Amelia Earhart: The Flying Feminist
Emilie Watson, Purdue University
While most accounts frame Amelia Earhart’s legacy around her work as a pioneer of American aviation and on her mysterious disappearance, her contributions to post-suffrage women’s equality also make her a historically significant figure. Whether she expressly meant to or not, Earhart broke down barriers and served as a role model for many women, not just aspiring aviators. From her first world-renowned flight across the Atlantic as a passenger, to her time spent at Purdue University as Counselor in Careers for Women, Earhart viewed her accomplishments not only as personal achievements, but as feats for women everywhere. Amelia Earhart achieved much in her short lifetime, but perhaps her greatest feat was her ability to navigate the world within gendered limitations while simultaneously defying them. She figured out how to present herself as a barrier breaker and yet remain admired by both men and women alike.
Although historians have devoted considerable attention to Earhart’s 1937 disappearance, they have paid far less attention to her role as an intellectual and feminist, writer and communicator. As Earhart gained fame for her aviation exploits, she “drew from the symbolic capital of those feats to articulate new visions of women in society”(1). In other words, Earhart’s celebrity secured her the public’s admiration, which she then used to shape and mold discussions about femininity in the United States during the 1920s and 1930s. As Earhart exceeded the societal expectations and norms for women of her time, she placed herself in an optimal position to become a role model for women, young and old, and to inspire a transformation in societal attitudes (2). Despite openly advocating for equal rights and opportunities, according to her husband, George Palmer Putnam, Earhart was not “offensively feministic”(3). She believed that every woman should have an equal opportunity to prove her competence, and that no one should receive preferential treatment based on his or her gender. This individualistic view of women’s rights affords her a unique place in the history of feminism. Through her support of the Equal Rights Amendment, her encouragement of women pilots, her style and fashion sense, her career at Purdue University, and many other accomplishments, Amelia Earhart left a significant mark in the fight for women’s equality.
Drawing upon evidence from Earhart’s personal and professional papers, those housed at Purdue University, this article seeks to analyze her particular brand of feminism by examining how she used her female identity to her advantage, carving out a place for herself in the world of aviation. Despite Earhart’s carefully cultivated image, as a woman who overcame gender barriers by successfully breaking into a male profession, Earhart remained confined to a particular place in society because she was female. During interviews, reporters often asked Earhart about her clothes, her favorite recipes, and her marriage. It is hard to believe that reporters and interviewers would have posed such personal questions to her male counterparts. But Earhart was often willing to oblige. She was aware of the advantages of being a woman in a man’s field. By learning to operate within the confines of her gender, she used her position to advance herself and women.
In order to understand Amelia Earhart as a “feminist,” it is critical to first define the term and explore its history. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Feminism is both an intellectual commitment and a political movement that seeks justice for women and the end of sexism in all forms.” It is a “belief in and advocacy of equal rights for women based on the idea of the equality of the sexes” (4). Yet in the mid-1800s, “feminism” simply meant “the qualities of females.” By 1892, after the First International Women’s Conference in Paris, the meaning of the word began to change and align with its contemporary definition (5). “Feminism” is most often associated with the women’s suffrage movement, which dates back to the Seneca Falls convention in 1848, a gathering that sparked “first wave” feminism. At this first women’s rights convention in New York, Elizabeth Cady Stanton outlined a declaration “claiming the natural equity of women and outlining the political strategy of equal access and opportunity” (6). During the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, women in the United States fought for their right to vote by organizing into groups (e.g. the National Women’s Party and the National American Women’s Suffrage Association), picketing, parading, and sometimes taking militant action, such as burning President Woodrow Wilson’s supposedly sexist speeches (7). In 1920, the women’s suffrage movement gained a significant victory, when Congress ratified the Nineteenth Amendment, giving women the right to vote.
In the post-suffrage era, the first wave of feminism faded. Organized women’s movements did not surface again until the late 1960s with the emergence of “Second Wave” feminism, which is beyond the scope of this paper. During the period between these two waves, however, movement and media reports tended to focus on the individual achievements of women, including Amelia Earhart. According to Susan Ware, the celebration of “accomplishments of popular heroines, outstanding professional women, politicians, Hollywood stars and sports figures kept alive a sense of progress for women as a group in a period when mass feminist movements were not likely to coalesce” (8).
Amelia Earhart never claimed to be a feminist. In fact, more than once she asserted just the opposite. Once, when asked about her views on the roles of husbands and wives in the home, Earhart answered, “I don’t even think this is mere ‘modern thinking’ or ‘feminism’ or anything of that kind, but just good common sense” (9). Ruth Nichols, a fellow female flyer and friend, recalled her saying, “I cannot claim to be a feminist but do rather enjoy seeing women tackling all kinds of new problems – new for them, that is” (10). Although she did not consider herself a feminist, many women regarded Earhart’s accomplishments as liberating for females all around the world. After completing various record-breaking flights, Earhart received hundreds of letters and telegrams congratulating her success. Everyone from pilots to political figures, family and friends, to complete strangers sent her notes of congratulations. Many came from women and women’s groups. After becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic in 1928, Earhart received a hand-written letter from Lady Mary Heath, an Irish aviator, in which she wrote, “Women pilots all over the world are very proud of your magnificent achievement and the dignified way in which you have done it” (11). In 1932 Earhart received congratulations in the form of a telegram from Retta Schwiess, the President of the Anaheim Business and Professional Women’s Club, on her solo flight across the Atlantic. Schwiess wrote, “All womankind rejoice in your achievement. Welcome home” (12). Thanks to her emphasis on the importance of personal accomplishment and an ability to appeal to her gender, Earhart became the embodiment of the post-suffrage era’s individualistic attitude towards feminism.
