Amelia Earhart (1897-1937)

Born in Kansas, Amelia Mary Earhart lived in Iowa and Minnesota before graduating from high school in Illinois.  She did a semester of work at a small college in Pennsylvania then went to Canada to work in a military hospital during World War I.  It was there that she met aviators and developed her lifelong love of flying.

Yet Earhart’s peripatetic ways continued, for it was not easy for a young woman of that era to see herself as an aviator, let alone understand how to systematically accomplish that goal.  She spent a year on the fringes of Smith College, where her sister studied, and then enrolled at Columbia University, but soon was across the nation at the University of Southern California.  It was this move to Los Angeles that turned out to be salient to her life, as it brought her first airplane ride.  Earhart immediately set about learning to fly and soloed for the first time in June 1921.

With money she earned by working as a telephone operator, she bought a plane for her twenty-fifth birthday.  A crash only a few months later did not diminish her enthusiasm, but family finances nonetheless meant that Earhart had to revert to traditional women’s work.  She moved back to her sister in Massachusetts, worked as a teacher of English to immigrants and lived at the Denison House—a long established settlement house that was an important influence with immigrant women and especially the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union.  But Earhart was not a teacher or social worker, either by training or by inclination.  She was instead again trying to force herself into the stereotyped molds available to women, and that this effort did not prevail was due in large part to chance and happenstance. 

The Putnam publishing firm, seeking an opportunity to expand on the public enthusiasm for Charles Lindbergh’s transcontinental flight a year earlier and looking for a woman to make a second flight distinctive, settled on Earhart after she was mentioned by Bostonians who knew of her interest.  Thus, on June 17, 1928, Earhart—as passenger, log-keeper, and standby pilot—set off from Newfoundland with two men, a pilot and a mechanic.

When they landed in Wales, the world’s attention focused on this “Lady Lindy,” and almost overnight she went from settlement house worker to celebrated pilot.  Earhart quickly became a public darling whose reputation far exceeded those of other women who did dangerous “barnstorming” in the era’s popular flying exhibitions.  A propensity for understatement and humor, added to her cute blond curls, made Earhart a public relations dream; the era’s flappers saw her as the epitome of the liberated woman, while their parents pointed to her Midwestern modesty, common sense, and traditional manners.

The resulting popularity meant that her flying could be increasingly financed by those with a product to promote, while the transatlantic voyage’s link with Putnam’s not only brought about the publication of her book about the flight (20 Hrs. 40 Mins.), but also a position as aviation editor of Cosmopolitan (then a reputable family magazine).  The vice-presidency of the new Ludington Airlines was icing on the cake.  At age thirty-one, Earhart was a national phenomenon.

The stock market collapse the following year did little to slow her down, as the nation, seeking escape during the Depression, seemed only to fall deeper in love with their Amelia.  Although she did not win it, Earhart was the focus of the first Women’s Air Derby in 1929 and was elected the first president of the Ninety-Nines Club, an organization for female pilots also founded that year.

Aware that her initial fame was to a large extent the creation of her publicists, Earhart was determined to earn the recognition she received.  She set several records for speed and distance with flights in the forerunner of a helicopter in 1931, and the following year, she became the first woman to solo across the Atlantic, setting a speed record for pilots of either gender.  This flight was recognized by with the American Distinguished Flying Cross and by the French with their Legion of Honor.

She married her publishing associate, George Putnam, in 1931, but retained her maiden name.  Her second book, The Fun of It, came out in 1932, but more important to Earhart were additional aviation achievements.  She won the ten thousand dollar prize for a flight from Hawaii to the mainland in 1935 and also received accolades for a non-stop solo from Mexico City to New York.  She became affiliated with Purdue University in that same year, when its officials used her as a role model for women students and supported that decision by buying Earhart a Lockheed plane with state-of-the-art equipment.

It was in this “flying laboratory” that she set out for an around-the-world trip intended not for speed, but for scientific research.  With a three-man crew, she set out from California to Hawaii, but when they discovered the plane needed repairs, it was shipped back to the mainland.  She began a second time from the East Coast with only one man to assist; they left Miami on June 1, 1937.  Radio contact and regular landings went off as scheduled for a month, but radio contact ceased on July 2, while they flew a dangerous 2,500-mile mid-Pacific leg between New Guinea and a tiny island where Earhart planned to land on a barely visible airstrip.  No plane was ever found, despite a well publicized search that has gone on for decades.

She is one of the half-dozen women among a hundred men in the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and George Putnam published his wife’s posthumous autobiography, Last Flight, in 1937.   Although she was a licensed pilot for a mere sixteen years and famous for less than a decade, Amelia Earhart made a very significant contribution to the history of American women.  Presumably dying a few days short of her fortieth birthday, she exhibited genuine courage, resourceful intelligence, and leadership ability that commanded worldwide respect.  She gave millions of women suffering through the Great Depression a reason to be proud.