Women 101—Adventurers and Explorers

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In my continuing series on women Hollywood should f*cking be making movies about,* we learn about some amazing adventurers and explorers. There is some overlap here with the spies category, as a number of these women worked in espionage and intelligence while they were gallivanting about the Middle East and the Arctic. But since spying is merely one item on their extensive curriculum vitae, I’ve included them with their fellow travelers.

Lady Hester Stanhope in a lithograph by Robert Jacob Hamerton (c. 1830)

Hester Stanhope (1776–1839)
Where to begin with Hester Stanhope? Or should I say, Lady Stanhope? For Hester Stanhope was a bad-ass lady adventurer and archaeologist who was in fact an actual lady with a capital L. More specifically, she was the eldest child of the 3rd Earl Stanhope and niece to Prime Minister William Pitt, serving as his official hostess and later as his private secretary when he was out of office. After the death of her brother in 1810, Stanhope left England to travel indefinitely, heading to Gibraltar, Malta, and Constantinople, where she lived for over a year. On her way to Cairo, a storm and shipwreck left her empty-handed on the island of Rhodes and Stanhope borrowed male clothing (billowy trousers, boots, and a turban) to continue her voyage. After Egypt, she traveled throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East, including Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria, all while continuing to refuse to wear a veil and often adopting male dress and carrying arms. To travel to the ruins of Palmyra in 1813, she dressed as a Bedouin and took a caravan of twenty-two camels to cross the dangerous stretch of desert, making a grand entrance into the city and calling herself “Queen of the Desert.” Stanhope was the first white woman to visit the ruins once ruled by the warrior queen Zenobia. After coming into the possession of an Italian manuscript describing a hidden treasure, Stanhope set out for the ruins of Ashkelon in 1815, establishing the first modern archaeological excavation in the Holy Land. Stanhope eventually settled permanently in Lebanon and over the years cultivated political friends and enemies by giving sanctuary to numerous Druze refugees. [Side note: Stanhope is apparently mentioned in Georgette Heyer’s Venetia, which I read almost two years ago, but I guess since the name meant nothing to me at the time I have no recollection of it.]

Gertrude Bell (third camel from the left), flanked by Winston Churchill and T.E. Lawrence in Egypt in 1921

Gertrude Bell (1868–1926)
Gertrude Bell is hard to summarize in one or two paragraphs, especially given that she is the most problematic woman on this list from an Orientalist perspective. In short, Bell was an energetic and intelligent girl from a wealthy, political family in the industrial North, who studied in London and then Oxford, becoming the first woman to graduate with a history degree from that university. Shortly after, in May 1892, Bell traveled to Persia to visit her uncle, who was serving as an ambassador in Tehran. She published a book about her travels in 1894 and spent the next decade or so mountaineering, traveling, and learning languages, eventually becoming fluent in Arabic, French, German, and Persian, as well as speaking some Italian and Turkish.

From 1900 to 1913, she traveled throughout the Middle East and, like Stanhope before her, refused to wear a veil as she did so. She was noted for establishing ties with local groups and tribes, particularly the Druze, as well as surveying and excavating ancient ruins. She wrote extensively about her travels and documented them with maps and photographs. With the arrival of the First World War, this knowledge of the area and its peoples was suddenly quite valuable and she was invited to join the intelligence men in Cairo, including T. E. Lawrence, aka Lawrence of Arabia. At the time, Bell was the only female political officer in the British forces and she would go on to become a key actor in British imperial policy-making and one of the people behind the creation and early administration of modern Iraq (and, yes, she foresaw that it would be a sh*tshow, describing the new nation as an “immense failure” and “an inchoate mess of tribes”). She founded the Baghdad Archaeological Museum to preserve Iraqi culture and history and keep artifacts in their country of origin. Shortly after, she died in Baghdad in 1926 following an overdose of sleeping pills; it is not known whether the overdose was intentional.

I think there has seldom been such a series of hopeless blunders as the West has made about the East since the armistice.

—Gertrude Bell, Paris Peace Conference, 1919

Freya Stark (1893–1993)
Rounding out our English adventuresses is Freya Stark, an explorer and travel writer who explored the Middle East and beyond. The daughter of bohemian artist parents (her father was English and her mother Italian), Stark spent her childhood roaming Europe, in her father’s home in Devonshire, and then in Italy after her parents split up. She loved reading and became fascinated with the “Orient” after reading One Thousand and One Nights. An odd note to her biography is that when she was a teenager, she got her hair caught in a machine at the family rug and basket factory (I’ll spare you the details, but the accident required months of recovery in a hospital and multiple skin grafts), leading her to wear hats for most of her life to cover the scars.

