Why We Fly

Please take the time to look at this gorgeous NYTimes photo gallery of pioneering aviatrixes.

Helene Dutrieu (LOC)

Those Magnificent Women in Their Flying Machines

Many of them died young. Some achieved fame; others, the world has forgotten. But they all have one thing in common: they lived the lives they wanted to live, without worrying what anyone thought. At a time when women rarely felt free to live as they pleased, these great ladies took to the skies, which as far as I can tell is the greatest feeling of freedom mankind has ever known.

The NYTimes article quotes this excerpt from East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart, by author Susan Butler, whose mother was an early aviatrix:

“To women, though, flying was something more. Still hemmed in by all sorts of restrictions, still valued for looks and decorative skills, still steered toward passive accomplishments, for women it was the ultimate escape: total freedom, total mastery — no interference. Total liberation. Women who became pilots won something additional along the way: respect.”

In a world that, even today, too often values women for how they look instead of what they do and achieve, flying still feels like liberation—from expectations, unwritten rules, and the sexualization of women and girls that often seems to come at us from all sides. In the air, who cares about all that? There’s too much to do to worry about your nails, and you can forget about stilettos in the cockpit—they keep getting caught in the rudder pedals. Best to go with a nice, low-heeled boot.
Blanche Stuart Scott being taught to fly by her mentor, Glen Curtiss, the aviation pioneer, in Hammondsport, New York, circa 1910.  Scott is credited with being the first woman to pilot an airplane in the United States.

Personally, I find dead reckoning and aerodynamics a whole lot more interesting than flat abs, plaids for autumn, and all the other topics the glossy women’s magazines keep telling me I should care about. Not that there’s anything wrong with fashion—far from it. I love a nice, shiny red stiletto on occasion. But there’s more to us than what we wear, how much we weigh, or whether or not a man is interested in us. Sometimes, we happen to be too busy with a snowstorm stampeding towards the airport we’re trying to land on, or a 40-knot crosswind to contend with, to worry with all those belts and bangles and the guy who didn’t call back.

AVIATOR - BLACK TRAILBLAZERWomen have come a long way since the first aviatrixes barnstormed across America and, too often, lost their lives trying to do something no one had ever done before. What’s a bit surprising to me, however, is the ways we still seem to be lagging: the tiny percentage of pilots (especially in the airlines) who are women is a damn shame, as is the sorry lack of female representation in government and the upper echelons of American business leadership.

Where are we all hiding?  Is society to blame for continuing to lock us out, or are we at fault, for expecting too little of ourselves? The answer, I imagine, isn’t so simple.

I don’t have a daughter, but if I did, I think I’d tell her this: go outside and play. (And I don’t mean dress-up.) Read books. Dream. Make plans. Try something really hard. Stoke your imagination. Do something nobody’s ever done before. 

Related post: Unexpected Tailwinds

Related post: Amelia Earhart: Pioneering Aviatrix of PR Phenom?

Related post: Talking to your Daughter about Beauty

One thought on “Why We Fly

  1. Very nicely written post. I’ve had the pleasure of sharing the flight deck with many, very capable female pilots, navigators, flight engineers, loadmasters and crew chiefs. I also have two wonderful daughters, and while I don’t particularly want them flying, I do like the advice you’d give to your own daughter. Thanks for sharing.

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