Amelia Earhart Did She Face Bias and Discrimination?

Joan E. Knapp, Amelia Earhart Chair

The answer is definitely YES! Amelia Earhart was not alone as all women pilots for the most part faced bias and discrimination from male pilots and the general public. Here’s how Amelia faced bias and discrimination and what she did to fight it and to support other women pilots through the years.

Childhood: Even as a child, Amelia (AE) faced both bias and discrimination as a girl. She defied conventional feminine behavior by climbing trees, “belly slammed” her sled to start it downhill and hunted rats with a .22 rifle. Her mother made AE and her sister Muriel “bloomers” so they could be tomboys. Her mother supported both of her daughters even against her mother’s opposition.

1928: As the first woman to fly across the Atlantic but not the pilot she vowed to be the pilot the next time. This time the bias was in her favor as she was made a celebrity while the two male pilots were largely ignored, though she kept saying they were the pilots, and she was just a passenger – a sack of potatoes!

1929: The Cleveland National Air Races didn’t allow women pilots to enter either the series of pylon or cross-country races that started in 1920 until 1929. Then the Women’s Air Derby (nicknamed the “Powder Puff Derby” by Will Rogers) was started to placate the women pilots as they weren’t allowed to race with the men. The all-male committee had decided that the women would be spared the dangers of crossing the Rocky Mountains and they would have a male navigator. Amelia was outraged. She immediately became the self-appointed spokesperson for the perspective contestants. She sent a telegram of protest to both the NAA contest committee and the national races committee along with a statement to the  press. It would be ridiculous, she said, to advertise the derby as an important event if the course was the easy route over the middle west from Omaha to Cleveland instead of from the West Coast. As for taking along a male navigator, the proposal  was an insult to contestants who were required to have a minimum of one hundred hours of flight time. If she were not allowed to fly solo from California, she said, she would not enter the race. She was joined in her protest by three other prominent female pilots.

1930: She agreed to chair a group of women pilots who met in Detroit to discuss the upcoming National Air Races. The director tentatively offered a special speed race for women pilots comparable to the Thompson Trophy race for men’s  “free for all” open to very type of plane. (The Thompson was an unlimited race in that there were no physical restrictions placed on the airplane as to engine size, number of engines, etc., although a qualifying speed had to be met. Later a restriction was included that said no women were allowed to enter.) He advised AE that if six pilots “of the gentler sex” entered he would add to the  program a similar contest. She said she was confident that a least six women would enter. When a week  later events were announced  forty-two of the forty-six events were restricted to small planes with none of the remaining four open to women.  There would be two women’s derbies, though neither for the larger planes. AE and four other women – refused to  compete.  They did not intend to protest and then simply disappear. They set a date of the meeting of the 99s in Chicago during the races “in order to reach some agreement with the race committee” for the 1931 races.

1932: This year women were permitted to compete with men in all the air race events except the Thompson Trophy. Instead, women were permitted to compete in the separate Aerol Trophy, the closed-course, free-for-all race that served as the women’s equivalent of the Thompson Trophy, and the Amelia Earhart Trophy, a special handicap race for women pilots.
When she flew solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932, she received the Distinguished Flying Cross – the first ever given to a woman. AE felt this flight proved that men and women were equal in “jobs requiring intelligence, coordination, speed, coolness and willpower.”

1933: The victory for women pilots proved to be short-lived. Growing concerns that aircraft had become too powerful for women pilots surfaced with the death of 25-year-old racing pilot Florence Klingensmith in the crash of her Gee Bee Model Y during a race at Chicago in 1933. As a result, women’s events were dropped altogether from the 1934 National Air Race.

1934: When the 1934  Bendix Trophy Race banned women, AE openly refused to fly screen actress Mary Pickford to Cleveland to open the races.

1935: The National Air Races this year were limited to separate all-women’s events that were restricted to stock, commercially licensed aircraft with an airspeed of less than 150 mph. Notable women pilots, including Amelia Earhart, opposed the restrictions.

When Helen Richey, the first female commercial airline pilot, quit her job at Central Air lines in 1935 after just 10 months because the airline suggested she couldn’t be physically strong enough to fly in bad weather, AE used her notoriety to rally support for her by organizing a protest in Washington DC.

1936: At the National Air Races this year women were again permitted to participate in the men’s events. The Bendix Race started at Floyd Bennett Field, NY while the Thompson races were moved to Los Angeles’ Mines Field due to the Cleveland Airport expansion.  Although AE competed in her new Lockheed Electra that year and finished 5th, two other women, Louise Thaden and Blanche Noyes, flying their Beechcraft C-17 Staggerwing, flew between New York and Los Angeles in 14 hours, 55 minutes, 1 second winning the Bendix Trophy. AE was in LA to present Betty Browning the Amelia Earhart Trophy for winning the Closed Course Race for Women Pilots there.

Although throughout her life, Amelia Earhart faced bias and discrimination due to her sex, she never let it deter her from what she wanted to do in life. She dedicated much of her life to prove that women could excel in their chosen professions just like men and have equal value. A true Zontian.