Despite her early interest in the region, it wasn’t until 1927 that she began to travel the Middle East in earnest: First Lebanon to perfect her Arabic, then Syria and Iraq, and finally western Iran, including exploration of the fabled fortress of the Assassins. In 1935, she travelled to southern Arabia, little explored by Westerners. For many of these trips, she was acknowledged by the Royal Geographical Society though she never “discovered” anything per se. Instead, she became known for the personal, cultural details she recorded, particularly her descriptions of women’s lives. During the war, Stark joined the British Ministry of Information and worked to persuade Arabs to support the Allies. After the war, she travelled to Turkey and finally Afghanistan. All told, she published more than two dozen books on her travels. Her books sound utterly thrilling: I think I’m going to seek out The Valleys of the Assassins first, although The Southern Gates of Arabia, which tells of her attempt to locate the lost city of Shabwah, sounds pretty good too.

Louise Boyd (1887–1972)
Women didn’t explore only the Middle East. Louise Boyd was a gold heiress from California who logged numerous Arctic expeditions throughout the 1930s and 1940s—studying fjords and glaciers, measuring ocean depths, and photographing plant and animal life, particularly on the coast of Greenland. Boyd had traveled extensively with her parents after the early deaths of her two brothers (heart disease as teenagers!), and they encouraged her in a number of hobbies, including photography. As the sole heir to a fortune after both her mother and father died in quick succession in 1919 and 1920, she began traveling even more widely. In 1924, on a trip to Norway, Boyd made her first trip to the Arctic. By 1928, she was leading her own polar expeditions, including one to find legendary explorer Roald Amundsen who had himself disappeared trying to find and rescue Umberto Nobile. At first it seemed that the outbreak of WWII would halt her regular expeditions; however, in 1941, she undertook an expedition sponsored by the U.S. government, studying the effects of polar magnetics on radio communications. Boyd subsequently became an advisor on military strategy in the Arctic and continued to work on secret assignments for the U.S. Army throughout the duration of the war. In 1955, she became the first woman to fly over the North Pole.

Louise Boyd photographs her rescue expedition in 1928.

And again, why did I not know of this woman who lived most of her life in the Bay Area (while not exploring) and part of whose home now serves as the Marin History Museum? I realize the fault lies with me for my ignorance, but, at the same time, I can name multiple polar explorers who happen to be male. You can see some of Boyd’s photographs in the Marin History Museum, which is located in the gatehouse of her former estate gatehouse in San Rafael, California.

Is this just me? Did you know of any of these women? Do you have a favorite female adventurer or explorer I should know about?

To read more about these incredible women:

  • Priya Satia, Spies in Arabia: The Great War and the Cultural Foundations of Britain’s Covert Empire in the Middle East
  • Georgina Howell, Gertrude Bell: Queen of the Desert, Shaper of Nations
  • Janet Wallach, Desert Queen: The Extraordinary Life of Gertrude Bell: Adventurer, Adviser to Kings, Ally of Lawrence of Arabia
  • Jane Fletcher Geniesse, Passionate Nomad: The Life of Freya Stark
  • Elizabeth Fagg Olds, Women of the Four Winds: The Adventures of Four of America’s First Women Explorers
  • Freya Stark, The Valleys of the Assassins and Other Persian Travels

Podcast episodes:
Footnoting History: Desert Queens? Women at the Edges of Empire from Hester Stanhope to Gertrude Bell
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Gertrude Bell: The Uncrowned Queen of Iraq, Part 1; Gertrude Bell: The Uncrowned Queen of Iraq, Part 2
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Freya of Arabia
Stuff You Missed in History Class: The Heiress Explorer: Louise Boyd and the Arctic

For previous posts in this Women 101 series, click below:
From Abigail Adams to Zenobia
Birds of the Air
Wasps and Witches
Soldiers and Spies in the Civil War
Soldiers and Spies in World War II

*Apparently there is a project on Hester Stanhope in development by the people behind The King’s Speech and Werner Herzog has made a film about Gertrude Bell starring Nicole Kidman, which is being released here in April (but unfortunately has already come out in Europe to horrible reviews).

Women 101—Soldiers and Spies in WWII

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Although it may have been a surprise to learn of the extent to which female soldiers and spies played a role in the Civil War, it is likely not a surprise to learn of their role in World War II. Oddly enough, however, none of my history podcasts have shown much interest in these spies, beyond brief mentions of the intelligence work of Josephine Baker. So we will begin with this French-American star of stage and screen.

Josephine Baker (1906–1975)
Josephine Baker has an incredible history as a performer and civil rights activist and I encourage you to seek out more information on her in general. Every phase of her life is utterly fascinating, from her childhood in St. Louis, Missouri, to her time on Broadway, to her success on the Paris stage (sometimes including her pet cheetah), to her adoption of her “rainbow tribe” of twelve children, to her work with the NAACP and the civil rights movement.

Josephine Baker and her pet cheetah Chiquita grace the cover of more than one children’s book about this fascinating woman.

