The First Women Aviators
The First Women Aviators
It was only six years after the Wright brothers' first flight that the first woman flew an airplane. In the next few decades, women aviators became increasingly common and attracted an increasing amount of attention, culminating with Amelia Earhart's (1898-1937) flights in the 1920s and 1930s. With Earhart's death in 1937, women aviators became less prominent, but continued to contribute greatly to aviation, especially as auxiliary pilots during the Second World War. Thanks to the early female aviators, women are now accepted as pilots in both military and commercial aircraft.
The first woman took to the air in 1784, not long after the first human flight of any sort. Flying over the French countryside, Elisabeth Thible was so thrilled she burst into song as she ascended to a height of nearly a mile. In spite of this early start, women remained by and large earthbound, relinquishing the skies to men. There were, of course, exceptions, and over 20 women flew balloons during the 1800s, but not many women took to the air.
Over a century later, in 1909, women again took to the air, this time in heavier-than-air craft. Another French woman, Elise Deroche (1889-1919), who referred to herself as a baroness although the legitimacy of the title was doubtful, became the world's first licensed woman pilot in 1910. In the next few years, women in Germany, Italy, and America became licensed to fly, many of them explicitly trying to prove that women were as capable as men in the air.
The first American woman to fly solo was Blanche Scott (1890-1970), hired by the Curtiss Airplane Company to demonstrate the safety of their airplanes. For the next six years, Scott flew in aerial exhibitions, performing stunts before excited crowds. She retired in 1916, citing, among other reasons, the difficulty she had in being taken seriously by both male pilots and the crowds.
Another woman, Bessie Coleman (1893-1926), attacked barriers of race as well as gender. Although she was not permitted to attend an American flight school because of her race, she eventually earned her pilot's license in France, becoming the first black woman in the world to do so. Returning to the U.S. after this accomplishment, she opened a flight school in 1921. Unfortunately, she died in a plane crash just five years later.
There were a number of other notable women pilots in the 1910s and 1920s, including Harriet Quimby (1884-1912; the first woman to fly across the English Channel), Ruth Law (who set a non-stop distance record for both men and women), and Katherine Stinson. Most famous, of course, was Amelia Earhart, whose exploits are more fully described in another essay. And, during the Second World War, the Soviet Union put women pilots into combat, mostly flying antiquated bombers to attack German positions in the Crimea.
These women flew for a number of reasons, but they had some motivations in common. In this pre-Suffrage era, many women wanted simply to show that women could do the same things that men could. Some were attracted to the danger and romance of flight, and some felt this was the only way for a woman to experience any adventure in her life since so many other avenues were closed.
Women pilots faced similar obstacles, too, no matter in what nation they flew. All met with some degree of resistance from male pilots and, in many cases, from the airplane owners, their families, and the public. In general, this resistance stemmed from a few basic causes. Some believed that women were too weak or too slow to safely control aircraft moving at high altitudes and high speeds. Flying was considered "unfeminine," and women who wanted to fly were suspected of being the same. Many tried to protect women, too, in this era, and one way of doing so was by keeping them from doing things known or suspected to be dangerous. Some men simply didn't want women stepping into the spotlight with them, while other men felt that, were a woman flyer to die in a crash, the whole field of aviation would be set back by several years because of public outcry. Nonetheless, women flew, partly to prove the men wrong, but mostly because they loved to fly.
As women took to the air, several things happened, some of which continue to this day. First, after several women set altitude, speed, or distance records, many men had to grudgingly admit that women really could fly safely and skillfully. Although this grudging respect did not necessarily carry over into other areas, it was a necessary first step in the later acceptance of women in other technical professions.
Secondly, crowds flocked to see women fly and perform stunts. Part of this attraction was because of the novelty of women performing these "masculine" deeds, leading to a wider acceptance, again, of women in other technical fields.
Finally, these were the first in what was to become many steps by women in aviation, culminating (thus far) in the first woman to command a space mission, which happened in 1999.
Although women's roles in the military remain more limited than those of men, women did begin to receive larger and more technical roles in World War II and in later years. In particular, women were permitted to join the military and to fly in supporting roles for the Allies. By ferrying planes from factory to air base and across to Europe, for example, women pilots freed men up for combat missions. However, women's roles in military aviation stalled out at this point for many years in the U.S. because of continuing public, military, and governmental reluctance to place women in harm's way. In fact, it was not until after the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s that American women were finally permitted to fly combat aircraft in potentially hostile situations.
Things were different in other countries. Driven by a severe shortage of men during World War II, the Soviet air force enlisted the talents of women almost from the start. Women bomber pilots flew over 24,000 missions for the Soviets in their war against Hitler's Germany, and other women flew combat sorties in fighter planes. In fact, some women flew up to 18 bombing sorties per day while the top Soviet woman fighter pilot, Lilya Litvyak, downed a dozen German planes in combat.
In later years, drawing on these wartime experiences, the Soviet Union continued placing women in technical roles, including the world's first women astronauts. It was not until the 1980s that the U.S. followed suit, sending women aloft in the Space Shuttle, and in 1999 the first American woman commanded a shuttle mission. In this, finally, women had accomplished virtually everything in the air as their male counterparts, proving themselves every bit as talented and skilled, and deserving of equal respect.
P. ANDREW KARAM
Earhart, Amelia and George Putnam. Last Flight. Crown Books, 1996.
Moolman, Valerie. Women Aloft. Time-Life Books, 1981.