Born in Atchison, Kansas on July 24, 1897, Amelia Earhart was “technically a child of the Victorian nineteenth century,” a time characterized by conservative and restrictive attitudes towards women (13). Earhart herself reflected in her 1933 autobiography, The Fun of It, that she grew up during a time when “girls were still girls” (14). While fond of reading, which “was considered proper,” many of the outdoor activities that really interested her— such as “basketball, bicycling, tennis, and…any and all strenuous games”—were not considered appropriate for young girls (15). While still young, Earhart’s parents, Edwin and Amy Otis, fostered in her a love of adventure, which she cultivated throughout her entire life. Her family moved frequently due to her father’s railroad job, sometimes taking Earhart and her younger sister, Muriel, with them and sometimes leaving the girls with their grandparents in Atchison. As a result, Earhart grew up “here and there” and attended six high schools before accumulating enough credits to graduate (16). She did not mind the constant interruptions. In fact, she seemed to enjoy them:
“Despite the fun of school, joyful interruptions were occasionally vouchsafed when my father had to make a long business trip. He was, most of his life, connected with one railroad or another, and used to pack the family off when he made a trip of any consequence. Seemingly our jaunts to California and other places did not materially hinder school progress. I think possibly I gained as much from travel as from curricula…. The family rolled around a good deal during my father’s railroad years, Kansas City, Des Moines, St. Paul, Chicago – forward and back. What we missed in continuous contacts over a long period, we gained by becoming adapted to new surroundings quickly” (17).
Earhart certainly enjoyed her childhood and idealized her father, despite his regular struggles with alcoholism, which frequently caused problems for his wife and children. According to Susan Ware, “Amy Otis Earhart was a typical self-abnegating Victorian wife, who juggled the needs of her family, their diminishing finances, and an alcoholic husband without much concern for her own needs” (18). There is some speculation among scholars that the rocky marriage of Earhart’s parents contributed to her feminist ideas, in that it served as an example of how she did not wish to live her own life (19). Earhart’s sister, Muriel, followed a more traditional path for women of the time, becoming an English teacher, marrying, and having children. Meanwhile, Amelia was never interested in following in the footsteps of her mother’s generation. Determined not to fall into “the trap of Victorian selflessness and domesticity,” she decided to become an independent and self-supporting woman (20).
Luckily, Amelia Earhart was born at the end of the restrictive nineteenth century, and she grew up in a time when attitudes about women were slowly changing. During the 1910s, there were increasing opportunities for women who wished to remain unmarried and work outside the home. Two historical moments serve as important markers of this change: the campaign for women’s suffrage and the events of the First World War. While Earhart did not participate in the suffrage campaign, her experiences during the war changed the course of her life (21). After high school, Earhart and her sister both left home to attend college, Amelia at Ogontz School near Philadelphia and Muriel at St. Margaret’s College in Toronto. In 1917, while visiting her sister at school during Christmas vacation, Amelia impulsively decided to remain in Toronto and help with the war effort by becoming a nurse’s aide at the Spadina Military Convalescent Hospital (22). She knew that abandoning school meant giving up her chance to graduate, but she “didn’t care.” She told her mother that she could not “bear the thought of going back to school and being so useless,” and so she remained in Toronto as a volunteer at the hospital until the end of the war (23). It was during this time that Earhart first became interested in flying. She had only ever seen an airplane up close once or twice before, but the many military pilots training in the area increased her exposure. Wartime restrictions on civilian flight barred Earhart from going up in the air. Since she was not able to fly herself, she kindled her new interest in aviation by hanging “around [the pilots] in spare time,” listening to their stories, and absorbing all she could (24).
Earhart did not get the opportunity to try flying until several years after the war ended. After a brief stint at Columbia University, where she enrolled in premedical courses, she decided against becoming a doctor and moved to California to live with her parents, who needed help sustaining their failing marriage. Sad to leave New York, Earhart planned to return to the east coast as soon as possible, but once she arrived in California, she soon fell in love with her new surroundings. Just as when she was a child, Earhart took part in various outdoor sports, including tennis, horseback riding, and “almost anything else that is active and carried on in the open” (25). She also pursued her interest in aviation, dragging her father along with her to “all the air circuses in the vicinity” (26). One day, while Earhart and her father were watching an airshow in Long Beach, she asked that he “please find out how much [flying] lessons cost.” After some investigation, he reported that the charges were one thousand dollars. “But why do you want to know?” he asked. Later reflecting on that day, she wrote, “I wasn’t really sure…somehow or other, I felt in my bones that a hop would come soon” (27).