Less well known is the help she provided to the French government and the Resistance during World War II. To begin with, in the lead up to the conflict, she worked to assist refugees and entertain troops, including using her pilot’s license to fly into Belgium with Red Cross supplies. She was first recruited by French military intelligence in 1939 at the start of the war and tasked with collecting information from officials at embassy and ministry parties. After the invasion of France in 1940, she assisted the Free French and other Resistance efforts out of her home in the Dordogne. [Side note: If you are looking for a lesser-known region of France to explore, the Dordogne is a great choice—chock full of incredible food, outdoor activities, and castles and other historical sites.] As a popular performer, Baker was also able to travel internationally relatively easily, carrying vital information on troop movements and military support. In some cases this information was written in invisible ink on her sheet music, in others it was pinned to her underwear. Later during the war, she entertained Allied troops in North Africa. For these efforts, Baker was the first American-born woman to receive France’s Croix de Guerre and the first to receive military honors at her funeral. She was made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur in 1957.

Josephine Baker in London in 1945

And now we move on to a few women I had never heard of until the “Spies” episode of Drunk History introduced me to the tale of Virginia Hall and made me wonder how many stories like hers were out there. (This is the same episode that features Octavia Spencer as Harriet Tubman and Will Ferrell as Roald Dahl and is truly must-see TV.)

Virginia Hall (1906–1982)
Virginia Hall studied French, German, and Italian at university and long wanted to join the Foreign Service. However, after accidentally shooting herself in the leg during a hunting expedition in Turkey in 1932, an injury that eventually led to amputation of her left leg below the knee, her dreams of a life in the diplomatic corps seemed to be at an end. Also, she was woman, which may have been the bigger problem. [Side note: Hall’s nickname for her artificial limb was Cuthbert, a detail I feel compelled to mention.]

With the arrival of war in Europe, Hall saw a way to serve—as an ambulance driver in France. After France’s surrender, this on-the-ground experience eventually led to Hall’s recruitment by the British Special Operations Executive (SOE). Hall then spent over a year undercover as a New York Post correspondent in and around Lyon, where she coordinated the passing of information, people, and supplies. The Germans apparently considered her the “most dangerous of all Allied spies” and gave her the nickname Artemis (goddess of the hunt). When the Germans took over the Zone Libre in 1942, Hall escaped to Spain on foot over the Pyrenees and continued her work from Madrid. She later joined the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and went back into France in advance of the D-Day invasion to monitor German intelligence, train Resistance forces, and help coordinate the sabotage of infrastructure used by the Germans. In September 1945, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the only one awarded to a civilian woman in World War II. In 1951, she joined the Central Intelligence Agency.

Virginia Hall receiving the Distinguished Service Cross from General William J. Donovan (OSS) in September 1945

Noor Inayat Khan (1914–1944)
Noor Inayat Khan was the daughter of Inayat Khan, teacher of Universal Sufism, and Ameena Begum, originally Ora Baker (cousin of Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science) of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Born in Moscow, Inayat Khan was brought up outside Paris and trained as a musician at the Paris Conservatory. She was also a published writer of fairy stories for children. After her family fled to London in 1940, Inayat Khan joined the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and trained as a radio operator. She was eventually recruited as a spy and worked under the name of Nora Baker. Inayat Khan infiltrated occupied France where she spent months working as the only active SOE radio operator in the Paris area—changing addresses daily—until she was betrayed and arrested in October 1943. Despite being tortured repeatedly, she never revealed even her real name to her captors. Inayat Khan died on September 13, 1944, in the Dachau concentration camp after reportedly shouting “Liberté!” just before Nazis shot her in the head. She was awarded the French Croix de Guerre posthumously.

Noor Inayat Khan c. 1943

Nancy Wake (1912–1982)
Our next “European” spy comes from halfway around the world, from New Zealand in point of fact. Nancy Wake grew up in Sydney, Australia, but married a French industrialist and moved to Marseille just before the war. When Germany invaded, Wake immediately got involved and eventually served as a British agent in France, becoming a courier for the Resistance, working with the Maquis to coordinate over 7000 fighters, and joining the escape network of Captain Ian Garrow. She was so successful and elusive that the Gestapo called her the “White Mouse” and put out a five-million-franc reward for her capture. One story about Wake killing an SS sentry with her bare hands called to mind Cary Grant’s stories of the Resistance in To Catch a Thief:

It’s wonderful. And the pastry is as light as air.
—Germaine has very sensitive hands and an exceedingly light touch.
—Yes, I can tell.
—She strangled a German general once… without a sound.

Following the war, Wake was awarded the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Médaille de la Résistance, and the Croix de Guerre. She continued to work for British Intelligence in Europe until the mid-1950s.

Nancy Wake died in August 2011, just a few weeks shy of her one hundredth birthday.

There was little she enjoyed better than ‘a bloody good drink’, and to fund her lifestyle she had sold her war medals. ‘There was no point in keeping them,’ she explained, ‘I’ll probably go to hell and they’d melt anyway.’

