Who was Amelia Earhart? Even today, almost everyone knows the simple answer to this question: a female aviator whose disappearance in flight has never been explained. However, Amelia was much more complex than this. While her mysterious disappearance has dominated her legend, her actual life—from her notable achievements in aviation to her brave feminism to her unorthodox life choices—deserves a closer look.
Amelia Mary Earhart was born in Atchison, Kansas on July 24, 1897 to Samuel “Edwin” Stanton Earhart and Amelia “Amy” Otis Earhart. Her sister Muriel was born two and a half years later. Edwin’s job as railroad attorney required the family to move to various Midwestern locales, and his alcoholism exacerbated the quick overturn of his jobs. As his addiction increased, Amelia lost trust in the man she once thought of as a hero. In 1914, frustrated with her husband’s inability to support the family, Amy separated from him and used her family inheritance to support herself and her girls in Chicago. Although Amy returned to Edwin in 1917, their marriage continued to be rocky.
Amelia’s own life as a young adult was similarly transient. After graduating from Chicago’s Hyde Park High School in June 1915, she enrolled in Ogontz, a finishing school near Philadelphia. A serious student and lover of literature, she planned to go on to Bryn Mawr but left Ogontz mid-second year after a visit to Muriel in Toronto. After seeing wounded soldiers in the city, she decided to become a nurse’s aide at the Spadina Military Convalescent Hospital. Army pilots would practice in nearby airfields, and this marked the first time that Amelia witnessed airplanes up close. She then enrolled in Columbia University’s pre-med program but, fast realizing that she did not want to be a doctor, left to join her parents in California. After her parents’ divorce in 1924, Amelia returned to Columbia but again left quickly. In 1926, she moved in with her sister and mother near Boston and became a social worker at an immigrant settlement house.
When Amelia found aviation, she finally found her calling. After her first ride in a plane at a California air show on December 28, 1920, she knew that she wanted to fly. She signed up for lessons in 1921 with a well-trained female flyer named Neta Snook, and after only two and a half hours of training, she bought a Kinner sportsplane with the financial help of her mother. In 1922, Amelia made her first solo flight and set the unofficial women’s altitude record of 14,000 feet.
Amelia’s ongoing dedication to aviation was essential to her success, for the field at this time was highly competitive—full of people vying to be the first to do various feats. Although Amelia’s first major flight in 1928 was only as a passenger, the title of first woman to fly across the Atlantic was highly coveted. Although her voyage was the purpose of the flight and Amelia was considered its “commander,” she was not to fly herself unless conditions allowed, nor would she be paid like pilot Wilmer “Bill” Stultz or navigator Louis Gordon.
In fact, for this flight, Amelia was essentially a publicity stunt for publisher George P. Putnam, one of the trip coordinators. Putnam had published Charles Lindbergh’s successful autobiography, We, after his famous flight, and he saw Amelia’s story as another potential bestseller. Yet, business aside, the two struck up an instant friendship. At the time, Amelia was engaged to Sam Chapman, whom she had met while he was boarding at her parents’ California home, but she had shied away from the restrictions of conventional marriage. Putnam was married with two children. Although the two always denied rumors of an affair, their relationship became quite profound.
When the trio completed their transatlantic trip, Amelia became an instant celebrity, yet she was acutely aware that she had been as useful as “a sack of potatoes.” She nonetheless willingly became Putnam’s product, an invention named “Lady Lindy” whose schedule was packed with receptions and meetings in the U.S. and abroad. At the same time, Amelia continued in her quest to be a great pilot. She placed third in the first Women’s Air Derby in 1929 and became founding president of the Ninety-Nines (International Organization of Women Pilots).
Amelia’s personal life was also transforming. She broke off her engagement with Sam Chapman after six years. Meanwhile, Putnam’s wife Dorothy had perceived the growth of her husband’s relationship with Amelia—who was also her friend—and divorced him. After much pursuit by Putnam, Amelia agreed to marry him, but at the ceremony on February 7, 1931, she presented him with a letter of explicit business-like terms, which he agreed to: no fidelity, no interference with one another, and the option to cancel the marriage within a year. She wrote:
“You must know again my reluctance to marry, my feeling that I shatter thereby chances in work which means so much to me…In our life together I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness to me, nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly…I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all the confinements of even an attractive cage.”