Sometime later, Earhart finally got the opportunity to go up in the air. In a residential suburb of Los Angeles, she took her first flight as a passenger alongside pilot Frank Hawks. The moment they were airborne, Earhart knew that she had found her calling. “As soon as we left the ground,” she said, “I knew I myself had to fly” (28). Soon after, she began working at a telephone company to pay for lessons and sought out a female flight instructor, because she felt she would be more comfortable learning from a woman. Her instructor, Neta Snook, was one of the first women to graduate from the Glenn Curtiss School in San Diego, California. Ironically, Earhart was not a naturally gifted flyer. In fact, she found it quite difficult. Earhart took her first lesson in January 1921 and, with the help of her parents, eventually purchased a second-hand, yellow Kinner Airster, which she named The Canary (29). It took her more than fifteen hours of chaperoned flight time, which she logged over the course of almost a year, before she finally took her first solo flight in her own plane. While learning to fly, she repeatedly had mishaps, most often during landings. Earhart described the process of learning to fly as “rather a long-drawn-out” one, and she admitted that her first solo-flight landing was “exceptionally poor” (30).
What made Earhart special was her determination and perseverance. Once she decided to fly, she took it upon herself to achieve her goal. Her family and personal circumstances never deterred her from her dream of becoming a pilot. When her father insisted he could not afford flying lessons for her, she got a job to pay for them. Playing the part of an aviator, Earhart wore breeches and a leather coat and spent large amounts of time at the airfield with the male pilots and mechanics. At the time, many considered such behavior unbecoming of a young woman. She was aware that she had chosen a traditionally masculine pursuit, and that her involvement in the sport might attract negative attention. In The Fun of It, she wrote:
“Up to that time I had been snipping inches off my hair secretly, but I had not bobbed it lest people think me eccentric. For in 1920 it was very odd indeed for a woman to fly, and I had tried to remain as normal as possible in looks, in order to offset the usual criticism of my behavior” (31).
Aware that what she was doing was radical, Earhart realized that in order to achieve her goals, she needed to balance her traditionally masculine interests with those described as more feminine in nature. If she wanted to fly, she needed to work within the gendered societal limits and take small steps toward her goal; thereby making her actions more tolerable within society. Only then could she break down barriers for herself and other women (32).
Although Earhart loved flying, she did not consider it a career until after her first major airborne “accomplishment.” In early 1928, while working at a settlement house in Boston, Earhart received a telephone call from Captain Hilton H. Railey—“a former Army Air Corps Pilot, a public relations man, and a friend of George Palmer Putnam”—who asked her if she “should be interested in doing something for aviation which might be hazardous” (33). He was speaking, of course, about a transatlantic flight. Amy Phipps Guest, a wealthy young woman from Philadelphia, had hoped to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, but after receiving pressure from her family, she decided against it and employed Captain Railey and Earhart’s future husband, George Palmer Putnam, to find a proper substitute. Earhart responded to that call. She recounted her initial meeting with Captain Railey, saying, “He told me that a woman had planned to make a transatlantic flight, but for various personal reasons had abandoned the idea of going herself. Yet still, she wanted an American to be the first of her sex to cross the ocean by air” (34).
It did not phase Earhart that Railey only extended her an invitation to join Wilmer Schultz and Lou Gordon because of her gender. Nor did she complain upon learning that, unlike the men, she would not receive compensation for her efforts. While these circumstances might have insulted some, Earhart was happy to take advantage of the opportunity, “feeling that the privilege of being included in the expedition would be sufficient in itself” (35). The irony is that, even though she was a strong advocate for women, in many ways her accomplishments were only remarkable because of the very fact that she was a woman.
After her flight across the Atlantic, Earhart’s life changed immensely. She became an instant hero and role model to many women. She never returned to settlement work and instead took to touring the country, giving lectures about women in the workplace and in the field of aviation. As Earhart’s fame grew, the public began to recognize her as a proud champion of women’s rights. The press began to compare her to Charles Lindbergh, an American aviator, who made the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, labeling her “Lady Lindy.” The amount of attention she received for the Friendship flight embarrassed Earhart, especially since the nickname compared her minor accomplishment to Lindbergh’s major feat. After all, she had not actually flown the plane at any point during the journey, yet she was the center of the media coverage. In The Fun of It, she wrote:
“To me, it was genuinely surprising what a disproportion of attention was given to the woman member of the Friendship crew at the expense of the men, who were really responsible for the flight. The credit belongs to them and to the flight’s backer as well as to the manufacturers of the plane and motors. This thought I have tried to bring out at every opportunity.
“But I happened to be a woman and the first to make a transatlantic crossing by air, and the press and the public seemed to be more interested in that fact than any other. Though palpably unfair, the circumstance was unavoidable. I think in the future, as women become better able to pull their own weight in all kinds of expeditions, the fact of their sex will loom less large when credit is given for accomplishment” (36).
