I knew all about Amelia Earhart, the legend. The pioneering aviatrix dubbed “Lady Lindy” was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic and racked up a slew of other records and awards before she mysteriously disappeared on the final leg of her last flight. But as it turns out, I knew nothing about Amelia Earhart, the woman.
Amelia Earhart seemed larger-than-life, but hers was a carefully-cultivated image. Her skills as a pilot were okay, but not exceptional. That whole first-woman-to-cross-the-Atlantic milestone? She was a passenger. On that famed first passage, she didn’t touch the controls–she kept the flight log. Earhart was ruthlessly self-promoting. She was a homewrecker. And even that famous tousled bob was the product of a curling iron.
And yet, Earhart’s mystique persists, and we collectively continue to admire her. Why? What have we found so captivating about Amelia Earhart?
Amelia Earhart had guts. Even those that criticized her skills as a pilot were impressed by her moxy, such as her rival Elinor Smith, who marveled at Earhart’s “gut courage that transcended the sanity of reasoning.” (Earhart wasn’t merely foolhardy; there were risks she wouldn’t take. But there weren’t very many of them.)
Where did Earhart get her remarkable courage? She was clearly born with a good bit of it, judging from childhood tales. But nobody is born with enough courage to attempt the things she did.
Reading her stories, I think Earhart had to be brave because she had to fly. “I would die if I didn’t,” she said. Sure, she was afraid–but she loved flying with a passionate intensity that dwarfed those fears. She found the courage because she was desperate to be in the air. She loved to be in the air.
It was no small thing to be in the air back then, either.
Flying itself was very risky. Casualty rates were incredibly high then: it wasn’t unusual for the engine to stop in mid-air–or fall out, and many “routine” landings looked a lot more like minor crashes. The danger was real–and inescapable.
And by taking to the skies, Earhart was trespassing into traditionally male territory (well, if something as new as the airplane could be “traditional” in 1920). She stomped on all kinds of social conventions to get up into the sky. That took guts.
But she loved flying enough to overcome both those obstacles. When Earhart became a teacher at Purdue University, she encouraged her female students to take chances and pursue their dreams, even if those dreams led them into careers traditionally held by men. “Dare to live,” she said. “There are a great many boys who would be better off making pies, and a great many girls who would be better off as mechanics.”
Amelia Earhart–the woman, not the legend–wasn’t perfect, and once I overcame my initial shock about her historical past, I found that there remained much to admire. I’m in good company: Eleanor Roosevelt, a devoted friend and fan, admired the pilot so much that one of Earhart’s poems took up residence in the desk drawer where Roosevelt kept special items that inspired and strengthened her. This is that poem: