Written by Dr. Mae Jemison - NASA astronaut, first woman of color in space
Tenacity. Daring. Talent. Courage.
Aviatrix Amelia Earhart had these qualities in abundance. Aviatrix was
the term for women who flew "flying machines" at the beginning of
powered flight. The word bothered me greatly years ago, as aviatrix, a
feminization of aviator, seemed to make their accomplishments
parenthetical. But I think of it differently these days as I understand
the women of that era were different than the men -- they had to be
"more" and overcome extraordinary barriers to participate in this new
Amelia Earhart is perhaps the most well known of a genre of incredible women whose life stories offer inspiration, vital insight and critical lessons for us today. (I am a bit chagrined that I did not recognize much of this until after becoming a NASA astronaut and the world's first woman of color in space.) Earhart learned to fly at a time when flying was dangerous and society considered women less capable than men in almost every sphere of life. Earhart became an international sensation as she set flying records solo and as part of a team. And she continued to strive for more until the last.
Similar elements mark the career of black aviatrix Bessie Coleman, while other aspects diverge due to racial discrimination rampant during the era. Coleman is the first American of any gender or ethnicity to receive an international license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale in 1921. Coleman traveled to France to learn to fly because no one in the United States would teach her -- no one white, and not even black men! Earhart was the 16th woman to get FAI license in 1923. While Coleman had to learn French and travel to France, Earhart rode to the end of the bus line and then walked four miles to lessons. Working as a manicurist, Coleman saved money and gained sponsorship to pay for lessons and travel. Earhart worked to save money for lessons while getting some help from her mother. They were both tenacious just to get the opportunity.
Each dared to be the individual woman they wanted to be. They dared beyond the field of aviation. Coleman walked off a movie set, abandoning funding for expanding her aviation activities because she refused to portray a black woman in dirty, tattered rags in the opening scene. Earhart sent her new husband a letter declaring her expectation of an unconventional marriage. Daring.
Flight training and flying in the early days was rough and uncomfortable, requiring physical strength, fortitude, reflexes, coordination, intuition, situational awareness, mental calculations and mechanical aptitude -- not to mention: Talent. Accidents were not uncommon when Earhart decided to fly. Whether due to mechanical failures, weather problems or pilot error in unforgiving situations, flying was not for the faint of heart. Stunt flying, which was a staple of "Queen Bess's" barnstorming, and flying solo across uninhibited fields and water required fearlessness and confidence. Courage.
I am personally am inspired from the sense of awe, commitment and focus these women embodied. They did not just make their dreams a reality; they awakened the public to not only to the capabilities of women, but to the magic of flight and self-determination. Their tenaciousness, courage, talent and daring were really astounding.
So, aviatrix is my new word.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to commemorate the 79th anniversary of Amelia Earhart's 1935 record-breaking solo flight, when she became the first person ever to fly from the mainland United States to Hawaii. To see all the posts in the series, click here.