From aviation’s earliest days to jet combat and space missions, women fly. But it was against a headwind of prejudice. These are some notes from the journey:
Flying does not rely so much on strength, as on physical and mental co-ordination.
Baroness Raymonde de Laroche, first lady to solo an airplane and world’s first licensed female pilot, 1910. Quoted in The Intrepid First Lady of Flight, Flying magazine, March 1957.
Flying is the best possible thing for women.
Baroness Raymonde de Laroche, first licensed woman pilot, regards receiving her license, 8 March 1910.
because she has retained the primitive faculty of seeing with full retina; enforced modesty and flirting have caused this;
because she has scattered attention instead of concentration; this is invaluable to an aviator who must notice many things at once;
because she has the faculty of intuition—that quality of the mind which can take in a number of causes simultaneously and induce a conclusion—an essential in aviation;
because her specific gravity is less than man’s;
because she needs less oxygen and therefore can better meet the suffocating rush of air; altitude effects her less than it does man;
because her sneezes, in man an actual spasm, have been controlled by ages of polite repression,
because she feels more quickly warning atmospheric changes;
because she loves to speed.
Proffessor Rudolph Hensingmüller, a list of reasons why women are better pilots than men, published in 1911 and immediately ridiculed. Newspaper clipping in the Matilde Moisant biographical file, National Air and Space Museum, cited in the 1978 Smithsonian book United States Women in Aviation through World War I.
The men flyers have given out the impression that aeroplaning is very perilous work, something that an ordinary mortal should not dream of attempting. But when I saw how easily the man flyers manipulated their machines I said I could fly.
Harriet Quimby, American Bird Woman, Good Housekeeping Magazine, September 1912.
If a woman wants to fly, first of all she must, of course, abandon skirts and don a knickerbockers uniform … There must be no flapping ends to catch in the multitudinous wires surrouding the driver’s seat.
Harriet Quimby, first lady in the U.S. to receive a pilots license. How a Woman Learns to Fly, Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, 17 August 1911.
Women will never be as successful in aviation as men. The reason I feel that women can never compete with mean as aviatior is because they have not the right kind of nerve, the never that unites full knowledge of every danger, and judgement in handling difficulties, with cool daring.
Maurice Hewlet, the first English lady to solo an aeroplane. In the Daily Stetch, 2 May 1913.
I was annoyed from the start by the attitude of doubt by the spectators that I would never really make the flight. This attitude made me more determined than ever to succeed.
Harriet Quimby, just prior to her flight across the English Channel, 1912.
I decided blacks should not have to experience the difficulties I had faced, so I decided to open a flying school and teach other black women to fly.
Bessie Coleman, who had to go to France to learn how to fly as Americans would not instruct a black lady. Quoted in 1991 book Ladybirds: The Untold Story of Women Pilots in America.
When I began to talk about flying, she already had confidence in me. My mother never warned me not to do this or that for fear of being hurt, Of course I got hurt, but I was never afraid.
Katherine Stinson. Quoted in 1995 book Women Aviators.
I have found that women are not only just as much interested as men are in flying, but apparently have less fear than the men have. At least, more women than men asked to go up with me. And when I took them up, they seemed to enjoy it.
Katherine Stinson. Quoted in 2000 book Katherine Stinson: The Flying Schoolgirl.
The aeroplane should open a fruitful occupation for women. I see no reason they cannot realize handsome incomes by carrying passengers between adjacent towns, from parcel delivery, taking photographs or conducting schools of flying.
Harriet Quimby, June 1912.
There is the world-old controversy that crops up again whenever women attempt to enter a new field. Is a woman fit for this or that work? It would seem that a woman’s success in any particular line would prove her fitness for that work, without regard to theories to the contrary.
Ruth Law, Let Women Fly, Air Travel, February 1918.
So many men now have lost their lives in airplane accidents that individual addition [sic] to the long list of their names have ceased to cause any really deep emotions except in the minds of their relatives and friends. When a woman is the victim however the feeling of pity and horror is as strong as was that produced by the first of these disasters to men and though there is at present no expectation that aviation should be abandoned by men because of the recognized dangers, the death of Miss Bromwell is almost sure to raise in many minds at least the question if it would not be well to exclude women from a field of activity in which there [sic] presence certainly is unnecessary from any point of view.
editorial, author unknown, The New York Times, 7 June 1921.
The air is the only place free from prejudices.
Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to
become an airplane pilot, 1921. Quoted in Bessie Coleman: Remembering an Aviation Pioneer, Flying magazine, January 2017.
