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Photograph showing Amelia Earhart sitting in the cockpit of an Electra airplane.
Acme Newspictures, Inc. (New York, N.Y.), "An outstanding picture of 1937 - tragedy," 1937 Dec. 15. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division. https://lccn.loc.gov/2011649482

The Sky’s the Limit: Amelia Earhart and the National Woman’s Party

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There will never be a ‘Last Flight’ for Amelia Earhart as long as her work is carried on the wings of penned words to those who believe in freedom for women as well as men.  ~  National Woman’s Party, Equal Rights.

 

Amelia Mary Earhart (1897-1937) was a record-breaking pilot during the early development of the science of aviation; she was also a steadfast champion of women’s rights and equality in the United States. As March is women’s history month, the Rare Book and Special Collections Division is reminded of Earhart’s important role as an author and as an educator in what would now be considered “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education. She lent her influence and abilities as a member of the National Woman’s Party, whose members in turn supported Earhart’s efforts to chart a new course for women in both aviation and society at large.

Occasionally dismissed by critics for being just a daredevil pilot, Earhart’s interest in aviation had more to do with engineering and pushing the limits of science and technology than it did with performing risky stunts. She held a broader vision of herself and the role of women in aviation science. In addition to her flying exploits, Earhart taught engineering and served as a career counselor for women at Purdue University. She was also a founding member and the first president of The Ninety-Nines (an organization of female pilots). While most of history remembers her for her aero-exploits—particularly for her famously mysterious disappearance—less mainstream attention has been given to her important role in the fight for gender equality.

President and and Mrs. Hoover presenting medal; Dr. Gilbert Grosvenor at left. Amelia Earhart second from right.
Underwood and Underwood, photographers. President Hoover today presented the covetted [sic] gold medal of the National Geographic Society to Mrs. Amelia Earhardt [i.e., Earhart], in recognition of her recent non-stop solo flight across the Atlantic Ocean, 1932. Prints and Photographs Division.
Using the cult of her celebrity, Earhart advocated for women’s equality in all aspects of her personal and professional life. A key member of the National Woman’s Party (friendly with Eleanor Roosevelt), she incorporated a message of gender equality wherever she went. Earhart leveraged her fame to argue for women’s greater capacity in tours and lectures across the United States. She even met with President Herbert Hoover to voice support for the Lucretia Mott Amendment (now known as the Equal Rights Amendment).

Earhart authored two books during her lifetime. Her husband, George Palmer Putnam (1887 – 1950), a publisher by trade and an author in his own right, supported Earhart through the publishing process and arranged lecture tours and endorsements to help raise funds for her experimental flights. Earhart referred to their marriage as a partnership of “dual control,” and, despite his prominent family name, she retained and published under her own. 

Earhart’s first book, published in 1928 with the title, 20 hrs. 40 mins.; our flight in the Friendship, recounted her experience as the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air—this time as a passenger, but she would later perform this trip solo as well. Structured around her actual logbook entries from the trip, the book combined reminiscences of her first exposure to and interest in flying with her logged entries. In 1932, Earhart’s second book, The fun of it : random records of my own flying and of women in aviation, was published. Another narrative of Earhart’s flying experiences, this book contained a chapter specifically highlighting women in aviation.

In early 1936, Earhart began planning her next venture; she would attempt being the first woman to complete a flight around the world. After a year of preparation and fundraising, Earhart and her navigator, Frederick Joseph “Fred” Noonan (1893 1937), flew west from Oakland, California. Technical problems forced their landing in Hawaii. They needed a new flight plan. They also needed money. Their plane repairs required $25,000 in addition to another $25,000 to fund the new set of flight arrangements.

In an effort to raise money, Earhart and Putnam appealed to friends, commercial sponsors, and fellow aviators for donations, and together the couple devised a way to harness public enthusiasm for their cause. In April, Putnam and Earhart arranged to publish another book, one that would document her trip around the world. This book would be called “World Flight,” and would consist of the familiar formula: Earhart’s own narrative of the flight, which she would record through messages, notes, and her logbooks, which she would periodically send to Putnum throughout the journey.