Earhart recognized that she received undue credit. Yet, she was also savvy and realized that the circumstances ended up working in her favor. She described the flight as a “feminine expedition,” because a woman initially conceived of and financed the trip as a way to “emphasize what her sex stood ready to do” (37). Whether or not Earhart felt that she had actually proven what women pilots were capable of, she recognized that the expedition had been a success. Throughout her career, Earhart repeatedly received opportunities and recognition, such as her involvement with the Friendship, for no other reason than she was a successful woman in a traditionally male field, but she accepted this fact and learned to use it to her advantage.This new life in the limelight caught Earhart somewhat unprepared. After writing 20 Hrs. 40 Min., a memoir about her experiences during that first transatlantic flight, she was at a loss for what to do next, though this did not cause her much mind. In The Fun of It she wrote, “I still had no plan for myself. Should I return to social work or find something to do in aviation? I didn’t know – nor care. For the moment all I wished to do in the world was to be a vagabond – in the air.” After spending a couple of months flying across the continent and back – she later learned that she was the first woman to fly solo “from the Atlantic to the Pacific and back again” – she once again found herself pondering what to do next (38). She received numerous offers of employment during her transcontinental jaunt, and when Ray Long, editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, asked her to join the staff as Aviation Editor, she accepted. At the time, the magazine’s audience primarily consisted of young, modern, forward-thinking women, but it appealed to a general audience as well. The magazine was wildly successful in the 1920s, publishing fictional pieces and topical articles from popular authors such as Sinclair Lewis, Theodore Dreiser and even Calvin Coolidge, who wrote an article in the May 1929 issue, entitled “Why I Did Not Choose to Run” (39). Earhart was pleased to have the chance to reach a wide audience with her new position, writing, “With ‘Cosmo’s’ enormous circulation, I welcomed the opportunity to reach a great audience with my favorite subject” (40).
In writing for Cosmopolitan, Earhart found the perfect outlet for her feminist ideas. During her time at the magazine, she wrote a monthly column offering thoughts on aviation and responding to letters from readers (41). The subject of her articles often involved women in aviation, specifically encouraging women to enter the field. Regarding Earhart’s philosophy about women, her husband, George Palmer Putnam wrote, “Naturally, a good share of the application of her philosophy about the place of women was centered on the place of women in aviation, which she felt as real as in any other industry, in politics or in the kitchen” (42).
Earhart titled her first column, published in the November 1928 issue, “Try Flying Yourself.” According to biographer Doris Rich, this was a “dull rehash” of Earhart’s book, 20 Hrs. 40 Min. and the more interesting article in the November issue was a piece introducing Earhart by O. O. McIntyre. According to Rich, McIntyre described Earhart as “a real American girl” – the answer to the problem of decadent, young American women indulging in everything from gin guzzling to ‘harlotry.’ McIntyre claimed Amelia had already become ‘a symbol of new womanhood’ that would be emulated by thousands of young girls” (43).
The way Earhart presented herself to the public was crucial to her feminist persona. From her physical appearance to the subject of her lectures, Earhart maintained a very specific public image. George Palmer Putnam, Earhart’s manager and husband, played a major role in ensuring that her appearance and personality would be acceptable to her audience. He assessed her traits and offered suggestions when he found a particular aspect of her image that he felt needed to be changed. Putnam coached Earhart on public speaking, the best way to pose for photographs, and even suggested she change her smile. Considering that Earhart described herself as a strong, independent woman, it seems out of character for Earhart to allow Putnam to have so much control over her actions. Yet, she was only doing what was necessary to retain her authority and popularity among the public. In other ways, Earhart proved that she was more than capable of standing up to Putnam. In Soaring Wings, Putnam wrote:
“In the routine meaning of the term I was, I suppose, Amelia Earhart’s manager. Philosophically, as has been said, she felt that no human being of normal intelligence should be ‘managed’ by anyone else. Temperamentally she had a healthy distaste for the implication of being led around by the hand. Yet no client of any counselor ever received counsel more reasonably – or, on occasion, refused with more firmness to act on it! For, endowed with a will of her own, no phase of her life ever modified it – least of all marriage” (44).
Despite her determination to manage her own life, Earhart relied on Putnam to maintain her popularity and to attract donors and sponsors for her adventures. Constant, positive publicity was essential to her ability to secure funding for her flights, and Putnam filled that role. He exploited every opportunity to gain publicity for Earhart, and although she may not have enjoyed it, she acknowledged that it was necessary if she wanted to keep flying. Earhart was prepared to do whatever it took, not simply because she loved it, but as a way for her to prove that women were capable of the same things as men.
In order to supplement her income, which consisted of endorsements, compensation for her contributions to Cosmopolitan, and royalties from her book, Earhart traveled around the country giving lectures about opportunities for women in aviation, her own flying adventures, politics, and her thoughts on equality. Sporting a naturally friendly disposition, Earhart connected easily with many of her audiences. No matter to whom she was speaking, Earhart’s lectures often followed a similar pattern. According to historian Susan Butler, she was “Like a politician, she gave them same speech over and over, merely changing nuances, altering details” (45). First, Earhart developed a rapport with the audience by casually dismissing her fame, for example telling a humorous story, such as recounting the time she was mistaken for Lindbergh’s mother. She would, often, then inquire how many audience members had flown, as a way to transition into her favorite topic. Earhart usually touched on the importance of allowing children to fly, citing a few statistics that proved that flying was safer than driving. She then described her own flying adventures.
