17 March 2008

Powder Puff Derby: Why Do Women Fly

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When someone asked Amelia Earhart why she flew, she told them it was "For the fun of it!" That line became the title of her second book about her aviation career. While at first it seems like a flip remark, "for the fun of it" was actually a more complex statement. Aviation provided a feeling of joy and real liberation to the small group of women who dared become pilots in the 20's and 30's. In a time when most women were simply housewives, expected to be quiet and demure, creating fun in your life could be...revolutionary!

Flash forward about five decades... It's interesting to compare Earhart's remark with that made by Sally Ride, America's first woman in space. When she returned to Earth, Ride was roundly criticized in the media for saying that the flight was "fun". Somewhere up there, I guarantee Amelia Earhart and the women of her era, were terribly annoyed at the press' sentiment!

In any case, if you want to get some insight into the unique group of ladies who flew in the Powder Puff Derby, look no further than the Santa Monica Morning Outlook, August 11, 1929. That issue of the paper featured an amazing, two-page article about the women fliers entitled "Why do Women Fly? They Speak for Themselves". The second page summed up a general sentiment with this headline: "Most of Us Fly Because We Would Escape from Social Stupidity...and to Make Money".

Albert Dorris, the reporter who wrote the article, seemed astonished that any women would want to make an eight-day trip cross country in an open cockpit, at the mercy of the weather and mechanical failures. The responses he got from the women he spoke to, however, must have convinced him they were a special breed. "Why do I fly?" said Marvel Crosson. "Because it is my profession, my way of earning a living and because I love it." Bobbi Trout put it this way: "Because I do it a lot better than I do anything else!", while Gladys O'Donnell answered, "My goodness! What a question!" She then went on to explain that she learned to fly after her husband took lessons, and that they were now partners in aviation as they were in life.

For other contestants, the reasons that they flew were less clear cut. Vera Dawn Walker, who Dorris described as "an irrepressible 97-pound bundle of pep and ginger" shot back that she flew because "I want to". "It goes back to the time when I was just a little girl on a Texas ranch," she explained. "Even when I was a baby, I envied the birds. When I went to school, I was disappointed to learn I could not fly in the same manner." She went on, "In 1921, I was introduced to an aviator and told him my story. He invited me up for a ride..." and the rest, of course, is history. Or, I should say, herstory!

That response sounds completely idealistic when compared to the explanation offered by Ruth Elder, the Hollywood actress and aviator, who said she flew "because of the money there is in it for me." "I worked as a stenographer for $27.50 a week," she noted dryly, "and figured I could make a lot more than that if I could hop across the ocean. Lindbergh did it. Why couldn't I? You can say that Ruth Elder flies as a matter of business, just the same as she appears in motion pictures, for a stipulated weekly salary."

Inevitably, of course, Albert Dorris interviewed Pancho, and got a "surprising" answer to his question. I have to say, that out of all the documents, interviews, personal letters, and ephemera that we looked through in assembling the film, the couple of answers Dorris elicited from Pancho are some of my favorite. Somehow, Dorris caught Pancho at just the right moment, when she was willing to do something she rarely did -- reveal a bit of her personal character and make-up.

"Why do I fly?" Pancho said. "To keep from exploding -- that's why I fly. It acts as a safety valve so far as I am concerned. It acts as a panacea for too many social duties, too much home management, too much everything conventional. It doesn't interfere with anything. Oh, there are thousands of reasons why I fly and I just love it."

Photo at right: Pancho, a "society lady and flier", as she appeared on the front page of the Outlook. The photo was her standard publicity shot at the time, and was probably shot by glamor photographer George Hurrell.