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'Fly Girls' tells the early history of women in aviation

NPR contributor Keith O’Brien profiles women who were brave and determined although not always victorious.

Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History By Keith O’Brien Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 352 pp.

At a time when political warfare is being waged in American culture over women’s bodies – through reactions to the #MeToo movement; the battle over a supreme court nominee who will almost certainly overturn women’s right to an abortion; endless debates over every aspect of motherhood, all somehow resulting in less free time and more guilt-ridden mothers – it might seem like a good escape and perhaps a dose of inspiration to reflect on the beginnings of women’s aviation in the 1920s. Well, sort of. Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History by Keith O’Brien centers on women who were brave and determined as they set about breaking technological and cultural barriers in their pursuit of flight, but their stories, taken together, are not as unambiguously victorious as the book’s subtitle suggests.

Between the unreliability of early planes – developed through trial and error and liable to have a wing suddenly sheer off midflight – and the virulent sexism that hampered these pilots’ access to better quality planes and the sponsorship they desperately needed, it was a tough road. A female flier could hardly emerge unscathed – with the possible exception of Amelia Earhart, the one name still familiar today, successful in flight and public persona, until she disappeared.

Even in an era of increased freedom for women like the late 1920s, when flappers were bobbing their hair, smoking, and driving, there was an anxiety over the prospect of women’s flight – and this, even when the controls were held by a man. "Fly Girls," in fact, opens with the unofficial competition between several women to cross the Atlantic, simply as passengers. This was in 1926. Earhart ended up winning the contest, her first entry to fame, but after referred to herself self-deprecatingly as “just baggage.”

There was, in other words, a symbolic value to flying, untethered, in a world that wanted them grounded – that is to say dependent, uncompetitive, domesticated, controlled. And flying rapidly grew to be a major spectator sport in this period, with attendance by Labor Day of 1929 dwarfing that of the World Series. Any woman daring to fly knew she would be thrust into the public eye.

Though "Fly Girls" presents itself as a sort of ensemble piece, it’s Louise Thaden who emerges as its star, beginning her career by setting an altitude record for women, followed by ones for speed and endurance, and ending by winning the storied Bendix coast to coast race in 1936, beating not only Earhart, but every male pilot – one of whom, everyone assumed, would win. Soon after, Thaden performed her own disappearing act, vanishing into the role of motherhood at the height of her career, when she could have toured, flown the most cutting-edge planes and, like Earhart, given well-paid speeches. (Later struggles with depression and alcoholism suggest that however much Thaden loved her children, it pained her to renounce flight.)

The interesting, but decidedly less memorable figures of Ruth Nichols and Ruth Elder make up the rest of the five, along with Florence Klingensmith (a head-scratcher, since she seems a minor figure by comparison, and a generation younger). Out of the first race of the Women’s Air Derby came a coalition who dubbed themselves the Ninety-niners, and following this, O’Brien traces Earhart’s first transatlantic flight (on her own), concluding the books with Thaden’s Benedix victory.  There were lots of bumps for the women along the way, including a reneging of the women’s air derby following the grisly death of one glamorous young pilot.  Deep friendships formed, a sense of comradery far outweighing the competitiveness, however ambitious the Ninety-niners were to break records and win races— and however desperate they were for prize money and promotional opportunities.

Cliff Henderson, who ran the Derby for years, is another major figure – a quintessentially American character as a Quaker and self-made man, who was happy to profit off the pilots, founding the Women’s Derby, but also abruptly canceling it when public opinion rose in a backlash against it. The media generally was not on these women’s side, nor were public figures like the president of a small airline and oil company, Erle Halliburton (yes that Halliburton), who denounced the derby after one pilot crashed, claiming women weren’t ready to fly. The story O’Brien tells is saturated with capitalism, though it’s hard to tell how consciously he recognizes this: Ruth Nichols became “a brand,” he reports, unironically, and Earhart a “global commodity.”

If "Fly Girls" has a weakness, it’s in its delivery. O’Brien’s intent is clearly to give context, but it needed paring down.  New characters, disorientingly, appear throughout. I regularly found myself scrolling back, looking for something that would tip me off as to why I was immersed in pages of long descriptive passages about someone or something… a male pilot, a plane manufacturer, a men’s race… as crashes, competitions, and mechanical failures began to merge together. And, call me squeamish, but I didn’t need to know all the particulars about how the bodies of downed pilots were crushed in the cockpits.

Even so, much of O’Brien’s reportage is valuable, as is his analysis of the bias the pilots faced – labeled foolhardy rather than courageous; judged by sexual currency over accomplishments; and most damagingly, subjected to a double-standard whereby when a man crashed a plane, the plane was blamed as faulty, whereas, with a woman pilot, the pilot was sure to be blamed and her whole gender implicated.  

The slice of history "Fly Girls" covers, even as it could seem like ancient history, is apt to reflect on now, given its relevance to the pattern of how American women’s bodies have historically been “grounded”— as a way to understand the moment we are in, and, one hopes, find a way out of it.

Elizabeth Toohey is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College (CUNY) and a regular contributor.

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