After such a generic introduction, one that she repeated to almost every group she addressed, Earhart then tailored the subject of the rest of her speech to the specific audience. Her lecture tours often involved speeches before various women’s organizations. When speaking to such groups, she discussed her philosophy about the rights and responsibilities of being a woman, namely that women needed to stand up for themselves and assert their independence. In East to the Dawn, Butler wrote that in her speeches Earhart frequently emphasized the need for women to “break out of their ‘platitudinous sphere,’ asserting that unlike the prisoner at the bar who is innocent until proven guilty, the woman is guilty until she proves that she can do the things men do” (46). Earhart urged women to explore career possibilities, especially in aviation “Women are better for their economic independence,” one newspaper interview quoted her. “It’s a comfortable feeling to know that one has earning facilities, and I wouldn’t give them up for anything” (47). While male pilots outnumbered women aviators in the 1920s and 1930s (forty to one, according to a statistic that Earhart often cited in her lectures), women still played important, albeit often superficial, roles in the popularization of commercial aviation (48).
In the early years of commercial airlines, much of the public harbored an aversion to flying. Although the airplane had proven to be a relatively safe, practical, and reliable means of transportation, both for goods and passengers, airlines had trouble selling enough tickets to continue operating. Not only was the public skeptical about the safety of flying, but it was a commonly held belief that only the most courageous, athletic, even superhuman, people were fit to fly. In other words, the public was under the impression that “flying was not for ordinary mortals” (49). Ninety-five percent of passengers who flew commercially were men. In order to survive, passenger airlines needed to assuage women that flying was a safe and reliable means of transportation. As aviation editor for Cosmopolitan, Earhart authored articles explaining why she believed aviation was a safe mode of transportation. For example, the articles “Is it safe for you to fly,” “Shall you let your daughter fly,” and “Why are women afraid to fly” all appeared in a 1929 issue of the magazine (50). Commercial airlines began to hire women aviators, such as Earhart, to convince the mainstream public, especially women, of the merits of flying. After all, “Who better could supplant the masculine, athletic image of fearless, superhuman aviators and allay people’s anxieties about flight,” wrote historian Joseph Corn. Consequently, this very idea perpetuated the stereotypes of women as frail and timid, scatter-brained and impulsive. Many famous, successful women pilots, Earhart included, stepped into this role, despite its demeaning assumptions. For example, Louise Thaden observed, “Nothing impresses the safety of aviation on the public quite so much as to see a woman flying an airplane …. the public thinks it must be duck soup for men” (51). Another female pilot, Manila Davis, said, “If I can fly and land a plane successfully, weighing as I do but 105 pounds, almost anyone ought to be able to” (52). While many of these women fliers sustained the negative stereotype that women were weaker and less capable than men, they simultaneously created opportunities for women. Thus, female aviators, such as Earhart, Louise Thaden, and Manila Davis, used negative assumptions about women to their advantage and leveraged their positions encourage more women to take to the air (53).
Earhart, too, directly participated in the promotion of commercial aviation. Her novelty as a famous woman aviator gave her an air of approachable authority to women, a quality she harnessed to promote commercial flying. In 1929, she took a job at Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) as assistant to the general traffic manager. At TAT, Earhart once again found herself trying to “sell” flying directly to women. While her title may have sounded serious and important, her job was fairly superficial. In The Fun of It, Earhart wrote that “my job was to sell flying to women, both by talking about it and by watching details of handling passengers, which were calculated to appeal to feminine travelers” (54). Her job was to make sure women passengers were comfortable and satisfied with the service so that they would continue to travel by air, foregoing trips via train or ship. She advised on everything requiring a woman’s opinion, even the color scheme of the airport waiting rooms. As others had done before, TAT chose Earhart for a job in aviation because of her female qualities and not her skills as an aviator. Despite this, and much like other female fliers, Earhart understood that she had to take advantage of every opportunity to advance her cause.
Earhart’s position as Counselor in Careers for Women at Purdue University further exemplifies the prevalence of such gendered opportunities. In the fall of 1934, Earhart met Dr. Edward C. Elliott, president of Purdue, by chance at a conference in New York City, wherein the The New York Herald Tribune invited them both to be speakers. After giving his speech, Elliott contemplated leaving early, but decided to stay and listen to Earhart. She spoke, as usual, about the future of aviation and women’s roles in the industry. Everything about Earhart impressed Elliott, and as she spoke, he realized he was looking at the perfect role model for the female students enrolled at Purdue. Elliott’s views on women were radical for the time. He was dedicated to preparing his female students for careers outside the home. He cited the opening of South Hall, the first residence hall for women on Purdue’s campus, as a great accomplishment, though he knew further action would be necessary before his ideas could have an impact. His first concern was effectively educating Purdue’s female students. While listening to Earhart’s speech, Elliott decided that she was the answer to that problem (55). After dinner with Earhart and Putnam, Elliott asked Earhart to join his staff at Purdue. In Soaring Wings, Putnam wrote about the encounter:
“After dinner we sat on the couch…AE with her feet tucked up under her like a little girl. Elliott, from a chair facing us, came to the point.
