Equality at 10,000 Feet: The Pioneer Aviatrix in the Golden Age of Aviation – Part II

Aviation history, Gender wars

Continue reading

Equality at 10,000 Feet: The Pioneer Aviatrix in the Golden Age of Aviation – Part I

Aviation history, Gender wars

❝ We had to prove that women were as good pilots… in an age where some men didn’t think a woman should drive a horse and buggy, much less drive an automobile, it was a job to prove that females could fly.❞
~ Louise Thaden[1]

⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆ ⍅ ⍆

The other afternoon the resident ABC evangelist on the wireless was rabbiting on that the PC word to describe female pilots, especially those early pilots of the airways, was aviator … he was saying that the term aviatrix was de rigueur, we should use only the ‘correct’ gender-neutral term ‘aviator’ which doesn’t make a distinction between the two sexes, etc, etc.

And in a purely technical sense the government-sanctioned radio evangelist is right, the name ‘aviator’ does better represent the spirit of our contemporary times, after all no one (hardly anyone, right?) these days uses poetess or even authoress – these descriptors sound a bit cumbersome and more than slightly ridiculous in 2017 … although I note that the staunchly conservative Oscar ‘cinemarati’ dole out prizes to screen actors every March for what they still insist on calling the “best actress” and “best supporting actress”. Notwithstanding all this, my preference to describe those pioneering women of the skies is for ‘aviatrix’, quaintly old-fashioned as the term may be … to me it does set them apart, identifying the uniqueness of their important role in the evolution of aviation history and as pathfinders for new female work roles, and in doing so, demonstrating that women were capable of doing anything than men could do.

The internet is awash with studies and information on untold number of pioneer aviatrices. A casual googling of “aviatrix history” will turn up a host of sites with titles like “Harriet Quimbey – First U.S. Aviatrix”, “Lores Bonney – the forgotten aviatrix”, “The History Chicks Aviatrix Archives”, “LadiesLoveTailDraggers | Aviatrix History”; “Aviatrix – Sheroes of History”, “BBC – Forgotten record of aviatrix Beryl Markham”, “Aviatrix You Should Know: China’s Amelia Earhart” and “Our History | Women in Aviation History | “Sharpie: The Life Story of Evelyn Sharpie – Nebraska’s Aviatrix”. Clearly, most who write on the subject, on the World Wide Webosphere anyway, seem to concur with my preference for ‘aviatrix’.

Irish first wave aviatrix Lilian Bland
France gold, the US silver …
What becomes readily apparent when you delve into the history of the early, formative phase of aviation, is how internationally diverse the phenomenon of the aviatrix was. France and the United States led the way with the earliest pioneering achievements❈ – first woman to earn a pilot’s licence (Frenchwoman Baroness Raymondé de Laroche, 1910); first woman to pilot a motorised aircraft solo (American Aida de Acosta in France, 1903, in a dirigible owned by Alberto Santos-Dumont – six months before the famous Wright Brothers’ flight). Not to be outdone, women aviatrices in the English-speaking world were also quick out of the blocks – Anglo-Irish aviatrix Lilian Bland in Belfast 1910/1911 was one of the first to design, build and fly her own aircraft (which she called the Mayfly⌖)[2].

In the first 40 years of the 20th century the appearance of women pilots became a worldwide craze. Aviatrices took to the air in Belgium, Germany, Britain and Eire, Russia, Estonia, Argentina, Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, Japan, China, Korea, Italy, Australasia, Canada, Spain, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Hungary and Persia, in fact from any country that had a viable even if rudimentary aircraft industry.

Amy Johnson
Aviatrix “rock stars”
The public at large is familiar possibly only with a few of these pioneer aviatrices, the “glamour-pus” headline grabbers like American Amelia Earhart and England’s Amy Johnson, or if you are from the USA you probably have also heard of Ruth Law, Louise Thaden, Jacky Cochran and Florence ‘Pancho’ Barnes. All of these high-flyers (literally) broke numerous records and won continent-to-continent, long-distance air races¤ and have been the subject of various biographies, television documentaries or biopics.

N-25 “Tourist Hauler” Biplane
There was a lot of women pilots by the twenties and thirties (especially in the USA), and the great majority of them weren’t as fortunate as Earhart and a select few of the elite aviatrices who could elicit sponsorship from newspapers and the like. There were few posts for commercial pilots available to women at the time (primarily due to systemic and deeply ingrained sexism), therefore many women pilots in the “Roaring Twenties” turned to barnstorming and if they could to working as a stunt pilot in the movies. Barnstormers moved around the country performing aerial tricks and manoeuvres, for audiences, either individually or in orchestrated clusters of Gipsy Moth type crafts (known as “flying circuses”). Barnstormers also made money by taking local townspeople up for joy rides[3].

