Amelia Earhart: Beyond Boundaries

For some, staying grounded is never an option.
Amelia Earhart: Beyond Boundaries
Amelia Earhart: Beyond Boundaries

 

Please know that I am aware of the hazards…but women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be a challenge to others.-Amelia Earhart

Those were the final words Amelia Earhart wrote to her husband, George Putnam, in 1937 as she prepared to set out on what would be her last flight—an attempt to be the first person to circumnavigate the globe around the equator. In that message, she crystallized the mission that she lived her life to fulfill. Not only to achieve great things herself, but to live as an example and inspire others to do what she did: Live free from the limitations the world tried to place on her.

All her life, Amelia Earhart would chase the freedom found only on the other side of broken barriers. She found ways to do it in the sky with her records and on the ground with the career and persona that she built—both with a courage that made her never blink in her pursuit of a path that was counter to what the whole world tried to tell women of her era.

That courage came from a life lived facing into the headwind, flying against both the norms of the day and personal hardship that she faced in her early years. An unstable childhood with frequent moves with and without her parents; financial setbacks that pulled her dreams out of reach just as she was about to achieve them; persistent sexism that demanded women of her era live at odds with everything Earhart was.

 

Living by a Different Standard

Life conspired to sideline Amelia Earhart, but her incredible sense of independence—the same type one would need to fly solo journeys over entire oceans—allowed her to stand out. And combined with her relentless dedication to her dreams, it allowed her to become one of the most famous female pilots in the world, and an inspiration for generations of women to come.

Courage is the price that life exacts for granting peace.-Amelia Earhart

Earhart’s childhood was untraditional. Her mother had the same desire to see women freed of their societal roles that would drive Earhart’s career. She wasn’t concerned with "nice little girls," and allowed Earhart and her sister to run around in wide-legged pants called “bloomers”—a symbol of the feminist movement—before it was socially acceptable, while the rest of the girls wore dresses. 

It was in those early years her independent streak formed as a matter of necessity, more than choice. The daughter of a chronically unemployed alcoholic father, she and her sister were often sent in their early years to live with their grandparents when times got especially hard. But at their grandparent's house, the sisters put that freedom to good use. They hunted rats, climbed trees, collected worms and moths and “belly slammed” their sleds to race down the hill when it snowed.

In those early years, Earhart's courage was also on display. There at her grandparents',
Earhart's thirst for adventure led her to her first flight of sorts years before she would encounter an airplane. She and her uncle built a ramp on the roof of the family’s toolshed, trying to imitate a rollercoaster they had seen on a trip to St. Louis. She slid down it in a wooden box and launched into the air, earning herself a bruised lip and torn clothing when the inevitable crash came. But she declared it was “just like flying," even though it would be 16 years before Earthart knew what that truly felt like.

 

A Family Falling Apart

When Earhart was 10, she and her sister left her grandparents and the family was briefly reunited when her dad managed to get a job as a claims officer for the Rock Island Railroad. They moved to Des Moines and, for a time, things were good—until, in 1914, her father had to retire because of his drinking.

To make matters worse, her grandmother died around that time and the family lost the house they had been living in. And because of her father's drinking habit,  Earhart's mother's inheritance was put in a trust and only slowly doled out. It was the final straw for Earhart’s mother, who took her own courageous flight and divorced Edwin, moving to Chicago with her girls.

In Chicago, Earhart’s world expanded through her willingness to explore and her interest in science. Rather than go to the high school near her home, she visited all the schools in the area to find the one with the best science program and went to high school there.

But that independent streak came at a price for Earhart. She remained an outsider—the role she would occupy her whole life—even at the school she chose. In the yearbook, she was referred to as “the girl in brown who walks alone.”


Her First Glimpse of Flying

In 1916, however, Earhart began to find people more like herself, as her interest in aviation began to take root. On a visit to her sister in Toronto on winter break from an exclusive junior college her mother had sent her to, Earhart saw wounded soldiers returning from World War I and refused to go back to school. She started working as a volunteer nurse’s aid with the Red Cross in Toronto and, while there, she began watching the Royal Flying Corps train at an airfield nearby.

When her time at the Red Cross ended, she continued pursuing her interest in science and went to Colombia, where she intended to attend medical school. But once again, family derailed her plans and, when her parents reunited in California, she dropped out of school after a year and moved to be with them. 