—from Nancy Wake’s obituary in The Guardian

And again I say, Hollywood, where is my movie of this?!?

Thanks, Vanity Fair, I’m glad to see someone else also asking the important questions.

To read more about these incredible women:

  • Jean-Claude Baker and Chris Chase, Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart
  • Russell Braddon, Nancy Wake: SOE’s Greatest Heroine
  • Judith Pearson, The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy
  • Ean Wood, The Josephine Baker Story

For children:

  • Patricia Hruby Powell, Josephine: The Dazzling Life of Josephine Baker
  • Jonah Winter, Jazz Age Josephine

Podcast episodes:
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Josephine Baker, the Toast of Paris
The History Chicks: Josephine Baker, Part 2

For previous posts in this Women 101 series, click below:
From Abigail Adams to Zenobia
Birds of the Air
Wasps and Witches
Soldiers and Spies in the Civil War

For the next post in this series, see Adventurers and Explorers.

Women 101—Soldiers and Spies in the Civil War

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Today we continue looking at wartime exploits, this time of an even stealthier nature than the Night Witches—spies!

In this first edition, we will take a look at some of the bad-ass women that could be found sneaking around the Civil War. Then, in our next outing we’ll head into the twentieth century. It makes me sad that I am only learning of some of these women now, but one of the problems with the topic is that the stealth nature of espionage work naturally means the historical record is sparse, a problem that is compounded when spies are women and gender dynamics and sexism affect the reporting of their contributions. Frankly, it’s sort of bullshit that something as over-studied (that’s right, I said it) as the Civil War still has such blatant gaps in the historical record, but there it is.

Harriet Tubman (c. 1822–1913)
If, like me, you learned about Harriet Tubman via childhood tales of the Underground Railroad, you may not have realized that in addition to her incredible work to free slaves, she was also a Union soldier and spy. And, if you want the most humorous take possible on this story, you must watch the Drunk History episode on spies, featuring Octavia Spencer as Tubman (Warning: NSFW).

Harriet Tubman, photographed by Harvey Lindsley c. 1871–1876

Essentially, once the war started, Tubman moved down to South Carolina to continue her humanitarian work in the Sea Islands. While there, she acted in an official capacity as a nurse, but also (in an unofficial capacity) developed a network of scouts and spies. Her work on the Underground Railroad meant that she was uniquely suited to such tasks and she provided valuable intelligence to the Union Army, mostly working with Colonel James Montgomery. She is best known for the Combahee River Raid in June 1863, when she became the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. During the raid, she used intelligence she had gathered on the placement of Confederate river mines to guide steamboats of Union troops safely to shore, where they set fire to plantations and seized valuable supplies and food. The boats were then used to transport escaping slaves to safety: Over 750 slaves were eventually rescued in the raid. Tubman later worked with Colonel Robert Gould Shaw (aka Matthew Broderick) during the storming Fort Wagner, depicted in the movie Glory. Despite this service, she never received a government salary or pension until 1899. [Side note to Hollywood: Glory was great, but for the love of all that is holy, where is my Harriet Tubman movie?]

And then we saw the lightning, and that was the guns; and then we heard the thunder, and that was the big guns; and then we heard the rain falling, and that was the drops of blood falling; and when we came to get the crops, it was dead men that we reaped.

—Harriet Tubman on the Second Battle of Fort Wagner

Mary-Elizabeth Bowser and Elizabeth Van Lew (1818–1900)
Another former slave to work for the Union cause was Mary-Elizabeth Bowser. Bowser worked in the spy ring of Elizabeth Van Lew in Richmond, Virginia. This network was incredibly elaborate and even included civil servants working in the Confederate military and government. Van Lew came from a wealthy Richmond family but had been educated in the North and held abolitionist sentiments. When the Civil War broke out, she became active in caring for Union prisoners in the Libby Prison. This allowed her cover to exchange information with them, including recently captured soldiers who passed her information on Confederate plans and troop movements, which she passed on to Union commanders through her network (via cypher systems, invisible ink, laundry codes, etc.). Van Lew also aided Union prisoners in escape attempts, sometimes even hiding prisoners in her home. In recognition, Ulysses S. Grant would later appoint Van Lew to be postmaster of Richmond, a position she held until 1877.

Elizabeth Van Lew

Bowser was likely born around 1840 as a slave in the Van Lew household, but had been granted her de facto freedom (they did live in Virginia after all) as a young girl. In addition to sending her to school in the North, Elizabeth Van Lew also arranged for her to participate in a missionary community in Liberia as a teenager. By early 1960, she had returned to work as a servant in the Van Lew household and soon Van Lew convinced Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, to hire Bowser (under a false name) in the Confederate White House. Bowser was thus able to spy on the leader of the Confederacy at his own dinner table. Even though officials knew there was a leak somewhere, Bowser was not suspected and Varina Davis maintained that none of her black servants were educated. [Side note: Seriously, this is white privilege, patriarchy, and racist obliviousness at its finest when you consider that someone with Bowser’s status and access wouldn’t even have been suspected of passing information.] Because records on the Richmond spy ring were destroyed at the end of the war to protect its members, the historical record is still very cloudy on the biographical details of Bowser’s life and even her exact name is in question. An interesting conference panel discussing the question can be found here.

