The unsung pioneers of aviation
The thrills of air racing, so popular in the 1920s and ’30s, are now mostly forgotten, along with the names of the aviators who risked their lives for huge crowds, three-foot trophies and, of course, the cash prizes. Lost with them was the story of the “Powder Puffs,” women who defied the time’s rampant gender discrimination and triumphed in (or plummeted from) the sky. Of these pioneer breakers of the ultimate glass ceiling, perhaps only one name has stayed familiar: the beloved and doomed Amelia Earhart. Keith O’Brien’s spectacularly detailed Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History changes all that, re-creating a world that can still inspire us today.
Meet Louise Thaden, a married mother of two; Ruth Elder, a beautiful Alabama divorcée; Ruth Nichols, a woman unhappily born into wealth; and Florence Klingensmith, whose promising aviation career ended in tragedy. True resisters, they were empowered by their recently gained right to vote and inspired by aviation’s rising popularity. Charles Lindbergh’s recent solo trans-Atlantic flight in 1927 was an achievement that begged for a female challenger, and it had one soon enough.
O’Brien keeps a sharp eye on the planes as well. The flimsily built early aircraft regularly lost their wings, shed their wheels and exploded in flames, sometimes miraculously leaving their pilots alive and eager to fly again. Men found financial support—and better planes—much easier to come by than women, who routinely faced reporters asking why they weren’t at home cooking dinner. Elder and Klingensmith tried to dodge the husband question, while Earhart allowed her husband, prominent New York publisher George P. Putnam, to be her relentless PR man who “probably saved her from becoming a nice old maid.”
The women of aviation were “friendly enemies,” competing for speed and distance records while supporting each other on the ground and in the air. Known collectively as the Ninety Nines, they encouraged young women to aim high. As Earhart said, a woman’s place “is wherever her individual aptitude places her.”
This article was originally published in the August 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.