It was there in California that everything finally clicked. On December 28, 1920, Earhart took her first ride in a plane, thanks only to the father who had caused her so many problems early on. They went to an airshow together, and he paid $10 for her to have a 10-minute flight with a pilot. She was instantly hooked. In her own words, “By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground, I knew I had to fly.”

And fly she did. Within only a few weeks, Earhart was taking her first flying lessons with a female aviation pioneer, Anita Snook. To pay for her lessons, Earhart worked all sorts of odd jobs from photographer to truck driver, scraping together the money she needed to fund her passion.

By the summer of 1921, it looked like Earhart was on the path to success as an aviator. She bought her first plane, a yellow Kinner Airster biplane that she nicknamed The Canary. The next year, she set a female aviation record by flying to 14,000 feet. And in 1923, she became only the 16th woman to earn a pilot’s license from the The Federation Aeronautique, the governing body for aeronautics.

A Dream Derailed

But her success came to a screeching halt in 1924, when the money from her mother’s inheritance finally ran out. Earhart was forced to sell her plane and ended up moving to Boston to go back to learning medicine. Even there, the troubles persisted and she had to drop out from lack of funds and work as a teacher and social worker. 

In spite of her dreams being snatched away from her, Earhart found a way to keep her love of flying alive. She became a member of the Boston chapter of the American Aeronautical Society, and started writing articles promoting flying for the newspaper that made her a local celebrity. It was that perseverance and dedication to staying connected to flying that led to the break that would make her truly famous.


The Flight that Made Her Famous

On April 1928, Earhart got a call asking her if she wanted to be the first woman to fly over the Atlantic. She eagerly accepted. But it wasn’t the opportunity that a pilot like Earhart would want—she would only be a passenger. The belief at the time was that it was a journey too difficult for a woman to fly. But in spite of feeling like a “sack of potatoes” on the flight, Earhart took the opportunity for all it was worth.

After the 20 hour, 44-minute journey from Trespassey Harbor, Newfoundland, to Burrypoint, Wales, Earhart returned to New York to a ticker tape parade and a reception with Calvin Coolidge. She was given the nickname “Lady Lindy”, for her resemblance to the famous male aviator of the time, Charles Lindbergh. Earhart quickly put her newfound fame to work. As much as she loved aviation, she understood the value of her celebrity and set about using it as a platform for elevating women.


After sewing her own clothes for years, Earthart launched a new type of women's clothing line designed with a focus on an active lifestyle. She became associate editor at then-family-magazine Cosmopolitan and campaigned for air travel as a promoter for the airline that would become TWA. She even became a vice president at National Airways. Since her earliest years, Earhart had kept a scrapbook of women succeeding in male-dominated fields, from lawyers to film directors—and she could officially count herself among their ranks.

Driven to Do More

But even as she built her public persona and worked to open doors for women in every field, flying always remained her passion. She had notable accomplishments in the field in those years, including setting a world altitude record in an Autogryo, an early version of the helicopter, in 1931. But it wasn't until 1932 that Earhart finally proved to the world that she really was Lady Lindy, setting out to recreate his solo flight across the Atlantic five years to the day after he did it.

On the flight, she encountered bad weather and mechanical trouble, and had to end the flight before Paris. But her 15-hour flight from Harbour Grace Newfoundland, to Culmore, Northern Ireland, made her the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. And three year later in January of 1935, she repeated her feat on the other side of the country, becoming the first woman to fly solo across the Pacific with a flight from Honolulu to Oakland. And with that feat, she was no longer competing in the realm of women's records—she was the first person of either gender to fly over both oceans solo.

A Flight Across Generations

Earhart’s accomplishments in flight earned her accolades above and beyond her aviation records and firsts. She was awarded the Golden Medal from the National Geographic Society, the distinguished Flying Cross from Congress, and the Cross of the Knight of the Legion of Honor from the French government. But none of these satisfied Earhart. She had her sights set on the biggest flight of them all—to circumnavigate the globe around the equator in 1937.

Famously, she disappeared attempting this flight, never touching down on Howland Island. But 27 years later, her words before that final flight became true as she inspired another female pilot, Joan Merriam Smith, to attempt the journey herself. In 1964, Smith became the first person of either gender to circumnavigate the globe around the equator, completing the route Earhart started all those years before. 

With that, Earhart’s dream was finally accomplished and her uncertain ending turned into a final success. Although she fought every day against a world that asked her to be less, all of that faded in the eyes of history when Smith completed that flight decades later. The woman who spent all her life independently blazing trails was finally no longer alone.