I’m sorry to report that there are no verified images of the spy known as Mary Elizabeth Bowser.

Belle Boyd (1844–1900)
Also in Virginia, but working for the other side, was Isabella “Belle” Boyd. Boyd’s career in espionage began on the heels of her shooting a Union soldier in her own home when she was a teenager, a crime for which she was exonerated, but which led to Union troops closely watching her. The attractive Boyd took advantage of this interest to obtain information directly from Union officers. At first, she worked mostly as a courier in the Shenandoah Valley, an area where she could put her local knowledge and horsemanship to good use. On one occasion, she used her familiarity with a relative’s house to eavesdrop through a knothole whereby she gleaned important intelligence regarding Union troop movements. On May 23, 1862, Boyd learned that Union forces were planning to impede Confederate troops by burning the Front Royal bridges upon their withdrawal from the town. She tried to find someone to deliver the timely message to Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson, and when she couldn’t, she rode behind enemy lines herself to deliver it. As a result, Jackson accelerated his attacked and saved the bridges. Boyd was caught numerous times, but always managed to avoid a death sentence, though she did end up in prison more than once. After the war, Boyd published an account of her wartime experiences called Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison, became an actress, and toured the country speaking about her life as a Civil War spy.

Isabella Maria Boyd, “Cleopatra of the Secession”

Sarah Emma Edmonds (1841–1898)
Lastly, we come to Sarah Emma Edmonds. It is not verified that Sarah Edmonds was a spy, but she certainly served in the Civil War disguised as a man. Born in New Brunswick, Canada, she came to the United States in the late 1850s, eventually settling in Michigan. When the war broke out, she enlisted in the Union cause under the name Franklin Flint Thompson and serve as a field nurse and mail carrier for almost two years without anyone realizing she was a woman (physical examinations at enlistment were cursory at best). She participated in both the First and Second Battle of Bull Run, the Peninsula Campaign, and Fredericksburg, and was later referred to as a fearless soldier. In her autobiography, she claimed to have worked as a spy, but historians have not been able to confirm many of her claims, including that she disguised herself as a black man to infiltrate the Confederacy. Her military career ended when she contracted malaria—not wanting her secret to be discovered, she left to be treated in a private hospital and was mistakenly listed as a deserter. To avoid execution for desertion, instead of returning to her unit, she served out the war as a nurse in a hospital in Washington, DC. Over a decade later, Edmonds attended a reunion of the 2nd Michigan Infantry where she was welcomed by her former comrades-in-arms (once they realized who she was), some of whom helped Edmonds clear “Thompson” of the desertion charges on record and receive a pension. In 1897, Edmonds was admitted to the Grand Army of the Republic, a Civil War Veterans association.

It is estimated that 250 to 750 women disguised their sex to serve in the Civil War.

Sarah Emma Edmonds in her disguise as Private Franklin Flint Thompson

And again I say, Hollywood, where is my movie of this?!?

To read more about these incredible women:

  • Karen Abbott, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War
  • Belle Boyd, Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison
  • Peggy Caravantes, Petticoat Spies: Six Women Spies of the Civil War
  • Catherine Clinton, Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom
  • S. Emma Edmonds, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army: Comprising the Adventures and Experiences of a Woman in Hospitals, Camps, and Battle-Fields
  • Kate Clifford Larson, Bound For the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman, Portrait of an American Hero
  • David D. Ryan, A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of “Crazy Bet” Van Lew
  • Elizabeth Varon, Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy

Podcast episodes:
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Civil War Spies: Belle Boyd
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Civil War Spies: Mary Elizabeth Bowser
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Sarah Emma Edmonds, Civil War Spy
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Harriet Tubman, Union Spy

For previous posts in this Women 101 series, click below:
From Abigail Adams to Zenobia
Birds of the Air
Wasps and Witches

For the next post in this series, see Soldiers and Spies in World War II.

Women 101—Wasps and Witches

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Just a fly-by in a desperate attempt to keep to the twice-a-week schedule I’ve set myself for these Women’s History Month posts.

This post is basically a spin-off of my previous one on unsung female aviators. When I realized I had more pilots than I could discuss in one post and that a few of the women I was looking at took us well out of the pioneer days and into World War II, I decided to separate them out. Separate, but not exactly equal, as we will see.

One of the most impressive women I came across was Jacqueline Cochran, who, among other things, raced competitively against men in the 1930s, worked with Amelia Earhart to open the Bendix transcontinental race to women, and set multiple aviation records. In fact, at the time of her death, Cochran held more altitude, distance, and speed records than any other pilot (male or female) in history.

