Amelia Earhart as more than just a celebrated woman aviator. She was also a traliblazing feminist, and an independent minded spirit who campaigned for women’s rights.
Amelia Earhart is one of the enduring figures of the twentieth century, a woman whose story resonates to this day. In the late 1920s and 1930s she was one of the most famous women in the world. Earhart was not only an accomplished flier, but also a passionate feminist who campaigned for women’s rights. Her mysterious disappearance on a world-circling flight in 1937 made her a legend.
Early Life of Amelia Earhart
Amelia Mary Earhart was born in Atchison, Kansas on July 24, 1897. As a young girl she seemed to be something of a tomboy, imbued with a sense of adventure. Amelia would climb trees, shoot rats with a rifle, and “belly slam” her sled downhill. She also loved to take risks, for the sheer adrenaline-rush thrill of it. In her book Amelia Earhart: A Biography, Doris L. Rich tells of one “belly-slamming” adventure where she narrowly missed being trampled by a horse, but emerged triumphant.
While Earhart and her younger sister Grace Muriel got along well, Amelia’s childhood was troubled. She adored her father Sam “Edwin” Earhart, but his practice of law was marred by alcoholism. She was heartbroken by his condition, yet it also seems to have bred a kind of independent spirit in her. It was as if she believed you could not rely on anyone but yourself. There are conflicting versions of her mother Amy Earhart. Some say she wanted Amelia to be a “proper lady” in the Victorian sense, while other stories say Amy was unconventional and allowed the girls more freedom.
Amelia’s Young Womanhood
After graduation from High School in 1916, she became a nurse in Canada. Amelia performed well, tending soldiers wounded in World War One. But in 1918 she was afflicted with serious maxillary sinusitis. Amelia endured a series of small operations, but her sinus condition flared up from time to time for the rest of her life.
On a more positive note, Amelia took her first flying lesson in 1921. She was so bitten by the flying “bug” she worked, scrimped, and saved to buy her own plane, a two seater bright yellow biplane she nicknamed “the Canary.”
George Palmer Putnam and the “Friendship” Flight
In 1928 book publisher and publicist George Palmer Putnam and some associates were looking for a woman to go on a planed flight across the Atlantic. Putnam heard of Earhart, and when he interviewed her he was struck by her resemblance to aviator Charles Lindbergh. Amelia was picked, and accompanied pilot Bill Stultz and co-pilot “Slim” Gordon on the “Friendship” flight across the Atlantic in a Fokker F-7.
It was a dangerous undertaking—several people, including three women—had died making the attempt. But the Friendship airplane reached Wales in Europe in 21 hours. Amelia became an instant celebrity, her fame even eclipsing her two male companions Amelia was gracious, but unhappy with herself. She had only been a passenger on the flight, in her words, a ‘sack of potatoes.” Earhart wanted to prove she was worthy, to the public and to herself.
In 1931 Amelia married George Palmer Putnam. Did she love him, or was it more of a “working” relationship? The subject is still debated. But in 1932 she crossed the Atlantic solo, the first woman and only second person (after Lindbergh) to do so.
As the years passed Amelia broke a number of records. including altitude records. In 1935 she became the first person to fly the 2,408 miles from Oakland, California to Honolulu, Hawaii. She also campaigned passionately for equal rights for women, and had among her friends Eleanor Roosevelt.
But Amelia the celebrity started to become a drag on Amelia the woman and pilot. In part to finance her flights, and in part to maintain their almost “Hollywood” lifestyle, Putnam had Amelia go on grueling lecture tours and public appearances. She endorsed various products, and had her own clothing line and “signature” luggage. Amelia was often exhausted, battling stomach problems and her old enemy, sinusitis.
If that wasn’t bad enough, it seems she didn’t practice enough to be a truly good flyer. Bobbi Trout, another women pilot of the era, says in a PBS documentary that you needed to fly every day to maintain skills. Amelia, perhaps, spent too much time on lecture tours and publicity.
Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight in 1937
Amelia disappeared on a world flight in 1937. She tried to circle the globe along the equator, but she and her navigator failed to show up on Howland Island in the Pacific. Her Lockheed 10E Electra was never found. In 2009 Amelia was released. Starring Hillary Swank as Amelia Earhart and Richard Gere as G.P. Putnam, it’s bound to renew interest in the legendary woman
- Doris L Rich, Amelia: A Biography (Smithsonian, 1989)
- PBS Documentary Amelia Earhart: The Price of Courage (American Experience series, 1993)