FAMOUS WOMEN: An Interview with Professor Donald Elder – Amelia Earhart

Apr 22, 2018 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Professor Elder, Amelia Earhart, lived from 1897 to approximately 1937. What was her early childhood like and her early educational experiences?

In many respects, Amelia Earhart had an idyllic childhood. In other ways, however, she had a turbulent early life. Born on July 24, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas, Earhart had lawyers on both sides of her family, as her father practiced law, while her maternal grandfather had served as a federal judge. As a child, Earhart liked to spend time outdoors, and it seemed to many residents of Atchison that she exemplified the characteristics of a tomboy. Indeed, her mother encouraged her to wear bloomers, rather than the dresses that most of her female friends wore. When Earhart turned 9, her father accepted a position in Des Moines, Iowa, but she remained in Atchison with her mother. Three years later, Earhart and her mother moved to Des Moines.

Up to that point in time, Earhart’s mother had home schooled her, and she had attended a private school. In Des Moines, Earhart had her first public school experience as a 7th grader.

A few years later, her father lost his job in Des Moines, and had to accept a new position with a company in Minnesota. This move forced Earhart to transfer to Central High School in St. Paul. Unfortunately, her father lost his position in Minnesota as well, and Earhart had to change schools once again, enrolling at Hyde Park High School in Chicago for her senior year.

After graduating in 1916, she attended a junior college in Pennsylvania, but left after a semester. This pattern of wandering continued until 1920, when she found herself visiting her parents in Long Beach, California. There, she had her first ride in airplane, and she immediately decided that she wanted to learn to fly. Although she faced tremendous financial hardships during the next few years, she succeeded in obtaining a pilot’s license, and soon became the best known American female aviator of the 1920s.

  1. She was the first female to fly solo across the Atlantic. Tell us about this journey.

In 1927, Charles Lindbergh became the first person to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Amy Phipps Guest, a socially prominent woman married to a British politician, read of his accomplishment and decided that she wanted to replicate that feat. Soon, however, she came to the conclusion that she could never master the skills necessary to make such a flight, and chose instead to find a woman who could fly across the Atlantic. After consulting a number of people in the field of aviation, she selected Amelia Earhart in April of 1928. Earhart eagerly accepted the opportunity, and on June 17 she flew from Newfoundland to an airfield located in Wales. She thus became the first female to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. There are a few things about this flight that should be clarified, however.

First, Lindbergh had flown by himself, while Earhart had two people in the airplane with her.

Second, Earhart did not operate the airplane’s controls. Rather, she kept the flight log. Finally, Lindbergh flew from New York City to Paris, while Earhart’s trip covered a far shorter distance. In spite of this, Earhart received great acclaim for her accomplishment.

For example, when Earhart returned to the United States, New York City gave her a ticker tape parade. She also met President Calvin Coolidge at the White House. Thus, this flight only furthered her reputation as the foremost female aviator of the era.

  1. I understand that she was the U.S. Distinguished Flying Cross for her endeavors. Was she the first female to receive this award?

Four years after her flight across the Atlantic as a passenger, Earhart decided to attempt the endeavor by herself. Flying once again from Newfoundland, she landed almost 15 hours later in Northern Ireland. In honor of her accomplishment, she received the nation’s Distinguished Flying Cross, the first female to be so honored.

  1. Sadly, her plane along with her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared while trying to fly around the globe. One always hears about various theories as to what happened, but can you at least provide a summative statement about her accomplishments and contributions?

It is unfortunate that most Americans remember Amelia Earhart for her mysterious disappearance, because she had an impressive list of achievements before she vanished without a trace in 1937. As previously noted, Earhart had become the first female to make a solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932. Earhart had actually achieved her first individual accomplishment after her 1928 flight across the Atlantic, when she became the first female to fly across North America and back without a layover.

In 1931, she set her first world record when she flew an airplane to an altitude of 18,415 feet. In 1935, Earhart flew by herself from Hawaii to Oakland, the first individual to do so. Later that year, she set a record for the fastest flight from Mexico City to New York. By the mid-1930s, then, Earhart had a well-earned reputation as an accomplished aviator, regardless of her gender.

Therefore, it surprised no one when she announced plans in 1936 for a flight that would circumnavigate the globe. Amelia Earhart will thus always stand as an example for Americans of a person who refused to accept gender stereotypes as an unbreakable mold.

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