Amelia Earhart
Amelia Earhart did much more than be the first woman to fly across oceans and mysteriously disappear. (Illustration by Dorothy Timan, Indiana University)
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Amelia Earhart

The legend was a fellow sister in the skies.

Amelia Earhart was a fascinating woman. She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, and the first person ever to fly across the ocean twice. She was an avid advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment, an active member of the National Woman’s Party and lobbied Congress for aviation legislation. In her spare time, she offered career advice to young women at Purdue University and designed her own fashion line of practical, flexible sportswear.

The famous aviatrix is most known for two things: being the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean and her mysterious disappearance in 1937, just weeks before her 40th birthday.

As a celebrity aviatrix in the early 20th century, Earhart faced prejudices and obstacles in her career that she had to learn to overcome. She then made it a priority to share her knowledge and experience with other women, and encouraged them to follow their passions, regardless of how unattainable they might have seemed.

During her piloting experience, she and several other female pilots formed the Ninety-Nines, the first female pilots’ organization. The organization was founded in 1929 and is still going strong today as a nonprofit organization that helps women pursue their aviation dreams, whether professionally or recreationally.

Although Earhart was probably the most famous female aviatrix of the time and even since then, she was by no means the only one. At the time of the Ninety-Nines’ founding, there were 117 female pilots across the United States who were all invited to assemble for mutual support. The name of the organization itself was selected because of the 99 chartered members who decided to be a part of the organization.

While Earhart was the most well-known aviatrix and set several new records for female pilots and won numerous awards from different organizations, countries and governments, she was not the only woman in the skies.

The new records Earhart set for female aviators meant that there were records set by other women before her; Earhart’s own piloting teacher was Anita “Neta” Snook, another acclaimed aviatrix who set many firsts for women in aviation, including being the first aviatrix to run her own aviation business and the first woman to run a commercial airfield.

Earhart understood the importance of a network of women supporting, teaching and encouraging one another. That’s why she networked with women laterally, at the same level as her, through the Ninety-Nines club, as well as vertically, teaching and helping younger women starting out their careers.

In 1935, after being recognized as a world-acclaimed pilot and activist for women’s rights, Earhart joined the faculty at Purdue University as a counselor in careers for women. This was one of the ways she was able to pour directly into young women and encourage them to advance their careers.

She believed that the simple presence of women in aviation and other male-dominated fields would be enough to force society to realize that the previously imposed gender restrictions were not just baseless, but also harmful.

In a 1935 radio speech titled, “A Woman’s Place in Science,” Earhart notes, “As so often happens in introducing the new or changing the old, public acceptance depends peculiarly upon women’s friendly attitude.” In other words, female presence is a crucial step toward overarching societal acceptance.

Earhart was also an advocate for women’s rights at a political level. She was an outspoken proponent of the Equal Rights Amendment, an amendment circulating Congress in the 1920s and ‘30s. The amendment would guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens and end “the legal distinctions between men and women in terms of divorce, property, employment, and other matters.”

Interestingly, this amendment has still not been ratified, although it has recently started gaining more attention with the rise of the #MeToo movement and the recent momentum of the women’s rights movement.

Amelia Earhart was a real sister and supporter of all things woman empowerment, including creating her own fashion line, Amelia Earhart Fashion, for which she designed comfortable, practical yet fashionable garments for her similarly unconventional fans and friends.

Her fashion line drew from sports attire that was popular at the time but focused on women who put a big emphasis on practicality. She had already designed her own flight suit, but with her fashion line she hoped to reach more women that could benefit from her sportswear.

Her line first debuted in Macy’s and then was sold in over 30 department stores. Unfortunately, Earhart’s fashion line happened to launch in the middle of the Great Depression and her business did not survive.

Her spirit of helping other women, however, was unabated. She continued counseling young women at Purdue University, serving the women of the Ninety-Nines organization as their vice president and lobbying for equal rights all while planning her next record-breaking flight.

When all her unconventionalities are measured and accounted for, Amelia Earhart was a woman ahead of her time. Perhaps it’s women ahead of their time who make room for the growth necessary to reach new societal standards in the future.

One thing that will never disappear is the legacy Earhart left behind as a dedicated pilot and an empowered woman who empowers others.

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