From its earliest days in the late 18th century, hot air ballooning caught the public imagination. Large crowds watched balloon flights, and aeronauts became celebrities. All balloonists were incredibly brave. Risking injury and even death with every ascent only added to their glamour and fame. The fliers, inventors and scientists involved in early balloon flights were nearly all men, including several brothers as outlined in an earlier post. However, a few “venturesome ladies” did go aloft, and as ballooning became more established their numbers grew.
Initially, women’s participation was primarily part of “ballooning-as-entertainment”. The revolutionary idea of female balloonists added an extra frisson to the spectacle and drew even bigger crowds to what was already a lucrative market. Posters advertised their appearances, some showing highly improbable feats such as aerialists performing acrobatic tricks, dangling by their hair, and riding horses in flight.
The first woman to fly in an untethered balloon was Frenchwoman Elisabeth Thible, on June 4, 1784. Dressed as the goddess Minerva, she sang operatic duets with her male companion as they ascended. The earliest English female flier was Mrs. Sage, in 1785. Some women merited commemorative prints but remained anonymous, like Mrs. R—ss in 1790.
On October 22, 1797, a young woman named Jeanne-Geneviève Labrosse watched in Paris as André -Jacques Garnerin made the first parachute descent from a balloon. She was smitten – first by the ballooning, later by the balloonist – and started to fly with him. She set records as the first woman to ascend without a male pilot, and to make a parachute jump from a balloon. After their marriage she continued a successful aeronautical career, flying together and solo. Their niece Elisa Garnerin followed suit, no doubt inspired by her courageous aunt.
One of the most celebrated professional female balloonists was Sophie Blanchard, wife of the famous French aeronaut Jean-Pierre Blanchard. He notched up two notable firsts, crossing the English Channel in 1785, and piloting the first balloon in America on January 9, 1793. At first, having Sophie fly was a moneymaking stunt but she proved a natural and soon became a celebrity in her own right. The public loved her. She continued her dramatic ascents, incorporating exploits like flying at night, releasing fireworks and balancing in a little gondola-like basket attached to her balloon. She had many dangerous flights and narrow escapes, culminating in a fatal fall from her burning balloon in 1819. She was the first woman to die in a flying accident.
Professional ballooning provided women with independence and self-sufficiency. Without it, Sophie Blanchard would have been destitute after her improvident husband died in 1809, leaving her penniless. She was able to pay off his large debts and earn a comfortable living. Elisa Garnerin was a savvy self-promoter and businesswoman. This 1815 advertisement for a future performance is a marketing masterpiece. It begins with an apology that she can’t gratify public desire to see her fly again as she’s been summoned to Paris to perform for royalty. However, it promises that she’ll be back, provided ticket sales are high enough to “irrevocably fix” the engagement. A list of options follows, with advice to commit as soon as possible as prices will only go up as the date approaches.
The first American woman to fly solo in a balloon was Nellie Thurston, in 1871. She had a successful career as an aeronaut, flying alone and with Herman Squire, a fellow balloonist who became her husband. Newspapers in the Library’s collections have accounts of some of her later exploits, including A Woman’s Adventure, describing a night she spent stranded in a tree.
As flight progressed from ballooning to airplanes, intrepid women continued to break boundaries and challenge conventions. Each of the trailblazing women below is an ideal candidate for further research, or as the subject of a school project or paper.
- By 1909, Muriel Matters was already famous for her willingness to take direct action in the cause of women’s suffrage. On February 16, she took off in a “Votes for Women” airship, planning to drop pamphlets over the British Houses of Parliament. Contrary winds blew her off course, but she garnered a great deal of publicity – and dropped her leaflets anyway.
- Harriet Quimby was the first woman to receive a pilot’s license and the first to fly across the English Channel. You can access newspaper articles about her in this research guide.
- Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman to get a pilot’s license, as noted in the briefest of acknowledgments at the bottom of this newspaper page.
- The Wright brothers are household names, but many of us don’t know there was a Wright sister too. Katharine Wright spent much of her life supporting her brothers’ work, a pattern that began in her teens when she ran the household for her father and four older brothers after her mother’s death. She still managed to be the only Wright sibling to attend college, after which she worked as a teacher. She travelled with her brothers and went aloft with them, too. She helped run the Wright Company, was a keen advocate for women’s suffrage, and was only the second female trustee of Oberlin College, her alma mater. Katharine’s letters in the Wright Brothers Papers paint a picture of a lively, intelligent woman, involved in all aspects of her brothers’ endeavors.
You may also be interested in these other Library resources:
- Two digitized books, The Girl Aviators and the Phantom Airship (1911) and The Girl Aviators’ Motor Butterfly (1912) are old-fashioned stories, but they do include some subtly feminist messages. The opening pages of the first book include remarks about the unequal treatment of girls and what must be a reference to Muriel Matter’s flight over London! (See pages 9-10, and 16).
- There’s a lot more to famous pilot Amelia Earhart than her mysterious disappearance in 1937. This research guide provides links to materials about her at the Library and elsewhere.
- Two more research guides, American Female Pilots and Early Women in Aviation link to items in the Library’s digitized newspaper collections.
There must be many more stories of adventurous women fliers whose exploits have been overshadowed or largely forgotten. Start digging – and see who else you can rediscover!