More than 80 years ago on 2 July 1937, Amelia Earhart disappeared over the Pacific Ocean during an attempt to circumnavigate the globe. In a society where women's capacities to physically and mentally cope with the rigors of aviation faced heavy scrutiny, Earhart overcame barriers and established new standards for women in the field. After first flying in an airplane in 1920, she worked odd jobs to purchase her own aircraft and received an international pilot's license in 1923. Earhart set about breaking altitude and speed records for women's aviation until 1932, when she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean and only the second pilot to do so after Charles Lindbergh.
She later became the first person, male or female, to fly from Hawaii to the mainland United States. Her disappearance, discussed widely and contentiously in materials such as the Naval Institute's own Finding Amelia, shocked the American people.
Earhart's celebrity demonstrated women's ability and skill in aviation to the world and paved the way for women in flight for decades after. Countless women before her, however, planted the seeds. The following women helped establish the rich and fierce role of women in the world of aviation, one that continues to be explored today.
In 1798, Jeanne Labrosse, wife of a French balloonist and scientist, became the first woman to fly solo in a hot air balloon.1
Katharine Wright was the sole woman remaining in the household after the death of her mother in 1889, leaving her to take care of her brothers. Out of her siblings, she was the only one to earn a college degree, graduating from Oberlin College. After obtaining a job as a teacher at the local school, Wright donated portions of her salary to fund her brothers’ various iterations of airplanes. Her public support and promotion of her brothers' inventions were invaluable to their success.
RAYMONDE DE LAROCHE
A French Baronness, Laroche was the first woman in the world to earn a pilot's license. During her time as an aviator, she won the Femina Cup by flying for four consecutive hours, the longest flight on record at the time. Laroche died in a plane crash while testing a new type of airplane in 1919.
BLANCHE STUART SCOTT
Blanche Stuart Scott was the first female aviator from the United States. After obtaining her pilot's license, she developed a taste for exhibition flying and was famous for performing inverted maneuvers.
MATILDE E. MOISANT
Matilde E. Moisant was inspired to earn her pilot's license following the death of her brother in a plane crash. She shocked the aviation community by winning the Rodman-Wanamaker altitude trophy in 1911, not long after receiving her license. She flew to a record-breaking height of 1,200 feet.
WOMEN AIRFORCE SERVICE PILOTS (WASP)
World War II created a pilot shortage overseas, necessitating a transfer of male personnel on U.S. soil to foreign posts. The WASP program created in 1942 trained female pilots to assume the duties of their U.S.-based male counterparts. The controversial program faced criticism from men who were unsure women could handle such large aircraft. WASPs served as test pilots for new aircraft and transported planes across the country to wherever they were needed. Sadly, the program was canceled after two years. These women were forbidden from being designated a military status until the 1970s.
At only 26 years old, Valentina Tereshkova was the first woman to go into space. She ascended in the Volstok 6 as part of a mission for the Soviet Union and orbited the earth 48 times during her journey. A staunch supporter of female aviation, she defended Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, against those who doubted Ride's physical endurance. After her aeronautical career, she was heavily involved in politics and served in the State Duma.
1991: WOMEN IN COMBAT AVIATION
In 1991, the Senate voted to remove legislation that prohibited women from flying in combat. The ban was only repealed after lengthy consideration by members of Congress. Although it would take more than 20 years to open all combat roles to women, the introduction of women into combat aviation was a critical first step for equality in women's service selection.
Matice Wright was born in Annapolis, MD, and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1988. Wright made history becoming the first female, African-American naval flight officer in 1993. Following a successful naval career, Wright received an MPA from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and served as the Principal Director in the Office of Industrial Policy under President Barack Obama.2
Jeannie Leavitt received degrees from University of Texas and Stanford University, earning her commission through the Air Force ROTC program. She became the first female fighter pilot in the history of the United States. Leavitt continued to pave the way for women in the Air Force throughout her career and eventually became the highest-ranking female officer to serve at Nellis Air Force Base, as the Commander of the 57th Air Wing. She is currently a brigadier general and serves as the Commander in charge of the Air Force Recruiting Service.
SHAWNA ROCHELLE KIMBRELL
Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1998 and holds the distinction of being the first female, African-American fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force. She currently serves as an MQ-9 pilot in the 78th Attack Squadron.
OLGA E. CUSTODIO
Olga E. Custodio earned her commission through the Air Force Officer Candidate School, becoming the first Latina pilot in the U.S. Air Force. After retiring from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel, she accumulated more than 11,000 hours as a pilot for American Airlines. She is currently the vice president of the Hispanic Association of Aviation and Aerospace Professionals (HAAAP). Her motto is: Querer es poder—Wanting is power.
1. Glen Bledcoe and Karen Bledcoe, Ballooning Adventures (Mankato, MN: Capstone Books, 2001).
2. Deborah G. Douglas, American Women and Flight Since 1940 (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2004).