The couple unsentimentally called one another “AE” and “GP”, but they complemented one another very well. George also served as Amelia’s business manager and was famously aggressive in promoting her. He organized her flights and public appearances, helped her promote a line of flight luggage and sports clothes, and published her next books: The Fun of It and Last Flight.
Eager to legitimize her fame, Amelia completed a solo trip, planned by Putnam, across the Atlantic in 1932. As the first woman and second person to solo the Atlantic, she garnered major media attention and awards and hobnobbed with a slew of important people. Subsequently, Amelia became the first person to fly solo across the Pacific from Honolulu to Oakland, CA; the first person to solo both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans; the first person to solo from Los Angeles to Mexico City; and the woman with the fastest non-stop transcontinental flight time. Amelia also became a respected spokeswoman for aviation and promoted women as future pilots, aids, and passengers, particularly in her capacity as an associate editor and writer for Cosmopolitan. In 1932, she developed flying clothes for the Ninety-Nines advertised by Vogue, and she started her own clothing line for active women in 1934.
Not surprisingly, Amelia came to be considered a feminist symbol. She was a perennial tomboy whose slim body, short hair, and bare face likened her to a teenage boy. She vocally championed women’s rights and work distribution based on aptitude rather than gender. When she lectured at colleges, which she did often, she encouraged women to enter male-dominated majors and urged postponing marriage until graduation. While her career blazed a trail for women in aviation, Amelia also contributed to the more traditional female market of clothing design and, despite her propensity for male aviation clothes, was a fashion icon in her own right. Amelia admired the typical domestic woman just as she respected female flyers, and she applauded those women who cared for their families day in and day out: “All of us here below have our Atlantic Oceans to cross!”
Despite Amelia’s resounding success in the world of aviation and beyond, she wanted more. She was determined to become the first woman to fly around the world and the first pilot to fly around the world at its widest expanse: the equator. When she became a visiting career consultant at Purdue University in 1935, she purchased a twin-engine Lockheed Electra through the university’s research foundation and prepared it for this trip. George handled the financing and logistics of the voyage. Amelia’s first attempt in March 1937 failed, but undeterred she rebuilt her plane and reorganized another flight to the tune of $25,000. Reversing her route based on projected conditions, she departed from Miami on June 1, 1937 with navigator Fred Noonan.
On June 29th, with over 19,000 miles complete, Amelia and Fred reached Lae, New Guinea. Amelia had called it a “leisurely trip”, but her last press release implied an eagerness to complete the mission: “It is the last ditch I must hop before I can get back to tell George, my husband, ‘There you are, I’ve done it.’” Yet the next leg, 2,556 miles, would be the longest yet, and the most difficult to complete, as the landing spot was the tiny Howland Island and the plane’s fuel capacity allowed for no margin of error. Also, as Amelia had decided to do away with a trailing radio antenna, she would be out of radio range for most of the leg, and additionally, she had no visual checkpoint. To top it off, Amelia and Fred hit stormy weather when they took off on July 2. On the morning of July 3, they radioed that they could not see the coast guard ship stationed near Howland Island, and they soon lost contact. Amelia’s last message said: “We are on a line of position 157 dash 337. Will repeat this message on 6210 kilocycles. We are running North and South.”They never reached Howland. The U.S. government conducted a two-week, $4 million rescue attempt over 25,000 square miles of ocean, but no trace of the plane or its crew was discovered, and Amelia was declared dead in the L.A. Superior Court in 1939. George published Last Flight, a collection of her log records and information detailing the complex planning, coordinating, and executing flights, in 1937 and Soaring Wings, a biography of Amelia’s life written by him, in 1939.
Theories about the fates of Amelia and Fred have proliferated over the years without any concrete conclusions. Yet despite the tragedy of her disappearance, it is clear that Amelia died for what she loved. As she wrote in Last Flight: “Please know that 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.”
Lomax, Judy. Women of the Air.
Adams. Heroines of the Sky.
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