Recovering the Stories of Early Women Pilots: A Q&A with Fred Erisman

We talked to Fred Erisman, the author of In Their Own Words: Forgotten Women Pilots of Early Aviation.

In Their Own Words takes up the writings of eight women pilots as evidence of the ties between the growth of American aviation and the changing role of women.

Q: What was your main goal in undertaking this project?

Fred Erisman: I’m aiming at recovering and calling attention to some largely unknown or little-examined documents of women’s history. The eight women I discuss are known to aviation historians, but, with the exception of Earhart and Anne Morrow Lindbergh, are otherwise invisible to the larger public. The writings they left behind – Journalism, autobiography, fiction, etc. – help to expand our understanding of the women’s movement throughout its twentieth­-century history. The works give a new window through which to examine the relationship of women and aviation, how women of five decades came to grips with recurring issues of women’s rights and abilities, and how women (as opposed to men) viewed aeronautical technology and the airplane.

In the case of Louise Thaden and Ruth Nichols, their forays into fiction give readers yet another way to see and reflect on how two notable women viewed aviation, the times, and the future. One created an aeronautical dystopia and the other an American aviation utopia, yet both embraced the belief that flight was a special, even purifying, endeavor.


Q: Which of these aviators were new to you? Were there any stories that were particularly surprising/impressive?

Erisman: I have to point to the two Ruths – Ruth Law and Ruth Nichols. The more I learned of them the more impressed I became. Ruth Law was among the earliest of the record-setters (1916), made her living as a pilot, expressed what I have to believe was a genuine desire to join the military, and took real pride in being allowed to wear the trousered uniform of the U.S. Army. (This was 20 years before Earhart’s penchant for trousers caused twittering among the public.) Her writings make a strong case for women’s being in the military and, more generally, their calls for being treated on an equal plane with men.

Ruth Nichols impressed me with her vision of an American aeronautical paradise as reflected in her unfinished novel, Sky Girl, and with her early recognition of space as the next “aeronautical” frontier confronting women. At age 58 she presented herself to the American space program and proceeded to blow away tests judging her tolerance for g-forces, weightlessness, and sensory deprivation. She was an outspoken supporter of women in space until shortly before her death, and gives readers a new slant on what constitutes the “right stuff.”



Q: Do you think the stories of these women and have the potential to ring true even now? Any in particular that you remember?

Erisman: Unquestionably. The stories of these eight pilots are stories of hope, aspiration, challenge, and competency – issues as applicable to the women of today as they are to those of the teens, 20s, or 30s. It just happens that these women chose to face the challenge of a new technology, a profession that had become male-dominated (by default as much as by design), and a society that almost daily was having to adapt to a changing world.

These are all “airplane” stories. Change the specifics, retain the challenges, and they are as pertinent for women of the twenty-first century as they were for those of the twentieth. There is very little distance between our admiring them for all they did, and our admiration for Tammie Jo Shults and the aviation skills that help her to pilot her southwest Airlines 737 to safety after its explosive decompression. The challenges of flying remain, whether in mastering the stick-and-wire craft of early aviation or the sophisticated craft flown by today’s commercial and military pilots.



Q: Few if any of these aviators identified with the feminist/suffragist movements of their time (you mention this in the introduction of the book), but they all seemed to take their own route advocating for women’s causes, why do you think this is?

Erisman: They were stout believers in the equality and ability of women, but were realists about the mechanisms of change. They all recognized that the profession they loved was male-dominated. They also recognized that it was an individualistic one, in which women could be as effective acting singly as they might be in groups. Aviation was an area where male-female equality could easily and visibly be established; it was much easier for a capable woman aviator to show competence in the cockpit than in business or politics. They chose to stick with the world they knew and demonstrate their capabilities there. A widely expressed goal among the women pilots of the 1920s was “eliminating sex from aviation.” They wanted to be judged as pilots who were women, rather than women pilots.

They had no quarrel with the established movements. Earhart gradually gave them her endorsement, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh became an outspoken women’s advocate late in her career. They simply believed that they could do as well – or better – by going their own way.


Q: So it seems aviation provided a unique opportunity for the advancement of women’s causes. Do you feel that these women were able to capitalize on that?

Erisman: Here, too, the answer is “undeniably.” The very novelty of the airplane worked to put the eight in the spotlight, but none of them was shy about using her association with flight to call attention to specific accomplishments or challenges. There were proud of their achievements as women – not necessarily because they were sticking a thumb in men’s eyes, but because they were advancing the public conception and understanding of their gender’s possibilities. That their work related to the larger picture of male/female relations was a bonus.

Harriet Quimby was a journalist, Earhart was married to a publicity genius, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh was married to a celebrity; all three had ready access to means of capitalizing on their deeds and emphasizing their role(s) as women. Without aviation, Katherine Stinson likely would have ended up a Mississippi piano teacher, Louise Thaden the manager of a Kansas coal­ distributing business, and Ruth Nichols a debutante fishing about for a “good marriage.” Each made much more of herself, solely and entirely through aviation.

Thank you to Fred! If you would like to know more about this book you order your own copy or request it from your local library.

You can get 30% off this title and any other order  by entering the code PURDUE30 when ordering from our website.