In July 1911, a rumor is circulating at The
New York Times: A woman is taking flying lessons!
Any woman attempting to fly at that time even with a man in the plane
— becomes instantly notorious. And,
a woman flying alone?
Early planes are insect-like contraptions: unstable and difficult to
manage. But a greater challenge is
overcoming perceptions about what nice girls shouldn’t do and, in fact,
Flying schools — such as the Wright Brothers — won’t take women.
And when one European woman tries to solo, male fliers pour water into
her gas tank.
The Detroit Free Press answers the question: Ought women to aviate?
With a resounding No. “Women
are temperamentally unfitted for flying because they are prone to panic.”
A reporter for The New York Times
hurries to the scene, and finds early morning fog engulfing the landing field on
Long Island. As he moves closer,
the hangar doors open. Five shadowy
figures emerge, pushing a single-wing plane.
Then a sixth.
His jaw drops when he sees a distinctively feminine figure, wearing a
pilot’s ensemble: leather jacket, pants, goggles and gloves.
He recognizes her as Harriet Quimby, the drama critic for Leslie’s
Illustrated Weekly. He knows he
has a big story.
The next day’s headline screams: “Woman
She is the most tantalizingly beautiful creature of her generation, a
willowy brunette with high cheekbones and haunting eyes, lovely enough to be a
supermodel of her day.
But Quimby is also journalist, a crusader, and the first aviatrix in the
Americas. More than that, she is
the first woman to live — and die — on her own terms, and in her own way,
unbeholden to any class, culture or cause.
From the beginning, she is a woman of mystery.
When was she born? Who are
her parents? Even the color of her
eyes remains in doubt.
One story is that she was born in Boston to a proper family that
collected rare silver. Another is
even more intriguing. She is the
daughter of a poor farmer in Coldwater, Mich., who went bankrupt and ended up
peddling patent medicines. Her
mother decided that her daughter would never grow up depending on a man.
In the San Francisco census Quimby lists her occupation as actress.
Her portrait, whether clothed or not, supposedly hung in the prestigious
Bohemian Club, where wealthy men toast her, until the earthquake of 1906.
But Quimby is more than a portrait . . . or a pretty face.
She is a constantly searching, restless human being.
In 1900, she begins to write articles for
The San Francisco Bulletin on the city’s Chinatown. Journalism is the one profession where — in the era of
Nellie Bly — a woman could make her way.
And she does. One editor
says that she has the best nose for news of any reporter he’s ever seen. But she has to be careful.
Any hint of marriage could end her career.
Then in 1903, she takes a train across the country to New York City, the
journalistic capital of the world. It’s
a gutsy move; she has no job and no place to live.
But she captures the attention of Leslie’s
Illustrated Weekly — the Time magazine
of its day — by attending the theater and writing five mock reviews that get
her the job of drama critic.
She becomes one of the first women to drive, to use a typewriter, and to
take her own pictures. In between
stories on acrobats, divas and comedians, she tells women how to budget their
income, find a job and even fix their own automobiles.
She even exposes child neglect.
And she writes seven film scripts that are made into movies by the famous
D.W. Griffith, making her America’s first female screenwriter.
Quimby loves speed and racetracks, and in October 1910, she goes to the
Belmont International Aviation Tournament to see the second ever airshow in
America. There she meets a gallant
rogue named John Moisant.
Moisant never met a woman he didn’t love — or a plane he didn’t
crash and burn . . . or perhaps it’s the other way around.
He represents the U.S. in a race around the Statue of Liberty and wins
her admiration when he cracks up his own plane, talks a fellow pilot into
letting him borrow his, and then re-enters the race and wins. Harriet asks him to take her on as a student.
“Flying looks quite easy,” she says.
“I believe I could do it myself, and I will.”
The next year she attends Moisant’s flight school on Long Island, but
Moisant is not there. He has
crashed and died at an air meet in New Orleans.
In August 1911, she goes for her flight test and does everything right,
except overshoot the landing. The
flight instructors expect her to give up. Instead,
she comes back the next day and sets an accuracy record.
“After the flight,” she recalls, “I walked over to one of the
officials, looked him in the eye and said, `Well, I guess I get my
She is the first American woman to get a pilot’s license, the first to
fly a monoplane, and she sets an altitude record for a student.
“Easier than voting,” she describes it.
And this is before the 19th Amendment gives women the right to
But Quimby is not a feminist, and she opposes the confrontational tactics
used by the suffragettes. When one
of them asks her to name her plane after a suffragette, she refuses.
Instead she names her plane “Genevieve” after the French patron saint
Her goal is practical: to show, through her own achievements, that women
can do almost anything men can do. “Flying
could be the perfect sport for a woman,” she says.
And only a month after getting her license, she makes the first night
flight recorded by a woman.
Every issue of Leslie’s with
one of her articles on aviation, such as “How a Woman Learns to Fly” and
“How I Won My Aviator’s License,” sells out.
She sees the future of aviation: multi-passenger planes, air mail and
aerial photography. But above all,
she sees the beauty. “When I’m
flying, I do not feel like ever coming to earth again,” she tells her mother.
Quimby creates a whole new fashion style.
Just as balloons created the balloon sleeves on 1800s dresses, now ladies
fly with berets, divided skirts, and some even without corsets!
This doesn’t sit well with some men.
Bishop Nilan of Hartford, Conn., thunders: “Women are wearing fashions
that closely resemble man’s attire, which disfigures her beauty and deforms
her nature. Gone is the expression
of sweetness and modesty, and in its place we have swagger and stare.”
But an open cockpit — with nothing underneath — is like flying a
cobweb, and requires changes in women’s attire.
