Today in Feminist History: Honoring Amelia Earhart (July 18, 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 18, 1937: The Navy’s search for Amelia Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, ended at sunset today.

Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan at a recent stop on their attempted around-the-world flight.

It was the largest such operation in history, covering over 250,000 square miles, involving 3,000 sailors and 10 ships, among them the battleship Colorado and the aircraft carrier Lexington, as well as several destroyers. The hunt began after Earhart and Noonan left Lae, New Guinea, and failed to arrive at Howland Island on July 2nd. 

The flight to Howland was so tricky that it would be much like a pilot taking off from Los Angeles, California, staying above the clouds so that no landmarks could be seen, then descending below the clouds for a landing at just the right time and place that a specific 1,112 acre (1.7 square mile) farmer’s field near Albany, New York, would be visible. 

Earhart’s last transmissions indicated that she thought she was close to Howland – and their strength indicated she was probably right – but she could not find the tiny island 2,556 over-the-ocean miles from where she took off:

“We must be on you, but cannot see you. Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet. We are on the line 157 / 337. We will repeat this message. We will repeat this on 6,210 kilocycles. Wait. We are running on a line north and south.”

Though the Coast Guard cutter Itasca, stationed just off Howland was receiving her transmissions very clearly, it was unable to establish two-way communications with her or get an exact fix on her position, and apparently she couldn’t get a fix on the Itasca. The ship did everything it could, from sending up black smoke to continually broadcasting to her, but to no avail. The Itasca and the Navy minesweeper Swan then began a search, and were later joined by a massive contingent of Navy ships and aircraft.

Despite a thorough search, only one official report describes anything of interest. On July 9th, a Senior Naval Aviator flew over Gardiner Island and reported signs of recent habitation. But after repeated circling and zooming, he failed to see anyone on the beach or emerging from the dense vegetation inland, so there has been no follow-up. The island has been uninhabited since 1892, except for a brief period 8 years ago when the “Norwich City” was wrecked there, and the crew soon rescued. 

Radio amateurs in many locations have reported messages from Earhart, but it’s uncertain which are real transmissions, honest misinterpretations of faint signals, or outright hoaxes. If she did find a tiny spot to land on, and had even a small amount of fuel left, she could have powered her radio by running the engines.

Though this trip was unsuccessful, Earhart’s career certainly was not. She learned to fly just 16 years ago, and less than 2 years later broke the women’s altitude record. She was the first woman to fly the Atlantic as a passenger in 1928, and the first woman – as well as only the second person – to fly the North Atlantic by herself in 1932, doing so on the fifth anniversary of Lindbergh’s pioneering flight. She is the only woman to have flown both the Atlantic and Pacific. Just a few months after her solo flight across the Atlantic, she became the first woman to fly non-stop across the United States.

Howland Island actually proved to be her nemesis twice. She originally left the U.S. on March 17th, intending to circle the world by heading West. But after breaking the speed record from Oakland, California, to Hawaii, she had a disastrous crash on take-off while attempting to go from Hawaii to Howland. In addition, it was found upon landing in Hawaii that the propeller bearings were almost dry, so had that not been discovered, and her takeoff been successful, she would certainly have gone down at sea somewhere between Hawaii and Howland. Three months later her plane was fully repaired, and she took off from Oakland once again, flying across the country to test it out. In Miami she announced that she would continue on around the world, this time heading East due to prevailing winds being different in summer than in spring.

Up until Howland, the flight went extremely well, and she came within three landings (Howland, Hawaii and Oakland) of being the first pilot to circle the world as close to the Equator as possible. This is not only the longest way around the globe, it also requires a good deal of flying where there are no regular air routes, radio beam or weather services. 

Not long before leaving the U.S., she stated:

“I have a feeling that there is just about one more good flight left in my system, and I hope this trip is it. Anyway, when I have finished this job, I mean to give up long distance stunt flying.”

It’s uncertain whether she would have actually made good on that intention, but she has never expressed any similar plans to cut back on another of her passions. She has remained an active supporter of the National Woman’s Party and the Equal Rights Amendment, so her loss is a setback for both aviation and women’s rights. At the age of 39 there must certainly have been a lot more she would have liked to have done and could have done in both areas. But we also know what she would have chosen if given a choice between a long and uneventful life or a short but glorious one, so we should celebrate her life and courage as we mourn her loss.

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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.