Jean Batten
“First-wave” Australasian aviatrices
Gladys Sandford was the first New Zealand woman to be awarded an air pilot’s licence (1925), but without dispute the Shaky Isles’ greatest-ever aviatrix was Jean Gardner Batten. After wrecking her first biplane Batten talked the Castrol Oil Co into buying a second-hand De Havilland Gipsy Moth, in which she was the first woman to complete the solo round trip between England and New Zealand. Batten also won the Harmon Trophy three times and achieved a world record for flying from England to South America. Later in the thirties the relentless Kiwi aviatrix Batten obliterated Amy Johnson’s England to Australia record, bettering it by more than four days![4]

Australia’s first female flyer in an heavier-than-air plane was Florence Taylor in 1909 at Narrabeen, NSW. Taylor’s flight was in a glider designed by her husband George (which he had adapted from Lawrence Hargrave’s cellular box-kite prototype). Prejudice from male aviators and the industry meant that women in Australia were prevented from holding a commercial pilot’s licence until 1927 (Millicent Bryant was the first to earn her Australian licence in that year).

Other women soon took up the mantle of the earliest Aussie aviatrices, most prominent among these were Maude ‘Lores’ Bonney and the aptly named Nancy-Bird Walton. Lores Bonney, originally from South Africa, in the 1930s was “regarded as perhaps Australia’s most competent aviatrix”[5]. Bonney’s record-breaking feats started in 1932 when she became the first aviatrix to circumnavigate the continent of Australia (embarking on the marathon flight – the equivalent of Darwin to London in distance – after first gaining the permission of her husband). She was the first pilot of either sex to fly from Brisbane to Cape Town, and the first woman to fly solo from Australia to England.

Nancy-Bird Walton got her pilot’s licence at 19 and like Bonney and so many other early aviators (from Charles Lindbergh down) tried initially to make a living out of it through barnstorming. In 1936 Walton won the Ladies Trophy in the Adelaide to Brisbane air race in a record time. As the first woman commercial pilot in Australia Walton was responsible for the operation of a flying medical service in the outback (Royal Far West Children’s Health Service), using her own Leopard Moth as an air ambulance. During WWII she trained a women’s air corps as back up for the men pilots in the RAAF and in 1950 founded the Australian Women Pilot’s Association, paving the way for today’s female commercial pilots to make a career of the profession[6].

PostScript: Hollywood and the glamorous/socialite aviatrix
In the golden age of aviation aviatrices like Jean Gardner Batten and Beryl Markham were not adverse to infusing a bit of glamour into their public personas. It certainly didn’t hinder their careers and sponsorship was often needed by the young female pilots to finance their attempts to win races and break records. In the twenties and thirties nothing personified the idea of the modern woman more than the aviatrix, she represented the height of glamour and daring … and of course the ubër glam-aviatrix in the world was Earhart whose image and media-savvy husband secured her income from promotional and speaking tours and from product endorsement [7].

It is hardly surprising then that from early on Hollywood took an interest in the aviatrix, and in the whole burgeoning area of aviation which provided film-makers with fresh new storylines with lots of breath-taking action and thrills. Several of the glamorous aviatrices had stints in movie acting. Ruth Elder for instance, (known as “Miss America of Aviation”) juggled flying with a (part-time) actress job and a (full-time) one as a serial ‘matrimonialist’ (Elder was married six times). RKO cashed in the vogue by casting an up-and-coming Katherine Hepburn as a socialite aviatrix in 1933’s Christopher Strong. Capitalising on the appeal of feminine good looks and the fearless reputation of women pilots, studio photographers cultivated the “glamorous aviatrix look” for movie publicity purposes[8].

❈ the very first experiments with flight involving women began in France – 1784: first woman to fly in a hot-air balloon, Marie Élisabeth Thible (eight months after the Montgolfier brothers’ first successful accent); 1798: first woman to pilot an airship, Jeanne Geneviève Labrosse (Mme Labrosse was also the first woman to parachute jump from a balloon, 1799), www.centennialofwomenpilots.com. So, in a very real sense aviatrices were in on the ground (umm, off the ground) in aviation from the get-go!
⌖ as in may fly, may not
¤ Earhart and Johnson were both fated to die in mysterious circumstances, tragically if heroically in pursuit of their addiction to flying

[1] ‘Aviation Pioneer Louise Thaden’, www.arkansasairandmilitarymuseum.com
[2] K Mitchell, ‘Lilian Bland: Ireland’s first female pilot, the world’s first aviation engineer’, Engineers Journal (Republic of Ireland), 31-May-2016, www.engineersjournal.ie
[3] ‘Barnstorming’, Wikipedia, http://em.n.wikipedia.org
[4] Ian Mackersey. ‘Batten, Jean Gardner’, from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand,http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/4b13/batten-jean-gardner (accessed 20 May 2017)
[5] K Alexander, Taking Flight: Lores Bonney’s Extraordinary Flying Career, (2016)
[6] ‘Nancy Bird Walton AO’, (Australian Museum), www.australianmuseum.net.au
[7] K Lubben Amelia Earhart: Image and Icon, cited in ‘Why Amelia Bombed’ (V Postrel), 10-Nov-2009, www.vpostrel.com
[8] S Kelly, Aviators in Early Hollywood (2008)]