I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew the race needed to be represented along this most important line, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation and to encourage flying among men and women of the Race, who are so far behind the white race in this special line.
Bessie Coleman, in a newspaper primarily for African-American readers. Aviatrix Must Sight Away Life to Learn Trade, Chicago Defender, 8 October 1921.
I refused to take no for an answer.
If you are a woman, and are coming to the flying field seeking stimulation, excitement and flattery, you had better stay away until flying is a little bit safer. If you are thinking that flying will develop character; will teach you to be orderly, well-balanced; will give you an increasingly wider outlook; discipline you, and destroy vanity and pride; enable you to control yourself more and more under all conditions; to think less of yourself and your personal problems, and more of sublimity and everlasting peace that dwell serene in the heavens … if you seek these latter qualities, and think on them exclusively, why — FLY!
Margery Brown. What Men Flyers think of Women Pilots, Popular Aviation and Aeronautics, March 1929.
In the history of the conquest of the air the page of women‘s achievement is a great one. The woman of today is something more than a wife to her husband. She is his friend, his companion, his playmate, and more often than not his business partner. The true development of the air sense of mankind depends just as much on the women as on the men. We cannot advance with a united front into the position of leadership in this new world that is ours by right, unless the women will support and help men as they have always done in the past. Since the beginning of human flight women have stood by men not alone in actual flying, but in the development of aeronautics generally.
Mary Heath. Women Who Fly, Popular Aviation and Aeronautics, May 1929.
Women are seeking freedom. Freedom in the skies! They are soaring above temperamental tendencies of their sex which have kept them earth-bound. Flying is a symbol of freedom from limitation.
Margery Brown, Flying is Changing Women. Pictorial Review magazine, June 1930.
If the feminine is considered the weaker sex and this weaker sex accomplishes the art of flying, it is positive proof of the simplicity and universal practicality of individual flying. It is the greatest sales argument that can be presented to that public upon which this industry depends for its existence.
Frank Copeland, marketing director of an early air race.
Just watch, all of you men. I’ll show you what a woman can do … I’ll go across the country, I’ll race to the Moon… . I’ll never look back.
Edna Gardner Whyte, regards her first solo flight, New Year’s Day, 1931.
So I accept these awards on behalf of the cake bakers and all of those other women who can do some things quite as important, if not more important, than flying, as well as in the name of women flying today.
Aviation, this young modern giant, exemplifies the possible relationships of women with the creations of science.
Amelia Earhart, Purdue University, Lafayette, Indiana, 1935.
Aviation is a science that cannot be limited to men only.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, letter to Amelia Earhart after becoming the first women to successfully fly from Hawaii to California, January 1935. Quoted in 1989 book Amelia Earhart: A Biography.
Please know I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail their failure must be but a challenge to others.
Amelia Earhart, in a letter left for her husband to open in case she failed on he round-the-world flight. Last Flight, 1937.
Had I been a man I might have explored the Poles or climbed Mount Everest, but as it was my spirit found outlet in the air.
Amy Johnson, Essay in Myself When Young, Margot Asquith, 1938.
No it was not the novelty, and it was not the danger and
the adventure (although these had their charm). It was certainly not a
passing whim (if it had been the hard work would have dispelled it in a
very short time!). I think there were three chief reasons for my choice of
First, a real love for, and interest in aviation.
Secondly, a determination to earn my own money and to make my career a paying proposition.
Thirdly, a conviction that aviation was a profession of the future and therefore had room to welcome its new followers.
Pauline Gower. Women With Wings, 1938.
There is a decided prejudice on the part of the general public against being piloted by a woman, and as great an aversion, partially because of this, by executives of those companies whose activities require employing pilots.
Louise Thaden, High, Wide, and Frightened, 1938.
Any girl who has flown at all grows used to the prejudice of most men pilots who will trot out any number of reasons why women “can't possibly” be good pilots. We grow so used to it in fact that I seldom think of it and almost never get on the defensive as I did constantly right after I solod and wanted so desperately to be a good pilot … The only way to show the disbelievers, the snickering hangar pilots, is to show them.
Cornelia Fort. While working as a WASP ferry pilot she became the first female pilot in American history to die on active duty, 21 March 1943. Quoted in 1999 book Daughter of the Air: The Brief Soaring Life of Cornelia Fort.
Too often little attention is paid to individual talent. instead, education goes on dividing people according to their sex, and putting them in little feminine or masculine pigeonholes … Girls are shielded and sometimes helped so much that they lose initiative and begin to believe the signs ‘Girls don’t’ and ‘Girls can’t’ which mark their paths… Consequently, it seems almost necessary to evolve different methods of instruction for them when they later take up the same subjects. For example, those courses which involve mechanical work may have to be explained somewhat differently to girls not because girls are inherently not mechanical, but because normally they have learned little about such things in the course of their education.
