Women’s History Month: Those Magnificent Women in Their Flying Machines

This is a guest post by Henry Carter, digital conversion specialist in the Serial and Government Publications Division.

In the first decades of the 20th century, aircraft were new, and flying was exciting. Newspapers, the most powerful media outlet of the time, reported broadly on this new technology and its celebrities as well as the many social changes of the early 1900s—including the advent of women pilots, described in one 1910 headline as “heroines of the air.”

Photo published with story "Brave Women of Europe Risk Their Lives as Aviators,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, Aug. 2 , 1915

Photo montage published with the story “Brave Women of Europe Risk Their Lives as Aviators,” Grand Forks Daily Herald, Aug. 2 , 1915

Thousands flocked to flying exhibitions and air meets to watch the first pilots in action. Thousands more followed their exploits in the newspapers. The new aircraft were fragile and unstable machines with unreliable engines. Added to this was the fierce competition for fame among aviators, which encouraged them to push their machines to the limits. Accidents were common, and many resulted in pilots losing their lives. Yet in spite of the danger, or in part because of it, the sport continued to attract new participants.

The fact that women were among this growing legion of daredevils added sensation to the story, because Victorian ideals of womanhood still had a hold on the public imagination. The birth of aviation coincided with many other changes in the lives of women. Now a few bold women were flying in the face of traditional notions, literally and figuratively. They set their own records for endurance, altitude and speed. Like their male counterparts, some also lost their lives.

Chronicling America, a collection of nearly 12 million historical newspaper pages from more than 40 states and territories, includes many fascinating stories of these “aeroines.” In recognition of Women’s History Month, we’re posting “Women and Aviation” as our 300th recommended topic to research in Chronicling America. Topical guides provide dates, search terms and links to contemporary newspaper accounts for many subjects including women flyers, their achievements and also the controversies.

Check out topic pages related to other women’s issues as well, such as the right to vote, historical figures like Victoria Woodhull or Clara Barton and other fascinating women such as the Golden Flyer Suffragettes and Sissieretta Jones. Read more about it!


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