“‘We want you at Purdue,’ he said, smiling wisely at AE.
“If she was surprised, she didn’t show it. ‘I’d like that,’ she said as simply and as directly, ‘if it can be arranged. What would you think I should do?'” (56).
On May 18, 1935, Dr. Elliott, sent a letter to Earhart in which he outlined the details of her proposed position at the university. As he wrote, “The University intends to set up a new center of interest – call it a department, if you will – for the study of Careers for Women. Through this Center will be attempted the stimulation and orientation of women (and men?) students, as to the new conditions and opportunities produced in our changed world” (57). Elliott then went on to list the six conditions of Earhart’s proposed position at Purdue, most of which concerned her duties as Counselor in Careers for Women. Toward the end of that list, he casually mentioned that Earhart “will also serve as chief consultant for the University work in Aeronautical Engineering” (58). The document made it clear that Purdue recruited Earhart mostly as a mentor and role model for women, not for her knowledge of aviation and engineering. Yet again, she did not see this as an insult, but rather a challenge. According to Soaring Wings, during a conversation between Elliott and Earhart, when Elliott spoke of the eight hundred female students enrolled at Purdue and the university’s concern that “the girls aren’t keeping abreast of the inspirational opportunities of the day nearly as well as they might be,” Earhart’s “eyes shone, as they always did at the suggestion of a challenge.” According to Putnam, Earhart regarded her short time at Purdue University as “one of the most satisfying adventures of her life” (59).
Before officially starting her position at Purdue, Earhart visited the campus several times. During her first tour, just three weeks after her initial meeting with President Elliott, she was the featured speaker at the Conference on Women’s Work and Opportunities, organized by the Women’s Self-Government Association at the university. In her address on “Education and Careers,” she summarized a survey that she had previously composed and distributed to Purdue’s female students. The first question asked, “Are you planning to seek employment after you leave college? Yes? No? or Undecided as yet?” The next question stated, “If you are planning to work, what is your reason for doing so? a) Economic necessity; b) The family expects it; c) To attain personal independence; d) To secure luxuries that could not otherwise be had; e) To have something to do; f) To achieve professional success (to have mental stimulus of accomplishing something); and g) Other reasons” (60). While discussing the results of these questions during her lecture, Earhart stated:
“You will be interested to know that ninety-two percent of all who answered planned to work after leaving college. Seven percent were undecided. The reasons given for seeking employment were first, not economic necessity as you might suppose, but to achieve professional success (to have the mental stimulus of accomplishing something); second, to attain personal independence; and third, because of economic necessity. These results are very interesting, since women as a whole have not had enough experience to know the joy of independent work as men know it. All too often women have had to bury what they had of the creative in routine tasks which have not brought them even the reward of a little spending money of their own” (61).
Earhart’s response to the results showed not only her surprise at the answers, but also gave her audience a glimpse of her philosophy about gender stereotypes. She had the opportunity, through aviation, to “know the joy of independent work as men know it.” She was surprised, but pleased that the female students who answered her survey wish to “achieve personal success” and “attain personal independence,” even though they have not had the chance to do so in the past. Her questionnaire asked numerous other questions, many of which focused on marriage, including “Do you plan to continue working after marriage?” and “Do you consider it advisable for women in general to continue working after marriage?” Earhart also asked the students for their reasoning behind their answers and their opinions about a husband’s role in the home (62). If the responses to the first two questions of the survey pleased her, the students’ attitudes towards marriage equally disappointed her, for only twenty one percent answered they planned to continue working after marriage and only thirteen percent agreed that, in general, women should work after marriage. “Where, oh where, has the personal independence disappeared?” she asked. She went on to say, “My hope is that none of you who decided so positively that women should under no circumstances work after marriage will not be victims of your present outlook” (63).
If Earhart, who had no teaching qualifications and no college degree, was worried about what she could contribute to Purdue, she certainly now had her answer. Her questionnaire had proven that, while the attitudes about young women pursuing a career after attending college were changing, the views on a woman’s role after marriage had hardly shifted at all. Throughout her life, Earhart became, as Susan Butler puts it, “increasingly focused on identifying and lifting the barriers that held women back, as time and experience showed her just how intractable those barriers were for the vast majority of women” (64). When Elliott formally offered her the position as Counselor in Careers for Women at Purdue, she accepted the position with minimal deliberation. She had wisdom to share with the female students at Purdue and she was determined to make an impact on their lives.
Unfortunately, not everyone was as excited as President Elliott was to have Earhart at Purdue. The climate when Earhart arrived was less than friendly toward the female students and there was obvious condescension toward them from the men on campus. She was disappointed to learn that while there usually were at least a few freshman women who enrolled in engineering, they almost all dropped out of the program by their junior year – usually because they encountered unwelcoming attitudes from the male professors and students. Because it was so hard for female students to succeed in traditionally male fields, such as engineering, agriculture and business, most female graduates found jobs in home economics. Earhart made it her mission to change the climate on Purdue’s campus and break down the barriers that separated the female students from their male classmates (65).
