National Geographic : 1998 Jan
That bracelet, embellished with silver, lies today in a display case at the Oklahoma City headquarters of the Ninety-Nines, the inter national organization of women pilots Earhart helped found in 1929, named for its number of charter members. Holding the bracelet in my hand, feeling its featherlike weight, I was struck by what it meant for Earhart to have removed it, how anxious she must have been about the journey to Howland Island. MELIA EARHART stepped onto the world's stage-and into people's hearts-in 1928, after becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. That the two men who actually flew the plane had not once allowed her to touch its controls (although she was a licensed aviator) hardly seemed to matter. While she was protesting that she'd been little more than a "sack of potatoes" dur ing the 20-hour-and-40-minute flight, the world was hoisting her on its shoulder, pro claiming her a heroine. After all, Charles Lind bergh had soloed the same seas only a year earlier and, in the preceding ten months, 14 pilots-three of them women-had perished trying to duplicate his feat. Amelia's insistence that the two male pilots deserved all the credit only made the crowds cheer more. Earhart was the "real American girl," as modest as she was courageous, sang the newspaper editorials. What more could one want in a heroine? Her self-deprecating sense of humor and physical resemblance to Lindbergh only heightened her appeal. They were both blond, tall, and slim, with strong jaws and high foreheads and the same direct look of confidence in their blue eyes. Overnight the 30-year-old pilot, who had been teaching immigrant children in Boston before her flight, found herself hailed as a role model. Very few American women then sought careers in such male-dominated professions, and Earhart's success opened a window on a world that had been all but forbidden. "Our great-grandmothers had to keep their wings clipped like discontented little birds," a 13 year-old schoolgirl wrote a few years later in an essay about Amelia. But now, like a "beautiful white swan," Earhart had shown young women how "to fly the air. [She] led the way that others might dare to follow."