This article originally appeared in The Culture Issue of APEX Experience.
“It may almost be said that the flying man has become a commonplace of the sky of the continent, even if he still is a rare bird in this country,” reported an English newspaper in the early 20th century. “The flying woman is a novelty abroad and a novelty here, and as such, and because of her own attractions, is arousing much curiosity.”
Mutually powered by industrialization, the invention of aviation coincided historically with a period where women were steadily entering the labor force. When flying took off in the early 1900s, women like E. Lillian Todd, Thérèse Peltier, Blanche Stuart Scott and Raymonde de la Roche pursued aviation as readily as men did – but the female presence, in what quickly became a male-dominated industry, fell under certain scrutiny.
“What shall we call women who are ascending in aeroplanes and balloons?” wondered Charles N. Lurie, reporting for Salt Lake City’s Desert Evening News in 1910. “Shall we refer to them as aviatrices (plural of aviatrix, of which the masculine is aviator), or shall we adopt the suggestion of an English magazine and refer to the fair flyers as ‘aeroines.’”
In addition to confusion about nomenclature, there were more serious concerns. As Lurie explained, “According to the ‘man birds,’ women are temperamentally unfitted to cope with the problems of the aviator.” Prejudices such as this led many to speculate that aviation accidents were more likely under the helm of women. After de la Roche’s crash at Reims in 1910, Lurie speculated, “Had a man been in the machine instead of its occupant being Mme. de la Roche, I don’t believe there would have been any accident.”
But luckily, many early “aeroines” were not held back by their detractors: “I was annoyed from the start by the attitude of doubt by the spectators that I would never really make the flight,” said Harriet Quimby, just prior to her record-breaking flight across the English Channel in 1912. “This attitude made me more determined than ever to succeed.”
Over a century later, women still face many obstacles in the air travel industry. Globally, only approximately three percent of the 130,000 pilots worldwide are women.