Amelia Earhart, The Fun of It, 1932.
Women must try to do things as men have tried, When they fail their failure must be but a challenge to others.
Amelia Earhart, in The New York Times, 29 July 1928.
Women must pay for everything. They do get more glory than men for comparable feats, but, they also get get more notoriety when they crash.
Amelia Earhart. Date unknown, quoted by her husband in his 1939 book Soaring Wings: A Biography of Amelia Earhart.
I didn’t know a lot about Amelia before I started [flying]. And as a woman and a pilot, I should have known more.
Linda Finch, prior to starting out on a flight retracing Amelia Earhart last journey, 1997.
Flying is a man’s job and its worries are a man’s worries.
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Wind, Sand, and Stars, 1939.
I have a letter from a gentleman who is very much exercised because our women pilots are not being utilized in the war effort. The CAA says that women are psychologically not fitted to be pilots, but I see pictures every now and then of women who are teaching men to fly. We know that in England, where the need is great, women are ferrying planes and freeing innumerable men for combat service.
It seems to me that in the Civil Air Patrol and in our own ferry command, women, if they can pass the tests imposed upon men, should have an equal opportunity for non-combat service. I always believe that when people are needed, they will eventually be used.
I believe in this case, if the war goes on long enough, and women are patient, opportunity will come knocking at their doors. However, there is just a chance that this is not a time when women should be patient. We are in a war and we need to fight it with all our ability and every weapon possible. Women pilots, in this particular case, are a weapon waiting to be used
Eleanor Roosevelt, My Day newspaper column, 1 September 1942.
I can cure your men of walking off the [flight] program. Just put some girl pilots on.
Jacqueline Cochran, director of the WASP, to General Arnold on how to get people to fly the B-26. September 1942. Quoted in 2003 book The Columbia Documentary History of American Women, 1941-2000.
All of us realized what a spot we were on. We had to deliver the goods, or else there wouldn't ever be another chance for women pilots in any part of the service.
Cornelia Fort, WAFS. Posthumously published article in Woman's Home Companion, June 1943.
In the early days they said I was trying to make a statement, but I was just trying to make a living.
Captain Bonnie Tiburzi, American Airlines, first woman hired by a major airline. Quoted in 2007 book Women Know Everything!
It is now possible for a flight attendant to get a pilot pregnant.
Richard J. Ferris, President, United Airlines. Quoted in 1995 book Upcoming Changes: Prophecy & Pragmatism for the Late Nineties.
Have confidence in yourself and tell yourself 'you can' twice for every time you are told ‘you can't’. Confidence that you can succeed is everything. Take every negative remark as a challenge to achieve more and progress to newer heights. You are able to do anything you believe you can do. You might even surprise yourself.
Alinda Wikert, first female owner and CEO of an airline.
Flying is not about whether the pilot is a man or a woman. It is about the results of the actions imposed by the pilot and the responses returned by the aircraft. The aircraft does not know or understand gender. It only knows the difference in a true pilot, and one who was perhaps not meant to fly.
Captain Jennifer Kaye, Air National Guard, 2000.
If you can’t see any opportunities where you are now, don’t waste your time criticizing the darkness … Light a candle to find your way out.
Arlene Feldman. Regional Director FAA.
When I first started out in the aviation field, there were no women currently flying in the military or for commercial airlines. There were no footprints in the snow. My strategy was to eliminate any reasons why someone wouldn't hire me as a pilot, like inadequate training or experience.
Suzanna Darcy-Hennemann, test pilot, Boeing Aircraft.
Aviation is still considered a man's world by many. The time to reach young ladies is during their first years of school. Research has shown that although children may change their minds several times about their eventual careers, the possibilities of them selecting a non-traditional role must be nurtured at an early age.
Dr. Peggy Baty, founder of Women In Aviation International.
To a psychoanalyst, a woman pilot, particularly a married one with children, must prove an interesting as well as an inexhaustible subject. Torn between two loves, emotionally confused, the desire to fly an incurable disease eating out your life in the slow torture of frustration — she cannot be a simple, natural personality.
Louise Thaden, first woman to win the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race, High, Wide, and Frightened, 1938.
No. I just wanted to fly airplanes.
Major Jacquelyn Susan 'Jackie' Parker, when asked in magazine interview, “Did you pursue your flying career because you viewed yourself as blazing trails for other women?”
