Behind the myth making and heroine worship.
“Did I tell you I have a reputation for brains?” — Amelia Earhart, 1917
There are few more enduring celebrity chameleons than Amelia Earhart. She was a very public androgyne, although she cannily femmed up for publicity photos. She married late, included with Charlotte Brontë as anecdata in Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies. She broke countless aviation records and fought and campaigned to bring women into aviation and other fields. She also taps into our shared public imagination for pithy rejoinders, contrarians, appealing “cool girl” tomboys, and missing white women. Really, Earhart notches into the tiny center of a complex Venn diagram whose other potential occupants I can’t think of. Dorothy Parker plus Marie Curie? Ruth Bader Ginsburg in a khaki coverall?
But these sanitized net positives make up only the skeleton of a legend. Earhart is not a résumé skills list or a greatest hits compilation. She was a privileged upper-class woman who orchestrated her own image with precision. In a sense beautifully pinpointed by Jessa Crispin in her book I Am Not a Feminist, Earhart was empowered by capitalism in the form of her own wealth, implied belonging, and the support work of other women. She was able to buy an airplane, period. She married for career advancement and material comfort. She lied about her age out of common human vanity. None of this tarnishes her legacy as a pioneer and boundary breaker, but it adds context to our sixth-grade-book-report understanding of her.
Earhart attended school somewhat sporadically and never earned a college degree, but she served on more committees and student governments than Election’s Tracy Flick. In her letters you can tell how enthralled she was by the power of these offices and how easily she dismissed other opinions. Her confidence and assurance were staggering, a fact that repeated throughout her life — scolding her mother repeatedly for writing letters to Amelia’s school about her daughter’s well being; sharing news of a crash as though reassurance meant there could be no further questions about it. When she stayed at the White House under President Herbert Hoover, she missed most of the opportunities to dine with the First Family due to her own schedule, as though the President were a convenient AirBnb host while she lectured in town. Her brazenness is bewitching at a remove, as are the mythical accomplishments of a demigod.
Rebecca Solnit’s excellent essay for Literary Hub, “The Loneliness of Donald Trump,” resonated as I thought about Amelia Earhart. Earhart’s accomplishments put her in a very small class, and her savvy self-promotion and endless touring severed many of the remaining links. Her contribution to the lives of her mother and sister took the form of mailed financial support and gifts with naggy, condescending caveats. Don’t spend this money on the children. Don’t wear this dress without “decent accessories.” When her father, long divorced from her mother, lay dying and palliated by morphine, Earhart faked telegrams to him from her mother and sister. She wrote to her mother that she’d also paid his “hundred little debts.”
The same woman who was both the first woman passenger and the first woman pilot on transatlantic flights told her mother, “Perhaps you’d better not talk my intimate details of salary and business with [sister Muriel]. I don’t want her to spread the news and always fear she will.” There’s no contradiction here. Earhart confronted the daily realities of her finances, her family, and her groundbreaking and courageous career, because she existed and was not authored. Who do we serve when we rasterize her into a flat shape and size we find palatable? Why does someone we admire need to be enigmatic in only the ways we find tasteful and appealing? Even her androgynous flight costumes were fashionable.
In fact, Earhart’s awareness of her image and her tireless work to support it, with the help of the publicist she finally agreed to marry on his sixth proposal, is part of what allowed her to succeed. The public noticed Earhart’s clothing and manner in the same way we still scrutinize women from Hillary Clinton to the fictional competitors on “UnREAL.” Examining Earhart from this perspective can illuminate how shrewd and self-aware Earhart was — how far ahead of her time — and also take us to task for how little has really changed. Earhart was a booster and cooperator with women of all stripes (as long as those stripes were white and middle class, of course). She helped to start professional organizations and lectured almost without ceasing to groups of college students and adults, focusing on the interest of women in aviation. As her contemporary Virginia Woolf empowered college women to seek “to earn money and have a room of your own, […] to live in the presence of reality, an invigorating life,” Earhart used her influence and savvy to enlarge the building women occupied and to continue to purchase land around it. She sought to raise all women up, which included herself.
It’s interesting to wonder how feminist Earhart would have been in a time or place where a recordbreaking woman pilot didn’t first need to fight to be a woman pilot at all. Her ambition and knack for publicity obscure her more complex inner life, and she was too busy or otherwise unwilling to share these private thoughts in her letters. But she was politically progressive and campaigned for the reelection of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, including ordering her mother not to speak publicly against or even neutrally toward the President. Certainly it would disappoint her that nearly a full century after she began her aviation career, only about one pilot in twenty is a woman.
