Leaving Earth

When I opened my computer this morning, the Google graphic informed me that Amelia Earhart was born on this date 115 years ago. I had already heard on the news that Sally Ride died this morning of cancer.

Amelia Earhart has a most fascinating biography.  As a child she lived in many places, and eventually studied at several high schools and universities, determined to find the best available education in science and technology at a time when there were very few women in the field. Indeed, she was the sixteenth woman in the world to be issued a pilot’s license, the first to cross the Atlantic as a passenger, and of course, the first female “aviatrix” to make a solo transatlantic flight…

There is even a Toronto connection. While visiting her sister there she took nursing training, and during the Spanish Influenza epidemic she worked at a hospital  on Spadina Avenue for returning WWI veterans. It was at the Canadian National Exhibition, witnessing a daredevil flying perilously close to them, that she determined to learn to fly.

She promoted untraditional careers in male dominated fields for women everywhere, had a successful writing and teaching career, launched and promoted an unconventional but highly successful line of practical and comfortable women’s clothing. She was an intellectual, an entrepreneur, a world-known celebrity, and a great heroine.

The manner of her death, during a flight over the Pacific Ocean, is unknown. At forty years of age, during an attempt to fly around the world, she disappeared without a trace.

Like Princess Diana, she died in her prime, at the height of her popularity and influence. Perhaps she would have wanted it that way. It is difficult to imagine either Amelia or Diana among “les vieux” … infirm, senile, in a wheelchair.

Sally Ride was another great heroine who died too young.

Responding to news of her death, Barack Obama said, “As the first American woman to travel into space, Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model. She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars and later fought tirelessly to help them get there by advocating for a greater focus on science and math in our schools. Sally’s life showed us that there are no limits to what we can achieve and I have no doubt that her legacy will endure for years to come.”

On June 18, 1983, she became the first American woman in space as a crew member on Space Shuttle Challenger for STS-7…. during which the five-person crew deployed two communications satellites and conducted pharmaceutical experiments… Ride was the first woman to use the robot arm in space and the first to use the arm to retrieve a satellite.

Her second space flight was in 1984, also on board the  Challenger. She spent a total of more than 343 hours in space. Ride, who had completed eight months of training for her third flight when the Space Shuttle Challenger accident occurred, was named to the presidential commission investigating the accident and headed its subcommittee on operations. Following the investigation, Ride was assigned to NASA headquarters in Washington, DC, where she led NASA’s first strategic planning effort, authored a report entitled “Leadership and America’s Future in Space”, and founded NASA’s Office of Exploration.  from Wikipedia

Women everywhere should be grateful for the pioneering efforts of these courageous leaders who proved that, given equal training and opportunity, women can do just about anything they decide. Their lives are an inspiration!

Famed American aviatrix Ruth Law racing her Curtiss Pusher biplane against an auto driven by Gaston Chevrolet on June 29, 1918 at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto. (Collection of the Canadian Aviation Museum)

If you are interested in stories of women attempting to achieve unusual success in “a man’s world”, or in aviation history… or in just a really good read… try Leaving Earth by Canadian novelist, Helen Humphreys ( Harper, 1997).

On August 1, 1933, the famous aviatrix Grace O’Gorman and the inexperienced Willa Briggs take off in a tiny Moth biplane to break the world in-flight endurance record, their plan: to circle Toronto for 25 days and land at the opening of the Canadian National Exhibition.

Set during the Depression with war looming, Leaving Earth is a remarkable evocation of an era when women sought to escape the limitations of their gender by embarking on perilous adventures. Grace and Willa seem to cast a spell on those below, especially Maddy a young fan who lives on Toronto Island; her mother, an amusement park fortune-teller; and Grace’s jealous husband, Jack, who holds the endurance record his wife is trying to break.

I have read two other Humphreys novels as well… Afterimage and Wild Dogs… both also worth finding!

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