Florence Bayard Hilles, one of the founders of the National Woman’s Party and a central figure in the suffrage battles of the previous generation, was among those many individuals who provided financial support for Earhart and Putnam’s project. Putnam expressed gratitude for Hille’s offer of assistance in a typewritten reply (image below) on behalf of Earhart, who was engaged in plane repairs for the revitalized journey. As an additional measure of thanks for her investment, Putnum promised Hilles souvenirs from the venture, which he expected to later become valuable memorabilia for collectors. Putnam wrote, “…in due course if all goes well they will return to you after their round-the-world jaunt.”

May 21st, 1937, after the significant repairs were finally completed, Earhart and Noonan made their second attempt at flying around the world. This time they flew east. They were the first to complete an Africa-to-India flight. From India they flew to Indonesia, followed by Australia. Finally, they landed in Lae, New Guinea on June 29th. The next leg of the journey, which would have been the longest over-water part of the trip, was never completed. Earhart and Noonan failed to make it to their destination of Howland Island, and their disappearance has been the source of speculation ever since. Her disappearance did nothing to dampen public interest in Earhart—rather it launched her into the annals of history as the subject of one of the biggest mysteries of the 20th century. Many teams of public and private searchers have made and failed in their attempts to trace the whereabouts of the lost plane.

The hopeful letter from Putnuam to Hilles can now be found in the National Woman’s Party Library in the Rare Book & Special Collections Division. It is taped inside Hilles’s personal copy of Earhart’s third and final book, published posthumously and retitled Last Flight by Putnum. Publication notices and news reports following the disappearance and several of the major rescue efforts have also been fastened into the book. It is not surprising that Hilles, given her relationship with Earhart as two key members of the National Woman’s Party, followed developments in the case. Likely, she was hoping beyond hope, with the rest of the world, that the mystery would be quickly solved and Earhart would return home. But this was not to be. In 1939, after two years of extensive searching, Earhart was declared dead in absentia.

 

The National Woman’s Party, grateful to Earhart for her dauntless efforts in advocating for the Equal Rights Amendment, announced in 1938 the foundation of the “Amelia Earhart Fund for Equal Rights” in her memory, stating:

Immortality lies in the continuation of work, and so it is that the National Woman’s Party seeks to honor its beloved and distinguished member, Amelia Earhart, by giving her name to the fund that gives wings to the cause in which she believed and which she never failed to advance.” -Equal Rights, vol. 24, no. 2 (1938).

Earhart had often contemplated her reasons for pursuing her daring exploits, and, while preparing for what would be her final flight in 1937, she wrote a note, to be read by her husband in case she did not return:

Please know I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, then failure must be but a challenge to others.

Putnam included this note, as well as a poem composed by Earhart entitled “Courage,” in the publication of Last Flight. These words reflect Earhart’s dedication to her mission, and spoke directly to the ideals of the National Woman’s Party, which, in the journal Equal Rights, wrote of her, “She literally gave wings to the cause of equal rights. In flying, and in all else that she did, she claimed for herself the right to equality with men. At the same time she laid claim to that right for ALL women.”

 

Black and white image of small plane.
Amelia takes off from Hawaii in solo flight. January 12, 1935. Photographic print. Prints and Photographs Division. https://lccn.loc.gov/94505524

 

RESOURCES

The records of the National Women’s Party are housed in the Manuscript Division. Photographs from the National Women’s Party records are housed in the Prints and Photographs Division. Monographs from the National Women’s Party Library can be found in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Those interested should contact our reference staff through Ask-A-Librarian.

 

FURTHER READING

 

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Comments

  1. On International Women’s Day, this gives me chills. Thank you!

    “She literally gave wings to the cause of equal rights. In flying, and in all else that she did, she claimed for herself the right to equality with men. At the same time she laid claim to that right for ALL women.”

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