Vincent Bendix congratulates Jacqueline Cochran after she wins the Bendix Race in 1938.

Before the United States entered World War II, as part of the “Wings for Britain” organization, Cochran became the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic. While in Great Britain, she volunteered her services to the war effort, working for the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA). Enlisting the help of Eleanor Roosevelt, Cochran was a key figure in establishing U.S. programs to train female pilots to undertake domestic aviation jobs and release more male pilots for combat, eventually leading to the formation of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, which she led beginning in August 1943. These women did all sorts of dangerous tasks, including towing targets for live ammunition target practice, delivering military aircraft to bases, and flying engineering test flights. Amazingly, more than 25,000 women applied for this short-lived program, but the requirements for women were fairly strict and only 1,800 or so were selected for training. With washout rates roughly on par with men, ultimately 1,102 women flew for the WASP and U.S. Army Air Forces. These women flew every aircraft in the USAAF inventory, with overall accident and fatality rates similar to those of male pilots.

Pilots at Lockbourne Army Air Field, members of the Women Air Force Service Pilots program. Pictured from left to right are Frances Green, Peg Kirchner, Ann Waldner and Blanche Osborn.

Despite this service, and unlike the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC), the WASPs were not part of the military (although WASP pilots were retroactively granted service status in 1977). Still, Cochran received the Distinguished Service Medal in 1945 and joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve in 1948, retiring as a colonel in 1970. As such, she is likely the first female pilot in the USAF. Not one to be deterred in exploring new forms of aviation, she began flying jets after the war and was the first women to break the sound barrier. Other “female” firsts: Cochran was the first to take off and land on an aircraft carrier, the first to fly a jet on a transatlantic flight, the first to make a blind (instrument) landing, and the first (and only) woman to become president of the Fédération Aéronatique International. She even flew the Goodyear blimp in the early 1960s because why not.

I have found adventure in flying, in world travel, in business, and even close at hand… Adventure is a state of mind—and spirit.

—Jacqueline Cochran

As fascinating as Jacqueline Cochran is, she does represent the world of privilege in that she came to flying on the heels of meeting one of the richest men in the world, Floyd Odlum, who helped her found a cosmetics business in the mid-1930s and who she later married. Perhaps unsurprisingly, pilots accepted for WASP training were often women who had been able to afford to pay for their own flying lessons. (Additionally, due to segregation policies, no African Americans were accepted into the program, although there were two Chinese Americans who served). In the Soviet Union, the situation was somewhat different, although female pilots faced similar discrimination and disbelief from their countrymen.

During their bombing runs, the Night Witches used obsolete bi-planes without guns, radios, or parachutes.

And so we come to the Night Witches, an all-women Soviet bombing regiment and among the first women to ever fly in combat. While I didn’t know of their story prior to the excellent Stuff You Missed in History Class podcast episode on them, I feel like these women are better known than most of the other aviators I looked at (and maybe if I was more of a fan of military history I would have been familiar with them). Much like the WASP program, the creation of the Night Witches is primarily credited to a push by famed aviator and Soviet Air Force navigator Marina Raskova, who convinced Stalin to let her form and train three female aviation regiments, notably the 588th Fighter Aviation Regiment, which would gain fame under the name given to it by the Germans, die Nachthexen.

This regiment flew ridiculously obsolete biplanes made of canvas and wood that had open cockpits but neither radio nor guns. Because of this vulnerability, they only flew night missions, primarily to harass German troops although they also engaged in precision bombing of supply depots and other military targets. Pilots often made multiple bombing runs over the course of a night and each one would eventually fly over eight hundred missions before the war’s end. The most famous Night Witch, Nadia Popova, a Ukrainian who had been flying since the age of fifteen, made a record eighteen runs in one night. The nickname of die Nachthexen, or Night Witches, came from the rustling sound the canvas made as the planes swooped down low to drop their bombs (having previously cut their noisy engines for stealth purposes).

Are you f*cking kidding me? Hollywood, where is my movie of this?

Nadia Popova eyes the camera surrounded by some glorious bad-asses.

To read more about these incredible women:

  • Molly Merryman, Clipped Wings: The Rise and Fall of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II
  • Anne Noggle, For God, Country and the Thrill of It: Women Airforce Service Pilots During WWII
  • Bruce Myles, Night Witches: The Amazing Story of Russia’s Women Pilots in WWII
  • Anne Noggle, A Dance with Death: Soviet Airwomen in World War II

Podcast episodes:
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Four Flights of Female Aviators
Stuff You Missed in History Class: WASP of WWII, Part 1
Stuff You Missed in History Class: WASP of WWII, Part 2
Stuff You Missed in History Class: The Night Witches

For previous posts in this Women 101 series, click below:
From Abigail Adams to Zenobia
Birds of the Air

For the next post in this series, see Soldiers and Spies in the Civil War.