But Earhart’s handling of the press and careful tending of her image was unquestionably modern. I’ve seen her expression in photographs described as a “winning smile,” but it’s more of a Mona Lisa quasi-smirk, probably because she was self-conscious about her teeth. In 1936, she arranged a trip to Europe for her mother but again sought to control the scene: “In all cases be careful of reporters. They may find you out. Be cheerful with them and smile for photographs. The serious face in real life looks sour in print. The grinning face moderately pleasant.” Earhart tended to her mother and sister as though she were their mother instead, even their pageant mom. Dress this way, smile, don’t make me look bad.
Earhart’s attempted around-the-world flight marked a turning point, in that she wanted publicity rather than to also break a record or explore new territory. Her employer, Purdue University, sponsored her airplane and wrote it off as a “flying laboratory.” There were skips and starts, including a failed first attempt, and it was during this time that famed inventor and navigator Philip Van Horn Weems wrote to Earhart offering to train her in cutting-edge navigation and radio operation. His letter is carefully written — Earhart, he says, is an unquestionably able and talented pilot but would join a class “almost by yourself” with specialized navigation and radio training. She could save resources and worry in the long run. He appealed to her ambition to be the best and to always learn new things. He offered the training for free.
To me, this is the only real “what if?” moment in the enduring mystery of Earhart’s disappearance. Flights had used Morse code for nearly ten years by the time Earhart planned her trip, but neither she nor Noonan learned it. By the 1930s, Morse code was de rigueur, and location codes were broadcast from navigational beacons all over the world. How did Earhart and Noonan approach a flight whose support was based on Morse code without mentioning that they had no plans to learn or use it? The myth of Icarus reads very differently if Icarus denies that the sun is warm. When their trip began to melt down, Earhart and Noonan had no other option than to fly circles over the area where they believed they should be until they likely ran out of fuel and crashed. The same Navy that fruitlessly tried to guide the flight now used cutting-edge technology in the form of aircraft carriers to search an unprecedented breadth of ocean.
If Earhart herself fell into the space shared by many forms of zeitgeist, her disappearance hits just as many of the key qualities of intrigue. Humankind has still barely explored the very top of the oceans, let alone what lies beneath. At the same time, we don’t feel it makes sense that anyone can disappear into the ocean forever. Is our ability to search really so poor? (Yes.) Can there really be no sign at all of an entire airplane? (Yes.) How can we find closure when a global celebrity simply vanishes? A disappearance alone can make a celebrity. So it’s no surprise that Amelia Earhart reemerges in popular culture all the time. There are documentaries and biopics galore, including 2009’s insipid, lifeless version which Slate’s Dana Stevens called “decorous, conventional, sanitized, dull.” The Star Trek franchise’s most far-out series literally and otherwise, Voyager, places Earhart and a very boozy Noonan on a distant planet where a group of earthlings are held in stasis along with Earhart’s airplane. The episode is even called “The 37s,” in parallel to Earhart’s professional organization The 99s.
But these depictions are Xeroxes with the contrast turned down in order to blend into Earhart’s power as a symbol. The most high-fidelity reproduction of Amelia Earhart’s spirit and entire real personality is pilot Maggie O’Connell from Northern Exposure, who lampshades the resemblance when she says Earhart is her hero. O’Connell comes from a wealthy family where she’s been trained as an ’80s pink-mohair debutante. Earhart’s father was in trains; O’Connell’s is in automobiles. The application of feminist themes to unmarried life and professional piloting changed very little between the 1930s and the 1990s. O’Connell must defend the independence she cherishes, and she judges those around her who can’t or don’t take responsibility for themselves. She even has a stylish short haircut.
Amelia Earhart is often described as charismatic, and maybe that’s the secret to the many other qualities that are overlooked. She was compelling and persuasive on behalf of herself and the many women she inspired, with an unmatched energy level and knack for publicity. Learning about the real woman underneath the glossy symbolism can only help us to understand and relate to her — someone who fought for her career against astronomical odds, but who still argued with her mother well into adulthood about how to spend money or what to do on vacation. Understanding that our heroes have flaws and personalities does not give them feet of clay.
Caroline Delbert is a writer and book editor who wants to know what you’ve found on Wikipedia recently.