By Susan Ware
In 1928 Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly the Atlantic Ocean, a feat which made her an instant celebrity even though she was only a passenger, or in her self-deprecating description, “a sack of potatoes.” In 1932 she became the first person since Charles Lindbergh to fly the Atlantic solo, doing it in record time and becoming the first person to have crossed the Atlantic by air twice.
Having received far more credit than she felt she deserved in 1928, “I wanted to justify myself to myself. I wanted to prove that I deserved at least a small fraction of the nice things said about me.” So on 20 May 1932 (the fifth anniversary of Lindbergh’s flight), Amelia Earhart took off from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland in her single-engine bright red Lockheed Vega. The flight, rocked by storms, lasted over 14 hours and landed her in Londonderry, Northern Ireland.
The below map features quotes from Earhart’s acceptance speech of The Society’s Special Medal after her unparalleled achievement. (Please note all pinpoints are approximate as there are no logs of times and coordinates for her flight.)
The hundreds of telegrams, tributes, and letters that poured in after the 1932 solo flight testify that women in the United States, indeed throughout the world, took Amelia Earhart’s individual triumph as a triumph for womanhood, a view she herself encouraged. At a White House ceremony honoring her for her flight, she succinctly captured the links between aviation and feminism: “I shall be happy if my small exploit has drawn attention to the fact that women are flying, too.”
With all the mythology surrounding Amelia Earhart’s last flight in 1937, it is hard not to let the unsolved mystery of her disappearance cloud our historical memories. Without that dramatic denouement, however, it seems likely that Amelia Earhart would have been remembered primarily for the skill, daring, and courage demonstrated in her 1932 Atlantic solo. It is the life, not the death, that counts.
Susan Ware is the General Editor of American National Biography Online and author of Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism. A pioneer in the field of women’s history and a leading feminist biographer, she is the author and editor of numerous books on twentieth-century US history. Ware was recently appointed Senior Advisor of the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.
For more information on Earhart, visit her entry in American National Biography. The landmark American National Biography offers portraits of more than 18,700 men and women — from all eras and walks of life — whose lives have shaped the nation. More than a decade in preparation, the American National Biography is the first biographical resource of this scope to be published in more than sixty years.
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Image credit: Earhart and “old Bessie” Vega 5b c. 1935. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.