Fly Girls

Quick: Name one historical woman pilot other than Amelia Earhart without resorting to the internet. (1) Aviation history is a regular topic in our household and I could only come up with three:

  • Bessie Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926), the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license (2)
  • Jacqueline Cochran (May 11, 1906 – August 9, 1980), the director of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program in World War II (3)
  • Cornelia Fort (February 5, 1919 – March 21, 1943), who was a flight instructor in Honolulu and an eyewitness to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor

More accurately, I could only come up with three before I read Keith O’Brien’s excellent Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History.

At first O’Brien seems like an unlikely author for a work of women’s history. He is a journalist with a history of writing (beautifully) about sports. His previous book, Outside Shot, is a basketball epic—think Hoosiers for the 21st century. In fact, I would argue that O’Brien’s history as a literary sportswriter makes Fly Girls the book it is. He tells the story of women’s struggles to gain acceptance in the world of early aviation through the lens of airplane racing, which was a popular spectator sport in the years between the wars.

Like modern day NASCAR racing, airplane races were about skill, speed, and the possibility of seeing horrifying crashes. And like boys’ clubs throughout history, the organizers of airplane races were determined to keep women out of the game. O’Brien tells the story of five women who learned to fly against all discouragement, who set out to break distance and speed records, and who were determined to fly in the big-money races with men. He details their challenges, their failures, and their successes. I’m not going to give you any details, because O’Brien tells their stories with the tension of a thriller and I don’t want to spoil the ride.

For me, Fly Girls was a visceral read. I ground my teeth at the indignities they suffered. I wept more than once at the story of a woman’s death. (4) I occasionally swore. And at least once I gave a fist bump of triumph. (That’s as close to a spoiler as I’m going to get.)

For the record, their names are:

  • Amelia Earhart
  • Ruth Elder
  • Florence Klingensmith
  • Ruth Nichols
  • Louise Thaden

As the most visible female pilots of their time, other women with dreams of flying watched their successes and failures with the same passion that thousands (millions?) are watching the US women’s soccer team play in the World Cup.  In fact, if you’ll excuse me,  the final game is about to start as I write this.  I’m not much of a sports fan, but this one matters.



(1) Or any aviation history books that may reside on your shelves. (Though if you have more than one or two this question may not present a challenge.) Bonus points if you’re familiar The 99s.

(2) She had to go to France to do it, because none of the aviation schools she approached would accept her. Which meant she had to learn French in order to learn to fly. This is known as determination.

(3) Also the first woman to break the sound barrier. But I didn’t know that until I looked up her dates.

(4) For the record, I do not cry easily or often.

The American Revolution from Another Perspective

It’s the Fourth of July weekend here in the United States:  a holiday that expands and contracts depending on where in the week it falls.  It’s a good time to think about the complexity of revolutions in general, and the American Revolution in particular.

In Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution, historian Kathleen DuVal reminds us that the revolution was part of a larger global conflict involving France and Spain, and that Britain had 13 other colonies in North America and the Caribbean that were also affected by the war.  She focuses on one in particular:  West Florida.*

At the beginning of the American Revolution, West Florida, which included much of what is now Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, had only recently become a British colony—part of the redistribution of imperial territories at the end of the Seven Years War. Located on the border between the British and Spanish empires, and a distant frontier for both, it was home to former French and Spanish citizens, British loyalists fleeing the disruptions of the revolution and well-organized Indian nations with their own agendas. The possibility of a Spanish invasion was real.

DuVal considers how eight very different colonists–a second-generation African slave, a young Cajun with a deep-seated hatred of the British, leaders of the Creek and Chickasaw tribes and two British couples who chose different sides in the conflict–responded to the dangers and opportunities that the revolution brought to their doorsteps and the impact of those choices. While each of these characters stands in for a larger population, the complicated calculus of self-identity, self-interest and personal history that they use to make decisions about the world around them makes it clear that revolution and politics were always personal.

*You’ve never heard of it?  That’s kind of the point.  Neither had I before I read DuVal.

Road Trip Through History: The Point Betsie Lighthouse Museum

I should begin by pointing out that I do not come from lighthouse country. I knew very little about lighthouses or life saving stations prior to going to the Port Betsie Lighthouse Museum in Frankfort, Michigan. (1) Those of you who are more lighthouse savvy than I am might not learn as much as I did. But based on the reactions of the people I was with, I’ll bet you would learn something.

The Post Betsie lighthouse was built between 1854 and 1858 and went into service in 1859. A life saving station was added to the site in 1876. One of nineteen lighthouses on the northeast shore of Lake Michigan, its purpose was to help ship captains to chart their course through the treacherous Manitou Passage. (3) The light is still active as an unmanned navigational aid, powered by a 40 watt bulb. (Honest!)

The museum has three parts: the restored lighthouse, the Boathouse Museum, and the fog signal building. The exhibits explain how the lighthouse and the life saving station worked in day to day terms, how isolated Port Betsie was from local communities for much of its tenure, and how important the work was, with lots of detail to bring it all to life.

Here are the highlights as far as I’m concerned:

  • Climbing into the lighthouse tower. Be warned: The stairs are steep and twisty and require even the short to seriously duck going both up and down. (I regretted not giving in to my impulse to leave my bag with the docent.) Once you’re in the tower, the space is tight. I will admit that I panicked about how I was going to get back down the stairs. (4) And it was absolutely worth it. Going up that staircase and standing in that space gave me a sense of lighthouse keeping I wouldn’t have gotten any other way.
  • An exhibit that illustrated the history of lighthouse illumination, from iron braziers and candle chandeliers to Fresnel lenses, a system of multi-faceted lenses in a brass frame which used a combination of reflection and refraction to focus and project light.

A Fresnel lens from the Point Wilson light station in Port Townsend Washington

  • An explicit description of the important roles played by the wives of lighthouse keepers and life saving station “surfmen”. Historical museums, large and small, often fail to consider the roles women played. I appreciate it when someone makes the effort.
  • Don’t miss the film that plays continuously in the fog signal building. It tells the story of an actual rescue, drawing on the lighthouse keeper’s journal and using local people in a number of the roles. No spoilers here, but it’s a real nail-biter.

In short, the Point Betsie Lighthouse Museum is definitely worth your time if you are in the area.

(1) My strongest images of lighthouses come from a book I read as a child, that was probably a couple of decades old at the time. A storm, a wreck, a desperate attempt to save an unidentified woman who spoke little English and left behind a violin that the lighthouse keeper’s daughter learns to play. Which of course proves to be a Stradivarius (2) when said daughter goes to New York to pursue a musical career. Resulting in the identification of the dead woman. Does this sound a chord for anyone? Let me know.

(2) As mysterious violins in fiction so often do.

(3) The fact that the passage is now a prime site for shipwreck diving tells you all you need to know.

(4) The answer: very slowly and with a large calm man standing below me. Thank you, Carl!


Traveler’s Tips

  1. The Lighthouse Museum is a seasonal treat. As of today, the lighthouse is open May 30 through October 2. Check the website for days and times. It would be a shame to get there and find out it isn’t open.
  2. The keeper’s quarters is available to rent for a night or a week. Expensive, but definitely intriguing.