Women 101—Birds of the Air

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If you follow me on Twitter you have probably already seen this fierce photo of Bessie Coleman.

If you follow me on Twitter you have probably already seen this fierce photo of Bessie Coleman.

For this “pilot study” of my Women 101 series, we look at female flyers. Growing up, like many people, I was well aware of the exploits and mysterious disappearance of Amelia Earhart, who I presumed to be the aviatrix of the early twentieth century. What I didn’t realize is that there were plenty of female pilots and aviation pioneers to choose from. Unfortunately, in this age of experimentation and general lack of safety precautions, many of these women did not live beyond their piloting days.

Sophie Blanchard (1778–1819)
First, for a bit of pre-airplane history, look no further than Sophie Blanchard, wife of Jean-Pierre Blanchard, the world’s first professional balloonist. While not the first woman to ascend in a balloon, Blanchard was the first woman to pilot one as a professional. After her husband died in 1809 (he fell from his balloon after suffering a heart attack), Sophie continued her career—primarily to pay the debts her husband left behind—traveling throughout Europe and eventually making sixty-seven total ascents, many at night. If you are interested in learning more, check out this trailer for an upcoming animated documentary called The Fantastic Flights of Sophie Blanchard. Unfortunately, ballooning in the early 1800s was an extremely risky proposition, especially when you choose to launch fireworks from your hydrogen balloon. For that reason, Blanchard also has the misfortune to be the first woman to die in an aviation accident, when her balloon caught fire and crashed onto the roof of a house in Paris, whereupon she fell to her death. Damn, girl.

Katharine Wright (1874–1929)
Despite doing a report on the Wright brothers for my sixth-grade social studies class, I don’t think I ever knew that they had a sister until this Drunk History episode. Or maybe I just forgot. I blame The Man. In any case, Katharine was no slouch herself, graduating from Oberlin College in 1898 and becoming a teacher in her hometown of Dayton, Ohio. [Did you know that Oberlin is the oldest coeducational institution in the United States? I didn’t until just now!] Katharine was the only one of her siblings to go to college and was very close to her brothers, and she does eventually join the family business, but there seems to be some dispute over the exact nature of her work. While Drunk History argues for a pretty key role in their aviation experiments, Historian Cindy Wilkey disputes this. This is one case where I’d like to see more research; if you can recommend any books or other materials on Katharine Wright, I welcome suggestions.

Raymonde de Laroche (1882–1919)
Speaking of the Wright brothers, Parisian-born Elise Deroche (whose stage name was Raymonde de Laroche) was inspired to take up flying after seeing a demonstration by Wilbur Wright in Paris in 1908. She even got to take a ride in his plane—fancy! Having a number of aviator friends, including aeroplane builder Charles Voisin, she was able to take lessons and, in 1910, became the first woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license. However, later that same year, she suffered serious injuries after crashing during an airshow in Reims and didn’t return to flying for two years. With the arrival of WWI, Laroche was effectively grounded, but became a military driver, taking officers to the front under fire. If that wasn’t bad-ass enough, in 1919, after setting both altitude and distance records, she tried to become a professional test pilot, but crashed with her co-pilot while flying an experimental craft.

Harriet Quimby (1875–1912)
Harriet Quimby began her professional life as a journalist in San Francisco (California, represent!) and then moved to New York City in 1903 to become a theater critic and eventually a screenwriter for D.W. Griffith. She became interested in aviation after seeing an airshow in 1910 and, in 1911, earned her pilot’s license from the Aero Club of America, becoming the first American woman to do so (and the second woman in the world after Raymonde de Laroche). She was also the first woman to undertake a night flight. Like many early flyers, she performed on the exhibition circuit and was apparently known for her purple satin flight suit. In 1912, she became the first woman to fly solo across the English Channel; however, this accomplishment received little attention since it occurred just one day after the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Way to get your thunder stolen, Quimby! Later that same year, while flying at an airshow in Boston, her new Blériot monoplane pitched forward for unknown reasons and ejected Quimby and her passenger William Willard, who both fell to their deaths. Yikes.

I thought I had never heard of Harriet Quimby but I totally remember this airmail stamp so I guess I just wasn't paying attention.

I thought I had never heard of Harriet Quimby but I totally remember this airmail stamp so I guess I just wasn’t paying attention.

Lilian Bland (1878–1971)
I think I might have a bit of a girl crush on Lilian Bland, an unconventional Anglo-Irish journalist and photographer who, among other things, smoked, swore, and shamelessly wore trousers. Bland was an avid hunter and horsewoman, who, despite earning a jockey’s license, was denied entry in the Grand National because of her gender. Her photography was at such a level that her 1908 exhibit at the Royal Photographic Society in London is believed to include the first color plates of flying birds ever captured. Her studies of bird flight and interest in aviation eventually led her to design, build, and fly her own biplane, humorously named Mayfly, in 1910. In a pinch, while waiting for a fuel tank, she used an empty whiskey bottle. [Have I mentioned I love this woman?] Unlike many of the women in this post, Bland was able to live a long life, probably due to the fact that her concerned father convinced her to give up the Mayfly in exchange for a new Model T.