Normally skirts keep below the ankle, and women are so afraid to show
their legs that the lower seam is weighted with lead.
In order to fly, they tie their skirts to their ankles to keep them from
Harriet goes one better. She
creates a one-piece suit of purple satin with knee-length pants and a satin
hood, flying goggles, elbow-length gloves, and high-laced black kid boots.
Admirers call her “the Dresden China Aviatrix” because of her beauty
“Harriet was the prettiest girl I have ever seen,” said a friend.
“She had the most beautiful blue eyes, and when she wore that long cape
over her satin, plum-colored flying suit, she was a real head-turner.”
In November 1911, only three months after getting her pilot’s license,
she orders a new plane. She wants
to be the first woman to fly across the English Channel.
From the start there’s a universal assumption that she’ll fail.
By the time she gets to England its winter storms keep her landlocked.
Her plane arrives late and she doesn’t even get to make a practice
A pilot friend shows her how to use a compass for the first time, but
he’s so worried that he offers to wear her famous purple flying suit, make the
flight for her, and then rendezvous across the channel to switch clothes and let
her take the credit.
Of course, she refuses. “They
probably thought that I’d find some excuse to back out of the flight, but it
made me even more determined to succeed,” she says.
There are high winds for two weeks.
Then — in April — a break in the weather.
The sky seems clear, but there are masses of fog over the channel, and
the French coast isn’t visible.
But she can’t risk waiting; someone else may do it first. She puts on an extra raincoat, sealskin stole, woolen gloves,
and — at 5:30 a.m. — she’s off.
She knows that just the day before a pilot who tried this flight vanished
over the English Channel. As little
as five miles off course and she’ll be lost.
“The treacherous North Sea stood ready to receive me,” she wrote.
It should be easy. Just fix
your eyes on Dover Castle, fly over it, and speed straight across the English
Channel to Calais.
But there’s no windshield. Oil
blows back in her face. She is
flying a winged-skeleton with an underpowered motor and no instruments, except
for the untried compass, which she has never used in a bouncing plane.
Then she hits the fog bank, and loses all sense of direction. She flies higher and higher, to 6,000 feet, trying to escape
it. The air gets colder, but the
fog remains. She has to pull her
goggles up to see. At a mile a
minute, the mist feels like tiny needles on her skin.
She keeps the compass between her knees and follows it faithfully.
Her head aches from keeping the craft level, and she listens carefully to
the engine. If it fails, she
won’t survive a crash-landing in the channel.
She decides to go down again. As
she does, the engine begins to flood and backfire.
She considers what to do. Just
then the excess gasoline burns off, and the engine starts to run again.
She checks her watch and sees she should be close to the French coast.
Then the plane breaks through the mist and she sees the shoreline of
France. She makes a quick landing
on the sandy beach after a one hour and nine minute flight.
French fishermen gather around her.
She is only two miles from her destination.
Harriet’s epic trip across the channel is unremembered.
And it’s not hard to understand why.
It takes place on April 16, 1912, two days after a tragedy in the North
Atlantic that claims 1,573 lives. The
So she’ll get no ticker-tape parade in New York.
Male leaders don’t like her because she is too independent.
Suffragettes don’t like her because . . . she is too independent.
And, as a New York Times
editorial stuffily puts it, “A thing done first is important.
Done for the 7th or 8th time, it does not prove
equality.” True . . . but Quimby
had gotten her pilot’s license only nine months before. She had fought two battles: one to fly and one to overcome
Undaunted, Quimby is off to another air meet.
A promoter named William Willard has offered the incredible sum of
$100,000 for “the Dresden China Aviatrix” to appear for seven days at the
Boston-Harvard Air Meet, which will take place over Boston Harbor.
But Harriet seems a little apprehensive.
“I’m like a cat,” she says, “and I don’t like water.”
Four men hold her new two-seater plane while she tests the controls.
Willard and his son toss a coin to see who will go up with the world’s
most famous woman flier. The elder
Willard wins. This is bad news.
He’s 200 pounds — too heavy for the delicate plane — and he’s the
But she takes off easily, and at 2,000 feet flies into the sun, while the
huge audience below watches and squints.
Suddenly, incredibly, Willard stands up in the plane, apparently to speak
to her, and he’s thrown out! Neither
of them is wearing seat belts because pilots frequently have to fight engine
fires and make repairs in the air. Willard
falls in an arc.
Because the passenger is behind the pilot, Quimby doesn’t even know
she’s lost him. But she does feel
the tail rise sharply. She
struggles for control and pulls the nose up.
Then the tail pitches forward again, “like a bucking bronco at a
rodeo,” says one witness, and Quimby catapults out of her seat.
Five thousand people watch her fall into the shallow, muddy waters of the
harbor. They are silent, stunned,
as they see the splash of the two bodies. The
plane comes down, lands upright, and then, as if to show its freakishness, tips
The New York Sun uses the tragedy to reflect on women’s abilities.
“This sport is not one for which women are qualified.
They lack the strength and presence of mind and the courage to excel as
Yet, ironically, just before she died, Quimby received a permit to carry
the airmail. And, two women who are
at the meet go on to become famous aviators.
The mystery of Harriet Quimby continues even after her death.
There is no birthdate on her gravestone.
And now, 90 years later, she is remembered only on a U.S. postal stamp
which, as she predicted, is for airmail.
you don’t have to believe that Harriet Quimby is buried under a cold tombstone
with no birthdate, or is simply a face on a stamp.
You can believe, as I do, that she is still flying up there where it’s
so beautiful that, “I do not feel like ever coming to earth again.”
A Story About Flight