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Female first: aerial women in mythology, pop culture, and beyond

The sacred is where you find it. We would be foolish to ignore human awe in contemplating the eternal stability of the night sky and envy for the flight of birds that seemed to fly between the earthly, somewhat troublesome world of constant change, and what appeared to be eternal heavenly realms. The ancient depictions of winged females, and not winged males, suggest women were perceived as having some special power that men did not. Historically, this often formed the background for gender conflicts—what women want to do and what men will allow them to do as well as female indifference to the terms set by men. Aerial women in mythology represent power and freedom. They have been worshipped as bird goddesses, Valkyries, winged goddesses, and witches. These and other flying females from a wide variety of cultures are linked to sexuality, death and rebirth, or immortality.

Think of the Egyptian goddess Isis who restored her husband to life by flapping her wings over his body and then had sex with him to conceive their son Horus. In different places and historical periods there were remarkably similar discourses about the unpredictable powers of aerial women, who could be generous or withholding, empowering or destructive. To fly is to experience a profound sense of freedom and power. But, because of the uncertain nature of these winged women, the question arose as to how they could be controlled—whether by supplication or coercion. Over time, they flew through a universe of ever-increasing constraint in which similar means were used to capture and domesticate them, to turn them into handmaidens of male desire and ambition. One consequence of this was male control of their sexuality. For many aerial females (swan maidens, fairies, Brunhilde), having sex can mean the loss of flight or the loss of power, as sex is part of their captivity and domestication. In contradistinction, some aerial females (goddesses, ḍākinīs, some tantric practitioners, shamans, and Asian mystics) are sexual only as their desires dictate.

Many airborne women marry mortal men, transforming them into something more than they had been, but they do not always live happily ever after. Aerial women often shape-shift between human and avian forms, as with swan maidens; while in human form, however, they are vulnerable to captivity. Once captured, they sometimes live with a man for years, and even have children, before finally escaping back into their bird form and fleeing. At other times an aerial woman willingly accepts a man but sets a condition or taboo—one that he inevitably breaks. She then flies away. This suggests the paradoxical nature of these creaturely and sexual beings; on the one hand, they are creatively involved with humans through their reproductive powers, while on the other they reject the terrestrial realm of human beings. They are essentially birdlike, briefly nesting on the earth but most at home in the sky. Some can confer the blessings of fertility and immortality or snatch life away. One needs to be very careful in dealing with them.

By the time actual aviation began, it was a carefully guarded power limited to men. Women fliers of the 1920s and 1930s were unperturbed by public opinion, as they described experiencing independence and freedom through flight. These women supported each other and organized in a very public way by staging the sky-breaking first air race by women pilots, the Women’s Air Derby of 1929. Amelia Earhart came in second, which the wildly popular, nationally-syndicated columnist and radio commentator Will Rogers trivialized by calling the event the Powder Puff Derby. The camaraderie of the participants led them to the establishment of the Ninety-Nines, the first organization for female pilots, still in existence today.

 Amelia Earhart standing under nose of her Lockheed Model 10-E Electra by Underwood & Underwood. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Wonder Woman in her early 1940s depiction brings us back to the question of sexuality. Although Wonder Woman appears not to be sexually active, and in spite of her love for US Army pilot Steve Trevor, the fact that she was born, as a princess, on Paradise Island—the mysterious home of the Amazons at the edge of the known world—signals a lesbian undertone that often rises to a crescendo in her relations with the Holliday College girls. Wonder Woman’s nom de guerre, Diana Prince—an inversion of her birth name, title, and gender—is but one example of her polymorphous sexuality.

With the advent of World War II, America was desperate for trained pilots, which required the hiring of civilian female pilots and led aerial women into war service, the inevitable domain of flying females. Like Valkyries hovering over the battlefield waiting to carry fallen heroes to Valhalla, female pilots ferried warplanes across America. Male civilian pilots could hitch rides on military planes, but women pilots could not because the press tracked almost every move the women pilots made and the Army was afraid of scandal. In March 1943, the Army briefly stopped women from being co-pilots with men and grounded them for nine days when menstruating. Both restrictions, however, were soon rescinded. Women’s sexuality continued to be guarded—they could fly, but sex was taboo—and menstruation, an assertion of their femaleness, remained a problem for many men.

It was not until 1977 that the United States Congress finally acknowledged women as military personnel, declaring them veterans and issuing them honorable discharges. Women were not allowed to fly again for the American military, or for commercial airlines, until the 1970s. Unfortunately, women were not considered for the early astronauts program of the 1960s, despite significant evidence that they were psychologically and physically better equipped than men to withstand the stress of space travel and were lighter in weight—always a benefit since the earliest days of flying. The continuing prevalent view was that women could not fly while menstruating. Somehow, the first female cosmonaut flew while menstruating without a problem, but it would take the United States another twenty years to send a woman into space. Sally Ride, a 32-year-old astrophysicist, blasted off on 18 June1983. In 1995, Eileen Collins, the first woman to pilot an American spacecraft, carried the pilot’s license of Evelyn Trout into space. Trout had flown in the 1929 Women’s Air Derby, and her pilot’s license was signed by Orville Wright.

From the earliest bird goddesses to the space age some women have refused to be defined by the restrictive gravity of men’s wishes or desires; their ability to fly empowered them to impose conditions on men, or to escape roles they found constricting. The ancient concept of powerful winged women shape-shifts into many different forms over time and place; sometimes they lose one or more characteristics while at other times they gained additional ones. Whether human, divine, or mythic creatures, men desire them, but not as they are. Rather, they want to clip their wings in order to hold them captive, controlling and constraining their freedom.

Featured image credit: Illustration to The Book of Wonder Voyages by John D. Batten. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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