Amelia Earhart was a hustler, too
“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 to her husband
We all know of Amelia Earhart. The short-haired, pioneering pilot has reached mythical status for her record-breaking flights and inspiring words. But who was she outside the cockpit?
Amelia was born in 1897—23 years before women got the right to vote. It was an exciting, but certainly not easy, time to be a girl. Thankfully, she had a guiding light. Amelia’s mother intentionally raised her and her sister to be unconventional, independent women. “Meeley” grew up climbing trees, hunting rats with a rifle, and keeping a scrapbook of clippings about women who rose to success in male-dominated fields, like law and advertising.
A STRUGGLING TEEN
Amelia’s grandmother died and her father was fired because of alcoholism around the same time, devastating the family. They moved to Chicago, where Amelia had difficulty finding a good school and fitting in. Her high school yearbook caption read, “A.E.—the girl in brown who walks alone.”
“The woman who can create her own job is the woman who will win fame and fortune,” wrote Amelia.
In her 20s, she saw her first stunt-flying exhibition and fell in love with flying. But flying was not a cheap hobby. How was she going to pay for it?
She worked as a truck driver, stenographer, and even later set up her own photography company. With a small investment from her mother, she saved enough to take lessons and buy a small second-hand plane. She became the 16th woman ever to be issued a pilot’s license by the international aviation organization and set the world record for female pilots in altitude climbed.
During this time, Amelia’s family went broke and she was forced to sell her plane. She eventually landed in Boston with a job as a teacher, then a social worker. In Boston she became a key member of the American Aeronautical Society, acted as a sales rep for an aircraft brand, and wrote local news columns about aviation. As her fame grew, she went on two long lecture tours, wrote a book, and became a nearly mythical figure in American culture through careful PR.
She eventually became associate editor as Cosmopolitan, where she continued to promote flying. She helped get the first commercial airline going and became the VP of National Airways. In her 30’s, she began competitive air racing, co-founded a flying school, and became a faculty member at Purdue University. All this while taking the risky solo flights in her free time that she lived for.
When Amelia first became a pilot, she knew she had to look like a pilot. She cut her hair very short and bought a leather jacket that she wore in by sleeping in it for three nights straight! As she became famous across the country for her risky flights and bold attitude, Amelia built her image by endorsing brands from cigarettes to women’s sportswear. Her style was marked by simple lines and wrinkle-proof materials to create her signature sleek look.
After nearly a decade of record-breaking adventures, Amelia’s story ended somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. When she vanished, she was 39 years old and dead-set on becoming the first woman to fly all the way around the world.
While she didn’t accomplish her goal, she successfully empowered generations of women—such as Geraldine Mock, a five-foot-tall mother of three who finally finished what Amelia started, circumnavigating the globe in 1964.