A thrill ran through me as I read the letter:
“Dear Mr. President…”
It was the feeling you get when awestruck. In my hands was an actual letter written by Amelia Earhart.
Well, not quite actual. It was a facsimile. But it still felt like I was touching history. Her words. From her typewriter. Notes written in pencil in the margins and squeezed between typewritten text. I guess even famous people have to edit.
Heightening my excitement, it was a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
A few months ago, I purchased a subscription to Historic Mail as a birthday present to myself. Amelia sent the letter in my hands dated November 10, 1936, from 2 West 45th Street in New York City.
Amelia—I like to think of my heroines in first-name terms; if I were alive when they were, I’d have wanted friends like them—was writing to President Roosevelt about her confidential plans to fly from east to west, a 29,000 mile route that “approximates the equator.” It would be the longest flight ever completed. By any aviator. In her letter, Amelia was asking the United States government for assistance: Could the Navy help with “a possible refueling in the air over Midway Island?” According to Amelia, there was no good place to land a plane between Honolulu and Tokyo, a 3,900-mile stretch. She didn’t want to risk overloading the plane on take-off from Honolulu. It's a good thing she had friends in high places.
What would compel a woman like Amelia to want to be the first pilot ever to circumnavigate the globe in a plane?
Because she believed she could. And by completing her flight, Amelia believed she would prove something. Keep in mind, at the time, society openly viewed women as the lesser sex. Amelia had no time for such nonsense. In the letter to President Roosevelt, she wrote, "I feel that women now and then have to do things to show what women can do."
“I feel that women now and then have to do things to show what women can do.”
It was, of course, the last flight Amelia Earhart would ever take. She and her navigator Fred Noonan disappeared over the Pacific Ocean on July 2, 1937, after leaving Lae, New Guinea en route to the very remote, uninhabited Howland Island, which was nothing more than a coral atoll. A U.S. Coast Guard Cutter was to meet them and assist with landing.
But fate had other plans. Amidst overcast skies and poor radio transmissions, Amelia’s Lockheed Electra lost contact with the Coast Guard. The world never heard from her or Fred Noonan again.
Amelia Earhart standing next to her Lockheed Model 10-E Electra in March 1937, four months before her tragic disappearance. From the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute via Wiki Commons.
Amelia was only 39 years old, just days shy of turning 40. Though the state of California declared her legally dead in 1939, without a body or her downed plane as evidence of her demise, for over eighty years conspiracy theories have floated regarding what really happened. Personally, I do not ascribe to any of them. But her story remains an everlasting mystery, a breathtaking story with romantic wonderings that will never disappear.
What I wonder most, however, is what more might this plucky, daring woman have accomplished had she lived? And what gave her the courage to do such adventurous things when she was alive?
It’s easy to imagine someone like Amelia as being fearless. Dressed in coveralls, her tousled, short boy cut makes her look invincible. We should not, however, think she didn’t have to wrestle with doubt: "The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is merely tenacity. The fears are paper tigers. You can do anything you decide to do. You can act to change and control your life and the procedure. The process is its own reward."
“The most difficult thing is the decision to act. The rest is merely tenacity... You can do anything you decide to do.”
How many of us can identify with our own paper tigers? How many times do we fear taking action? There is always a risk when we step into unknown territory. Yet Amelia’s words remind us it is the process—the journey—that is the reward. Making the initial decision to act is the hardest part. Once we decide, the rest is a matter of perseverance and doing whatever it takes to accomplish our goal.
It is also important to remember the time of Amelia’s heroic endeavors. In 1937 girls were still pigeon-holed into traditional, stereotypical roles—roles of subservience, roles secondary to men and boys. Amelia knew she was different, and she recognized that “girls, especially those whose tastes aren’t routine, often don’t get a fair break… women are bred to timidity,” she pointed out, by “age-old customs.”
Sadly, her observation still rings true today, but slightly differently. On the surface, girls and women are told they can do or be anything they like. Below the surface, however, unwritten rules and cultural norms say otherwise. Society encourages girls to be smart and do well in school, but young girls sense it's not good to be too smart or they risk becoming a social outcast. For women, the message is to be a competent leader, but not too strong. If too strong, they subject themselves to some not-so-nice labels. Don’t take my word for it. Read this article by Jessica Bennett on what women leaders face or this article by Chris Wofford on gender bias in the workplace that calls out the double bind women are in.
Are powerful women doomed? No, says Carol Kinsey Goman, Ph.D. in this article on body language. But words to the wise: to get ahead in the workplace, even today, women have to play a certain part shaped and dictated by gender bias.
I don’t think Amelia Earhart gave a darn about roles. The former tomboy was so far out in front of her peers she didn’t have to play by anyone’s rules but her own. According to Amelia, "Never interrupt someone doing something you said couldn't be done."
It was as if Amelia thrived on proving people wrong about perceptions regarding women as the weaker sex. She flew straight to the top of the aviation field, a career she chose after falling in love with flying on December 28th, 1920 when she took her first airplane ride and said, "By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the ground, I knew I had to fly."
We know, too, that for Amelia, flying was more than just proving herself to others, or even proving Amelia to Amelia. She did the thing she loved and made it her life's work. It went deeper than a career or personal mission to show the world what women were capable of. She found wonder, a sort of bliss in soaring above the clouds. After one evening flight, said she: "The stars seemed near enough to touch and never before have I seen so many. I always believed the lure of flying is the lure of beauty, but I was sure of it that night."
“The stars seemed near enough to touch and never before have I seen so many. I always believed the lure of flying is the lure of beauty, but I was sure of it that night.”
It’s amazing what passion will bring out in a person if unleashed. It hooks you, grips you in a way you can’t resist. But only if you take that first step. Amelia could have been a bystander and admired planes from the ground. She could have settled for being a passenger. But she didn’t. She didn’t wait to be asked if she wanted to fly. She didn’t wait for permission. Her advice was really quite simple: "The most effective way to do it is to do it... decide.. whether or not the goal is worth the risks involved. If it is, stop worrying."
“The most effective way to do it is to do it…decide…whether or not the goal is worth the risks involved. If it is, stop worrying.”
Wise words that never go out of date.
If you want to read more about Amelia Earhart, I recommend the following:
East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart by Susan Butler (biography)
I Was Amelia Earhart, by Jane Mendelsohn (fiction)
What Happened to Amelia Earhart? (article)
You can find more books about Amelia Earhart at this link from The Curious Reader
Thanks for reading. I'm glad you're here.
All quotes in this article were retrieved from www.ameliaearhart.com with the exception of the quotes from the November 10th, 1936 letter from Amelia Earhart to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.