Earhart herself also received negative attention from male professors and students, and even some women, for her outspoken ideas. Many male professors felt Earhart’s presence at the university was detrimental to their students, because she encouraged women to compete for the same jobs as male students, who were finding it difficult to secure jobs themselves. Some even felt she did not belong on campus because she was poorly educated. Faculty wives often followed their husbands’ examples and were “mortified” to learn that Earhart strolled into town without an escort, wearing her usual slacks, sat down at a stool in the drugstore and ordered a soft drink. She was one of the first women to wear slacks in town and the residents were not impressed; the Women’s Movement had not yet reached Lafayette, Indiana. Male students were also often irritated with Earhart for her independent nature that she passed on to her students. She preached the message: graduate, establish a career, and then get married. “It’s hard enough to get the girls to marry us as it is,” replied one male student (66).
While she encountered push-back from the men on campus, Earhart’s female students adored her. They drank in her every word as she informally discussed her views on education, marriage and life in general. Perched on the grand piano in the Purdue Memorial Union or sitting on the floor of the housemother’s den in the residence hall, Earhart encouraged her students to study whatever they wanted and, most importantly, learn to be independent. She even taught a “Handyman’s” course for female students, so that they would be better equipped to fix things at home (67). Not only did Earhart deeply influence her students, but they affected her as well. She wrote to her mother that her discussions with students had “been very interesting and has served to crystallize some of my ideas which were formless before” (68). By the time she attempted to fly around the world in 1937, Earhart had not only made a profound impact on Purdue University, but Purdue had definitely deeply influenced her life too.
Amelia Earhart’s subsequent disappearance on July 2, 1937, during an attempt to fly around the world, was certainly a tragedy. Her untimely loss saddened not only those who knew her personally, but the many who looked up to her for her skills as a pilot, her successful career as a writer, speaker and businesswomen, and for her commitment to women’s rights. Earhart was truly unique: a walking example of an independent woman in the first half of the twentieth century. She encouraged other women to seek careers outside the home and be independent from their husbands. During her career, she repeatedly proved that women could perform alongside men in many endeavors. She racked up a long list of aviation “firsts:” she was the first woman to cross the Atlantic by air (June 1928) and the first woman to make a solo transcontinental flight (September 1928). She set altitude records for autogiros, an early precursor to the helicopter (April 1931), and she broke numerous speed records for women. In May 1932, she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and the first person ever to cross the Atlantic twice. She was the first person, male or female, to fly from Hawaii to California (in January 1935) and the first person to fly solo from Los Angeles to Mexico City (in April 1935). Had she completed her last flight, Earhart would have been the first person to fly around the world at the equator (69).
Amelia Earhart may not have labeled herself a feminist, but she espoused feminist beliefs and motioned women to assert themselves in male dominated spaces. She fought continually throughout her career to show the world that she, and, by extension, her gender as a whole, was capable of many accomplishments when given the chance. While most of the opportunities that first launched Earhart into the spotlight occurred by coincidence, she appropriated such occasions to showcase women’s capabilities. She encouraged females to follow her lead and take advantage of any chance to better themselves. Earhart believed that if women wanted equality, they would have to be assertive. Her passion may have been flying, but her career as a pilot was not just “for the fun of it.” When she was not in the air, she spent the majority of her time reaching out to and encouraging women through her writing and lectures. Her position at Purdue University as Counselor in Careers for Women was the culmination of her career, where she was able to share her philosophies with an eager audience and shape the minds of young women before they entered the world.
Earhart used the fame from her flying endeavors as a platform for her feminism. Just before she took off for her final flight, she wrote to her husband, “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” (70). Earhart offset her femininity with an inculpable dose of masculinity, balancing her reserve and candor, all of which made her the embodiment of an individualistic feminist and the perfect spokesperson for women. As the National Women’s Party wrote in its publication, Equal Rights, shortly after Earhart’s disappearance, “There will never be a ‘Last Flight’ for Amelia Earhart as long as her work is carried on the wings of penned words to those who believe in freedom for women as well as men” (71). Earhart’s contributions to women’s concepts of personal self and professional life afford her a distinctive place in the history of feminism.
- Robin E. Jensen, Erin F. Doss, Claudia Irene Janssen, and Sherrema A. Bower, “Theorizing the Transcendent Persona: Amelia Earhart’s Vision in The Fun of It,” Communication Theory 20, no. 1 (2010): 1.
- Ibid., 2.
- George Palmer Putnam, Soaring Wings: A Biography of Amelia Earhart (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1939), 137.
- Sally Haslanger, Nancy Tuana, and Peg O’Connor, “Topics in Feminism,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2012), Resource Available Online
- Charlotte Krolokke and Anne Scott Sorensen, Gender Communication Theories and Analyses: From Silence to Performance (Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, 2006), 3.
- Ibid., 3.
- Susan Ware, Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), 118.
- Putnam, Soaring Wings, 146.
- Ruth Nichols quoted in Ware, Still Missing, 127.
