the first woman flight instructor licensed by the newly formed US Civil Aeronautics Authority.
Earhart also helped found the Ninety-Nines, a group of female pilots; she was the organization's first president. Today, the Ninety-Nines are an international organization with thousands of licensed members. By breaking records Earhart and other women in aviation were proving they were equal to men in skill and physical capability.
"She understood that this represented an opportunity to promote women in aviation and also women to lead independent lives, professional lives outside the home," said Frank Goodyear in an interview with WTOP 103.5 FM, a news radio station in Washington. Goodyear is the associate curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, which is now showing a special exhibit celebrating Earhart's career and legacy, with a particular focus on her contribution as a feminist.
After setting many records, becoming the first person to fly solo across the Pacific and the first person to fly solo from Mexico City to Newark, Earhart, nearing her 40th birthday took on her greatest challenge yet, a trip around the world.
Knowing how dangerous the flight would be, she left a letter for her husband in case she didn’t return, writing, “Please know I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”
It wasn’t until 1964 that Geraldine “Jerrie” Mock, the manager of Columbus Airport in Ohio, became the first woman to successfully fly around the world. But between Earhart’s disappearance in 1937 and Mock’s flight, many women in aviation took on Earhart’s challenge and legacy, becoming air traffic controllers, piloting military aircraft, breaking the sound barrier, and even going into space.
Earhart will always be best remembered for her mysterious disappearance, but her legacy as a feminist may be equally important to women and girls who might still struggle with questions of independence, pay equity, and equal rights in society.
"She was very strong in advocating that women should break out of their shells and do more," says Foudray, the caretaker at the Earhart museum. "She said the world was not using aviation to its fullest potential. She wanted to show what was possible, and that's why she became a historic icon."
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