Bessie Coleman (1892–1926)
And so we come to the woman that inspired it all. I first learned of Bessie Coleman while editing a U.S. History textbook and realizing that the images in the chapter on the 1920s were incredibly white and incredibly male. A reviewer tipped me to the story of Coleman, which is truly incredible. The daughter of a Texas sharecropper of both African American and Cherokee descent, she had an early interest in flying but her financial circumstances along with her race and gender meant that flight school in the United States was denied to her. Not one to give up easily, she saved her money to take French lessons, got a passport, and then traveled to France where she took lessons and became a licensed pilot in 1921. She was the first black woman, and the first person of Native American descent, to obtain a pilot’s license. Eventually, she returned to the United States and achieved success and fame on the airshow circuit, although she experienced a terrible crash in 1923 in Oakland, California. She consistently promoted equality for African Americans and fought for her audiences to be desegregated. She even hoped to start a school for African American pilots. Unfortunately, she died before she could achieve this dream. While scouting parachute landing sites as a passenger during a practice flight in a recently purchased biplane in Jacksonville, Florida, she was thrown from her plane when it inexplicably went into a tailspin and flipped. Pilots still fly over her grave in Chicago to drop flowers in her honor.

The sky is the only place there is no prejudice. Up there, everyone is equal, everyone is free.

—Bessie Coleman

Beryl Markham (1902–1986)
Like Lilian Bland, Beryl Markham (née Clutterbuck) was an avid British-born horsewoman, though she grew up in Kenya, not Kent. She was reputed to be wild and fearless. As a child, she learned to hunt with a both a spear and bow and arrow and once, along with a cousin, killed a deadly black mamba with sticks. Following in her father’s footsteps, she was an excellent rider and trainer of wild horses. She was friends with Danish writer Karen Blixen, even living with her for a time when Markham’s first marriage was breaking down. In 1929, she discovered flying, going up for the first time with Denys Finch Hatton, Blixen’s lover (with whom Markham would eventually be involved). She earned her pilot’s license in 1931 and her B license in 1933, which allowed her to become a commercial pilot. As one of the first bush pilots, she acted as an air taxi for passengers and those with medical emergencies, delivered mail and supplies, and spotted game for those on safari. Her most notable achievement was being the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from east to west (aka “the hard way”). It was hard in more ways than one. She almost immediately lost her chart of the Atlantic out the cockpit window, low visibility meant that she essentially flew blind most of the way, and she had no radio. Finally, she experienced fuel starvation during the flight, knew she was well short of New York, but managed to crash land in Nova Scotia. Respect.

Elinor Smith (1911–2010)
I came across New Yorker Elinor Smith while researching some of the other pilots on this list. Mostly, I love the fact that she was known as the “Flying Flapper of Freeport” and that on a dare in 1928 she flew under all four East River bridges. I guess that’s the kind of thing you do when you are the youngest licensed pilot in the world at age 16. By 1929, she had established multiple endurance records and Bellanca Aircraft had hired her as a demonstration pilot. She later worked as a high altitude test pilot for them. Along with Bobbi Trout, in November 1929, she set a new women’s endurance record and the team became the first women to accomplish a mid-air refueling. She was the first woman to be pictured on a Wheaties box. She doesn’t seem to have had any major crashes and continued to work in the industry as a radio commentator, magazine contributor, and aviation policy adviser before marrying and settling down to raise her family. I can’t believe this amazing woman was still alive less than ten years ago, but she was. In fact, she eventually returned to the air after the death of her husband in the 1950s and, in March 2000, she took on NASA’s space shuttle simulator with an all-woman crew and became the oldest pilot to succeed in a simulated shuttle landing. Truly inspirational.

Ads featuring Beryl Markham (left) and Elinor Smith (right)

Ads featuring Beryl Markham (left) and Elinor Smith (right)

To read more about these incredible women:

  • Eileen Lebow, Before Amelia: Women Pilots in the Early Days of Aviation
  • Jacqueline McLean, Women with Wings
  • Mary Lovell, Straight on Till Morning: the Biography of Beryl Markham
  • Beryl Markham, West with the Night

Podcast episodes:
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Sophie Blanchard and Balloonomania
The History Chicks: Sophie Blanchard
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Four Flights of Female Aviators
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Aviatrix Lilian Bland
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Bessie Coleman: Daredevil Aviatrix
The History Chicks: Bessie Coleman
The History Chicks: Amelia Earhart
Stuff You Missed in History Class: Westward Bound: Beryl Markham’s Transatlantic Flight

For the announcement of this Women 101 series, see From Abigail Adams to Zenobia.

For the next post in this series, see Wasps and Witches.