flying rights for women!
smiling Louise Thaden, December 1928, well-known female pilot.
Women gained the right
to vote in the United States in 1920. For the next decades, feminism moved
into a new stage, no longer focusing on suffrage. The new feminism focused
on individualism and on women proving they were men's equals by their
achievements. Actresses like Katharine Hepburn, athletes like Babe Didrickson, and artists like Georgia O'Keefe and Margaret Bourke-White
were examples. But it was the women in aviation who were the most daring
symbols of the new feminism, flying as high and as fast as the men, often
breaking records set by men and defeating them in races.
In the 1920s, the
organizers of cross-country air races did not allow women to compete. So
in 1929, the first All Women's Air Derby was organized to give women the
chance to prove they could fly the same course as men. But the all-male
organizing committee worried about women flying over the Rockies and
relocated the starting point to Omaha, Nebraska. The women rebelled and
the start was moved back to Santa Monica, California. Louise Thaden won
the race. But more importantly, the normally individualistic women had
discovered a sense of fellowship, which they wanted to foster.
Thadden waves from the cockpit of her Travel Air 4000 after setting the
women's endurance record with a time of 22 hours, 3 minute, and 28 seconds
in March 1929.
The women decided to
try to organize themselves. Four pilots, including Fay Gillis Wells, who
served as the temporary secretary, sent a letter to the 117 licensed
female pilots inviting them to help form a new organization. The letter
promised "not a tremendously official sort of organization, just a way to
get acquainted, to discuss the prospects for women pilots from both a
sports and breadwinning point of view, and to tip each other off on what's
going on in the industry."
Earhart was the first president of the Ninety-Nines.
meeting was held on November 2, 1929, in a hanger at Curtiss Field on Long
Island, New York. The 26 women present drank tea off a toolbox wagon and
debated names for their new organization such as the American Association
of Women Pilots, Ladybirds, Gadflies, and Bird Women. Amelia Earhart
recommended naming the group after the 99 women who replied positively to
the initial letter and who would be the organization's charter
members--The Ninety-Nines. Earhart was voted the first president,
reflecting the leadership role she had already unofficially assumed among
the women. The next morning, the New York Times reported on the meeting,
promising that "the women are going to organize. We don't know what for."
Thaden being congratulated for her first-place finish in the 1929 Women´s
From the beginning,
the women were dedicated to increasing membership and promoting women in
aviation. Earhart encouraged the women to increase their visibility as
pilots by creating the Hat of the Month Club, which awarded a Stetson hat
to the member who had flown into the greatest number of airports that
month. But during the early years, the Ninety-Nines was an informal
organization with a newsletter and a get-together centred around the
Women's Air Derby (popularly referred to as the Powder Puff Derby). Most
of their early activities were associated with races since, although
organizers began to allow the women to compete, the women were restricted
from equal competition with the men by the rules. For instance, women were
limited to less powerful planes (an "appropriate" horsepower) and required
to take a male medical representative on the flight.
crowd was on hand in Cleveland to witness the finish of the first Women´s
The Ninety-Nines also
worked to have the first female medical examiner appointed at the
Department of Commerce and pressured the government to reconsider its
proposed ban on flying during menstruation. It was felt that a woman's
ability to fly decreased during these few days of the month. The
government agreed not to institute the ban, but doubts about menstruating
women's ability to function continued and often impeded their progress,
especially in the early days of the space program.
The Ninety-Nines lost
one of its first battles when Helen Richey, the first female commercial
airline pilot, resigned because of ostracism and pressure from her male
peers, despite support from the organization. The Ninety-Nines lobbied the
government to ignore the demands of the male pilots to increase
restrictions on female commercial pilots, but Richey gave in to the
pressure and resigned.
In the early days of
flight, knowing one's location was a major problem for pilots. Navigation
instruments and radios were not generally available to civilian pilots,
charts weren't reliable, and the airways system had not yet been
established. In 1934, Phoebe Omlie was named Special Assistant for Air
Intelligence of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Using her
influence within the government, funds from the WPA (Works Progress
Administration), and labour from the Ninety-Nines, she organized the Air
Marking Project. Under the program, states were divided into sections of
20 square miles (52 square kilometres). In each area, visible from the
air, a marker with the name of the nearest town was painted on the roof of
a prominent building and, where there were no buildings, ground markers
were made out of stone or brick. The National Air Marking Program was the
first government program conceived, planned, and directed entirely by
women. The program was a success and, with the exception of World War II
when the markers were removed in case of enemy invasion, the program
continues today as a central program of the Ninety-Nines, now mainly at
airports. It is a popular activity and a valuable aid to pilots.
During World War II,
the Ninety-Nines went to war. They served in the Women's Auxiliary
Ferrying Squadron and the Women's Airforce Service Pilots, organized by
Jacqueline Cochran, president of the Ninety-Nines throughout the war.
Pilots with nursing backgrounds pioneered the field of flight nursing.
Member Ruth Cheney Streeter became the head of the Women's Marine Corps.
Civilian members served as flight instructors, air traffic controllers,
and commercial airline pilots.
Richey was the first female commercial airline pilot. She was ostracized
by her male peers and eventually resigned.
When the war ended,
women everywhere were expected to return to their previous lives. The
Ninety-Nines were no exception, ignoring the enormous changes in these
women's lives and attitudes. They revived races, organizing the All Woman
Transcontinental Air Race, which was held annually from 1949 to1977. The
monthly magazine ran articles on fashion and cooking.
But that was not what
most women pilots wanted. The war had made flight training accessible to
women across economic and racial lines, and these women wanted to pursue
aviation as a career, not a hobby. Yet the Ninety-Nines continued on their
previous path, seen from the outside as society ladies in white gloves
without financial worries. Throughout the 1950s, their membership
decreased while the younger women pilots looked elsewhere for support in
their battle for careers in aviation.
Cochran was president of the 99s throughout World War II.
But by the 1960s, the
Ninety-Nines began to refocus and address the realities of women's needs
in aviation. They supported many humanitarian projects, including an
informal program of ferrying medical supplies across North America. With
programs like the Amelia Earhart Scholarship, they created scholarships to
help women learn to fly, pursue advanced flight training, and to encourage
them to enter engineering programs. In the 1980s, in conjunction with the
FAA, the Ninety-Nines organized an intensive aviation safety program. They
also sponsor more than three-quarters of all pilot safety programs
annually. Individual Ninety-Nines chapters sponsor Wing Scouts units, the
aviation program of the Girl Scouts and Guides. Today, the Ninety-Nines
serve as a professional resource for women working in aviation, working to
ensure the maintenance of the economic status of these women. And ever
since Rosemary Conatser and her five classmates became the first female
military aviators with the Navy in 1974, the Ninety-Nines have been
involved in decisions governing women in the armed forces.
In 1991, astronaut and
Ninety-Nine member Eileen Collins ventured into space, carrying Louise
Thaden's cloth flying helmet, signed by the racers of the 1929 Powder
Puff. Derby. The connection between the past, present, and future,
encouraging fellowship and support, has remained strong, moving more women
to fly as high as they want, unimpeded by the restrictions of gender.