She was a social worker in Boston when publisher George Putnam plucked her out of obscurity in 1928, put her on a plane to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean, and made her a star. Flown by men the first time, Earhart was aware of the fact that she was initially famous for doing nothing, for being cargo. And she spent the rest of her short life taking risks in the sky to prove that she and other women were equals on the ground. No matter what, Earhart felt, women couldn’t give up. If they ever wanted to be accepted in a male-dominated world, they needed to keep knocking on the door. “As more knock,” she said, “more will enter.”
A daughter of Wall Street wealth and a graduate of Wellesley College, Nichols desperately wanted two things: the right to live her own life, not the life her parents wanted for her, and a plane fast enough to beat Earhart. In the end, Nichols got both—and she was sure she would prevail. Only one thing could stop her, she said: “the usual law of Fate.”
She got her start in the most unlikely of places — selling coal in Wichita, Kansas. But by 1928, just two years later, Thaden — through happenstance, luck, charm, and grit — was flying planes, one of just a dozen American women with a pilot’s license. She befriended both Nichols and Earhart, helping to lead the long fight against men for the right to race airplanes. But unlike her friends, Thaden had children at home. She wasn’t just a pilot; she was a mother.
She went first—and paid the price for it. Before Earhart, before Nichols, before Thaden, there was Elder: young and divorced and hungry to escape her hometown of Anniston, Alabama. “I want to do something that will make people notice me,” Elder said, “that may give me an opportunity to get somewhere in this world.” In 1927, months before most people had ever heard the name Amelia Earhart, Elder finally got that chance. She was about to prove two points: A woman with a good plane and a bold plan was impossible to ignore—and easy to disparage.
She was, arguably, the most talented female flier of the bunch. Born in rural Minnesota, Klingensmith took risks from a young age, impressing the boys in school—and, later, the men at the airfield in nearby Fargo. Nothing scared her in the sky. Not loops, not races, not speed. And in September 1933, having already beaten the women in the air races, Klingensmith was given a chance to compete against the men. What happened next would be forgotten. But it would change the course of aviation history, pit the women against the men, and set the stage for one of the greatest upsets of all time.