Today in Feminist History: Women Pilots Sent to War (March 25, 1942)

March 25, 1942: It was officially confirmed today that 25 of America’s best women pilots will be going to Britain to help with the Allied war effort.

PHOTO: Jacqueline Cochran being awarded the Bendix Trophy by Vincent Bendix.

After learning that our Army Air Forces had no immediate plans to use women, Jacqueline Cochran began recruiting women pilots about six weeks ago for duty in the British Air Transport Auxiliary.

According to Commodore H.R. Thornton, the women will ferry light aircraft from factories to airfields after first going to Canada for physical examinations, training, and flight tests.

Though Americans are quite supportive of our British allies, today’s move is controversial because experienced pilots will be needed here to train new pilots for our own rapidly expanding war effort. But a number of qualified women aviators will remain in the U.S. in order to train military pilots if called on to do so. In America, women pilots can currently serve only in the Civil Air Patrol as instructors. 

Cochran learned to fly in three weeks, earned her pilot’s license in 1932, and has been flying competitively since 1934.

In 1938, she outflew her male competitors to win the prestigious Bendix Transcontinental Air Race—and she did it under extremely poor weather conditions.

On September 28, 1940, just over a year after the war began in Europe, she wrote First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt suggesting the establishment of a women’s flying division of what was then the Army Air Corps.

Last June, she proved that women could perform useful tasks in military aviation by becoming the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic, so now it’s on to the next level.


David Dismore is the archivist for the Feminist Majority Foundation. His journey from would-be weather forecaster to full-time feminist began with the powerful impression made by a photo and a few paragraphs about the suffragists in his high school history textbook; years later, he had his first encounter with NOW—in which he carefully peeked in a window before opening the door to be sure men were allowed. He was eventually active in the ERA extension campaign of 1978, embarked on a cross-country bikeathon for it in 1982 and even worked for pioneers Toni Carabillo and Judith Meuli.