Today in Feminist History: Where is Amelia Earhart? (July 2, 1937)

Today in Feminist History is our daily recap of the major milestones and minor advancements that shaped women’s history in the U.S.—from suffrage to Shirley Chisholm and beyond. These posts were written by, and are presented in homage to, our late staff historian and archivist, David Dismore.

July 2, 1937: Where is Amelia Earhart?

PHOTO: Earhart & Noonan taking off from Lae, New Guinea, yesterday morning.

The question that may have been first asked this morning near Howland Island by the Coast Guard Cutter Itasca’s chief radio operator, Leo Bellarts, is being asked worldwide tonight.

Having completed all but three hops of their around the world flight, Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan had been spending time in Lae, New Guinea, anxiously waiting to depart, originally hoping to make it back to the U.S. by Independence Day. As Earhart put it in her latest dispatch, filed just before takeoff:

“‘Denmark’s a prison’ and Lae, as attractive and unusual as it is, appears to two flyers just as confining. The Lockheed Electra is poised for our longest hop. It is weighted with gasoline and oil to capacity. There is only one runway and a parallel wind is needed to take off. However, the wind is blowing the wrong way and threatening clouds conspired to keep her on the ground today. In addition, Frederick Noonan, my navigator, has been unable, because of radio difficulties, to set his chronometers. Any lack of knowledge of their fastness or slowness would defeat the accuracy of celestial navigation. Howland is such a small spot in the mid-Pacific that every aid in locating it must be made available…

“Fred Noonan and I have worked very hard in the last two days repacking the plane and eliminating everything unessential. I have retained only one brief case in which are my papers as well as my extra clothing and toothbrush. All Fred Noonan has is a small tin case, which he picked up in Africa. I notice it still rattles, so it cannot be packed very full … We shall try to get off today, although we cannot be home by the Fourth of July, as we had hoped.”

Handling a big plane packed with every possible drop of fuel is a major challenge for any pilot, and was certainly a factor contributing to Earhart’s runway crash in Hawaii on her first attempt to fly to Howland during her initial attempt to circle the globe in a westerly direction in March. But yesterday’s 10 a.m. takeoff appeared to go quite smoothly, and was accompanied by enthusiastic applause from those assembled to watch the departure.

Though she and Noonan expected favorable weather, one of her transmissions early this morning noted that it was cloudy, which would have made it impossible for Noonan to use the stars to fix their position during the night unless they could get above the clouds. 

Later came the first hint of real trouble. She told the Itasca, anchored just off Howland:

“We must be on you, but we cannot see you. Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet.”

They must have been very close, because the transmission was so powerful that Chief Bellarts, who stayed on duty after his watch ended to help guide Earhart and Noonan in, ran up on deck to see if he could spot them. An hour later Earhart tried again:

“We are on a line 157 / 337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6210 kilocycles. Wait.”

Two minutes later she said:

“We are running on a line North and South.”

The Itasca did everything it could—even sending up black smoke that might be seen by the flyers—but what’s happened to them remains a mystery tonight. According to a message sent from the Itasca:

“Earhart unreported at Howland…

“Believed down…

“Am searching probable area and will continue.” 

There is much speculation tonight about the fate of Earhart and Noonan. Though not a seaplane, experts believe their Lockheed Electra would certainly have the ability to float for a period of time. In 1932, Stanislaus Felix Hausner floated in his plane for eight days before being rescued, and a year earlier two other pilots floated off Newfoundland for a week. There’s also a rubber life raft aboard, plus flares, and a large signal kite, so if they are down at sea, there is a reasonable chance of rescue.

There is also the possibility that the flyers landed on an island. If so, Earhart would be able to keep transmitting by radio if there’s enough gas left in the tank to keep the propellers turning to generate power. In any case, a rescue mission has begun, since the plane cannot have flown for more than 24 hours, even if Earhart had done the best possible job of conserving fuel.

In a letter to her husband, George Palmer Putnam, just before the flight, Earhart acknowledged the risks, and explained that she was motivated to take on this arduous journey as both an aviator and a feminist. The long-time member of the National Woman’s Party and strong advocate of the Equal Rights Amendment said:

“Please know that I am aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be a challenge to others.”

Though it now appears Earhart will not be able to complete the final three stops of her unprecedented attempt to fly around the world as near as possible to the Equator, she has already accomplished a great deal for both women and aviation in her 39 years. Whether she will be able to continue her quests for adventure and equality is unknown at this time, but there is no doubt that many other women are pursuing both, and inspired by her courage, will continue to do so.


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.