Encyclopedia Womannica

Explorers & Contenders: Amelia Earhart

Episode Summary

Amelia Earhart (1897-?) broke countless records, blazing a path for women in flight before famously disappearing without a trace. Among other accomplishments, she was the first woman to cross the Atlantic Ocean by plane, the first woman to make that same trip solo, and the first person to fly solo from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Oakland, California.

Episode Notes

Every weekday, listeners explore the trials, tragedies, and triumphs of groundbreaking women throughout history who have dramatically shaped the world around us. In each 5 minute episode, we’ll dive into the story behind one woman listeners may or may not know -- but definitely should. These diverse women from across space and time are grouped into easily accessible and engaging monthly themes like Pioneers, Dreamers, Villainesses, STEMinists, Warriors & Social Justice Warriors, and many more. Encyclopedia Womannica is hosted by WMN co-founder and award-winning journalist Jenny Kaplan. The bite-sized episodes pack painstakingly researched content into fun, entertaining, and addictive daily adventures.

Encyclopedia Womannica was created by Liz Kaplan and Jenny Kaplan, executive produced by Jenny Kaplan, and produced by Liz Smith, Cinthia Pimentel, Grace Lynch, and Maddy Foley. Special thanks to Shira Atkins, Edie Allard, and Luisa Garbowit. Theme music by Andi Kristins. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Jenny Kaplan. And this is Encyclopedia Womannica.

Today’s explorer broke countless records, paving the way for women through  a new method of transport -- flight! We’re talking about the one and only Amelia Earhart.

Amelia Mary Earhart was born on July 24, 1897 in Atchison, Kansas. Even as a child she  had a bit of an adventurous streak. She spent much of her early childhood at her grandparents’ house, exploring the neighborhood and climbing trees with her younger sister.

Amelia saw her first airplane at a state fair in Iowa when she was around 10 years old. She wasn’t particularly impressed. Amelia later said, “It was a thing of rusty wire and wood and looked not at all interesting.” Her love of flight wouldn’t develop for about a decade. 

Growing up, Amelia had to move from state to state  due to her alcoholic father’s difficulty keeping a job. After Amelia’s mother left him, the family settled in Chicago. There, Amelia attended Hyde Park High School, which she personally chose for its exceptional science program. She excelled in class, but she wasn’t exactly a social butterfly. Her yearbook caption read, “A.E. -- the girl in brown who walks alone.”

During World War I, Amelia worked at a military hospital in Toronto, Canada, where she attended a flying exhibition with a friend. When a stunt pilot dove past her, Amelia’s interest was piqued.

In 1919, Amelia briefly entered the pre-med program at Columbia University, but soon left the school to join her reunited parents in Los Angeles. She took her first airplane ride at an air show in Long Beach in December of 1920. Days later, she took her first flying lesson with the female aviator Neta Snook.

Amelia took a variety of odd jobs to save money for flight lessons. She was a photographer, a truck driver, and a stenographer over the course of a few months. On her 25th birthday, Amelia bought a yellow Kinner Airster biplane that she called the Canary. After passing her flying test, Amelia flew in the Pacific Coast Ladies’ Derby, and later set an unofficial women’s altitude record when she took her plane to 14,000 feet. She was the 16th woman to earn an international pilot’s license.

But in 1924, Amelia’s  parents divorced, putting the family through some financial difficulties and  Amelia had to sell her plane. She moved with her mother to Massachusetts, where Amerlia worked as a teacher and social worker, while occasionally flying in air shows.

Four years later, in 1928, Amelia’s life took another exciting turn. Publisher George Putman approached her to join a trans-Atlantic flight to the United Kingdom. Amelia joined pilot Wilmet Stultz and mechanic Louis Gordon on a 20-hour journey to Wales, arriving to cheering crowds. Amelia was the first woman to cross the Atlantic by plane, and just like that became an overnight sensation.

Amelia wrote two books, called “20 Hrs. 40 Mins: Our Flight in the Friendship,” and “The Fun of It.” She went on a book tour and became the face of a variety of products, including  Modernaire Earhart Luggage. She bought a new plane and set seven women’s flight speed and distance records between 1930 and 1935. Amelia also married George Putnam, who continued to promote her celebrity status.

In 1932, Amelia once again made history. She was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.  This feat earned her the Gold Medal of the National Geographic Society, among other awards. And her record-setting didn’t stop there. That same year, she became the first woman to fly solo across North America and back. She repeated that flight the following year and broke  her own speed record!

Amelia was also the first person, man or woman, to fly solo from Honolulu, Hawaii to Oakland, California. 

When she wasn’t in the air, Amelia worked at Purdue University as an aviation advisor and career counselor for women.

On June 1, 1937, Amelia and her navigator Fred Noonan left for what they hoped would be the pinnacle of Amelia’s flying career: circumnavigating the globe. Completing the trip would have made Amelia the first woman to do so. Amelia and her husband had fundraised and planned for months to make the journey possible.

The duo completed several stops on the planned flight, including South America, Africa, India, and New Guinea. After leaving New Guinea, they got lost in the air and lost radio contact with the Coast Guard, never to be heard from again. Amelia and Fred had totally disappeared. 

President Roosevelt issued an extensive search, and Amelia’s husband George financed a search of his own, but Amelia was never found -- alive or dead.

Though Amelia never finished her around-the-world journey, she has been as an inspiration for countless women since she first dared to fly. 

All month, we’re talking about Explorers and Contenders. For more on why we’re doing what we’re doing, check out our Encyclopedia Womannica newsletter, Womannica Weekly. 

You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram @EncyclopediaWomannica and you can follow me directly on twitter @jennymkaplan.

Special thanks to Liz Kaplan, my favorite sister and co-creator.

Talk to you tomorrow!