- Lady Sophie Mary Pierce Evans Heath to Miss Earhart, 1928, Item Identification Number: b1f7i6, The George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers [hereafter The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers], Virginia Kelly Karnes Archives and Special Collections, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN, Resource Available Online
- Retta Schwiess to Amelia Earhart, 21 June 1932, New York, Item Identification Number: b3f35i37, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
- Ware, Still Missing, 29.
- Amelia Earhart, The Fun of It: Random Records of My Own Flying and of Women in Aviation (New York: Braunworth & Co., Inc., 1932), 8.
- Ibid., 8.
- Ibid., 3. The title of The Fun of Its first chapter is titled “Growing Up Here and There.”
- Ibid., 18-19.
- Ware, Still Missing, 33.
- Laura Edwins, “Amelia Earhart: Pilot and Feminist,” Christian Science Monitor, 24 July 2012, Resource Available Online
- Ware, Still Missing, 33.
- Ibid., 33.
- Earhart, The Fun of It, 19.
- Ibid., 20.
- Ware, Still Missing, 35.
- Earhart, The Fun of It, 24.
- Ibid., 25.
- Carroll V. Glines, “‘Lady Lindy:’ The Remarkable Life of Amelia Earhart,” Aviation History 7, no. 6 (1997): 43.
- Earhart, The Fun of It, 27.
- Ibid., 26.
- Sidonie Smith, “Virtually Modern Amelia: Mobility, Flight, and the Discontents of Identity,” in Virtual Gender: Fantasies of Subjectivity and Embodiment, eds. Mary Ann O’Farrell and Lynne Vallone (Ann Arbor: University of Michigna Press, 1999), 29-30; Anne Hermann, Queering the Modern: Poses/Portraits/Performances (New York: Palgrave, 2000), 26.
- Kathleen C. Winters, Amelia Earhart: The Turbulent Life of an American Idol (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 52; Earhart, The Fun of It, 59.
- Earhart, The Fun of It, 59.
- Ibid., 60.
- Ibid., 84.
- Ibid., 84-88, 98. The Fun of Its seventh chapter is titled “What to do Next?”
- Butler, East to the Dawn, 219.
- Earhart, The Fun of It, 59.
- Ibid., 99.
- Putnam, Soaring Wings, 153.
- Doris L. Rich, Amelia Earhart: A Biography (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), 77-8.
- Putnam, Soaring Wings, 88.
- Butler, East to the Dawn, 303.
- Ibid., 304.
- Amelia Earhart, “Should a Wife Support Herself?” circa 1930s, Item Identification Number: b9f297i3, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
- Amelia Earhart quoted in Butler, East to the Dawn, 304.
- Joseph J. Corn, “Making Flying ‘Thinkable:’ Women Pilots and the Selling of Aviation, 1927-1940,” American Quarterly 31, no. 4 (1979): 558.
- Amelia Earhart, “Is it Safe for You to Fly?” circa 1928-1931, Item Identification Number: AESB003, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online; Amelia Earhart, “Shall You Let Your Daughter Fly?” circa 1928-1931, Item Identification Number: AESB003, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online; Amelia Earhart, “Why are Women Afraid to Fly?” circa 1928-1931, Item Identification Number: AESB003, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
- Louise Thaden quoted in Corn, “Making Flying ‘Thinkable,’” 559.
- Manila Davis quoted in Ibid., 559-60.
- Ibid., 560.
- Earhart, The Fun of It, 106.
- Butler, East to the Dawn, 306-7; Robert W. Topping, A Century and Beyond: The History of Purdue University (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 1988), 233-235.
- Putnam, Soaring Wings, 241-2.
- Edward C. Elliot to Amelia Earhart, 1935, Lafayette, IN, Item Identification Number: AEPb1f7i2, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
- Putnam, Soaring Wings, 240-242. For more on Earhart’s experiences, see Ray Boomhower, “The Aviatrix and the University: Amelia Earhart at Purdue University,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History 6, no. 3 (Summer 1994): 36-41.
- Amelia Earhart, “Questionnaire for Women Students-1934-1935,” Item Identification Number: AEPb1f3i2, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
- Amelia Earhart, “On Education and Careers,” 1935, Item Identification Number: b9f304i1, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
- Earhart, “Questionnaire.”
- Earhart, “On Education and Careers.”
- Butler, East to the Dawn, 308.
- Ibid., 310.
- Helen Schleman quoted in Butler, East to the Dawn, 312; For more on Schleman, the former Dean of Women at Purdue University, see Topping, A Century and Beyond, 309, 363.
- Amelia Earhart, “Handyman’s Course” notes, circa 1935-37, Item Identification Number: B9f305i1 The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
- Amelia Earhart quoted in Ware, Still Missing, 211.
- Jean L. Backus, Letters from Amelia (Boston: Beacon Press, 1982), 247.
- Amelia Earhart to George Palmer Putnam, 1937, Item Identification Number: b4f49i1, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online
- “No Last Flight,” Equal Rights 24, no. 2 (1938): 194, Item Identification Number: b7f137i6, The Putnam Collection of Earhart Papers, Resource Available Online