Jackie was the first female in a number of traditionally male USAF assignments. She was Reese AFB’s first T-38 instructor pilot, the first female graduate of the USAF Test Pilot School and the first woman in the United States to be assigned to an F-16 fighter squadron. Jackie Parker – Fighter Pilot, Code One magazine, April 1995.
We never accepted that it was OK for ‘girls’ to accept a lower standard, to expect less of or for themselves than men. Like so many of life's achievements, the key is simple perseverance.
Captain Rosemary Mariner, USN. First woman in the US armed services to lead an operational air squadron. Quoted in LA Times newspaper, 13 July 1990.
I’m an Air Force officer first, a pilot second and then Nicole. The female part is last … My job is to be the best right wingman that I can be.
Captain Nicole Malachowski, first lady pilot with the USAF flight demonstration team the Thunderbirds. Interview in Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper, 15 March 2006.
Flying is a great equalizer. The plane doesn’t know or care about your gender as a pilot, nor do the ground troops who need your support. You just have to perform. That's all anyone cares about when you’re up there — that you can do your job, and that you do it exceptionally well.
Lt. Col. Christine Mau, 33rd Fighter Wing Operations Group deputy commander, on being the first female to fly the F-35. Story in MyPanhandle.com, 6 May 2015.
I’d have given my right eye to be an astronaut.
Jacqueline Cochran. Quoted in 1995 book Women Aviators.
If women can be railroad workers in Russia, why can’t they fly in space?
Valentina Tereshkova. Quoted in 2019 book Moon Mission: The Epic 400-Year Journey to Apollo 11.
What are we doing here? we’re reaching for the stars.
Christa McAuliffe, regards entering the astronaut program, Time magazine, 10 February 1986.
Without women, we stood in space on one leg only.
Vladimir Dzanibekov, Soviet cosmonaut, regards the first space walk by a woman, The London Times, 11 August 1984.
I would not say that female cosmonauts are not welcomed in the Russian space program. I must say, however, that all spaceflight hardware, including spacesuits and spacecraft comfort assuring systems, were designed mostly by men and for men.
Nadezhda Kuzhelnaya. No Room For Women in Space, claim Russians, Agençe France-Presse, 18 June 2003.
This kid didn't give up. I’ve been waiting since ’61 to get there, and I’m going.
Wally Funk, denied a chance to fly into space at the time of the Mercury program because she’s a woman, regards taking a ride on Virgin Galactic. Quoted in AdAstra magazine, Summer 2013.
I can’t remember a single time [my parents] ever told me not to do something I wanted to do.
Sally Ride. Quoted in 1995 book Women Aviators.
I wanted to be a hairdresser when I grew up. I’d sit on the back of the sofa and my mother would sit in front of me, and as long as it didn't involve scissors or dye, she'd let me do whatever I wanted to her hair. All the women in my life were nurses, hairdressers, or secretaries, and that's why I thought my father would not support me in being a pilot. I can remember asking him, “what would you think if I told you I wanted to be a pilot when I grew up?” expecting him to say no or disagree. He said, “I think that would be fantastic.” Had he not said those words, I don’t know what would have happened to me.
Susan Still, Lieutenant, United States Navy, Combat Pilot and Astronaut. Quoted in 1997 book Women And Flight.
She’s decisive, she’s aggressive, she’s proven she's capable with high-performance jets. We look for people with the capability to think on their feet and to be able to lead a team of people. We look for the best pilots out there, and if they happen to be women, great, but we’re just looking for the best.
David Leestma, director of flight crew operations, Johnson Space Center. Regarding Astronaut Susan Still, 1997.
I’m honored to be the first woman to have the opportunity to command the shuttle. I don’t really think about that on a day-to-day basis because I really don’t need to.
Air Force Col. Eileen Collins, first female Space Shuttle commander, 24 June 1999.
Because of [Amelia Earhart], we had more women available to fly in the 1940’s to help us get through World War II. And because of these women, women of my generation are able to look back and say, ‘Hey, they did it. They even flew military airplanes, we can do it, too.’
Air Force Col. Eileen Collins, television interview 100 Years of Great women, on ABC with Barbara Walters, 30 April 1999.
There was my mom and I had a wife for a long time and now there is my fiancee. Eileen is in a long line of women who have given me orders.
Jeffrey S. Ashby, shuttle pilot regards flying under Eileen Collins’ command.
My daughter just thinks that all moms fly the Space Shuttle.
Eileen Collins, first female Space
Shuttle commander. Press interviews, July 1999.