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Girls Who Fly: 1965 Angel Derby Pilots Are Told Sexism Doesn't Exist

Number 48

Thursday, July 26, 2012 - 01:00 PM

WNYC
Licensed for use only on NEH-funded Annotations blog. June Douglas with her flight mascot, Barefoot, prior to setting out on a 1,468 mile race. May 26, 1965. (© Bettmann/Corbis/Corbis Images)

This Overseas Press Club conference is a reminder of the unfortunately routine institutionalized gender oppression in American industry. Featuring deft pilots in the Angel Derby, an all-female air race from New York to the Bahamas, this panel's male moderator and reporters dole out condescension and hostility, but "the girls" hold steady despite the dismissive questioning. 

The moderator introduces each woman, injecting commentary and questions about their husbands, children, engagement rings, and “stockbroker” boyfriends to lukewarm applause; while reading June Douglas’ professionally impressive bio, though, the moderator can’t help but “correct” her claim that she left NASA because there weren’t enough opportunities for women.  “I’ve been to Cape Kennedy,” he says, “and half their staff down there are female!”

Ms. Douglas, the chief spokeswoman for the group, finally takes the podium to make a plea for commercial airlines to hire female co-pilots and flight engineers. She points out that men with fewer hours logged flying and the minimum qualifications are hired and even trained on the job by the airlines. She, by contrast, has been flying for 12 years and is a flight examiner, licensing prospective pilots, yet cannot be considered for a job. Women flew B-17 bombers during the war (in noncombat situations) and there are women in air traffic control towers across the nation.

Why not have women in the cockpit? Ms. Douglas addresses a few concerns of airlines and her male counterparts, among them, a female pilot "might shock the passengers," and pilots and co-pilots share hotel rooms so housing women would increase operating costs.

During the question period one reporter asks what is "the attraction" of wanting to be a pilot. The answer, not surprisingly, is pay. British Airlines had at least one female pilot, and in Russia there were numerous women flying planes. The moderator, "cracking wise" with a number of patronizing comments, asks if they're all "good swimmers" since part of the race takes place over water. Another reporter asks if the aviatrixes would "risk a poll of female passengers" on the question of female pilots, with the supposition that they would be "jealous." Another asks if there have been studies comparing accident rates between male and female drivers as well as pilots. With barely suppressed rage, one of the women points out that in both this race and the Powder Puff Derby (a trans-continental air race for women) they have never lost a pilot.

Attempting to lighten the tone of the proceedings, the moderator asks if they fly in flats, high heels, or silk stockings? When one says she flies barefoot he ripostes, "Any other weirdies?" He concludes by remarking that they'll all, no doubt, be wearing bikinis for the last leg of the trip and wishes them good luck, "whether you're winning or swimming."

The ambitions expressed in this press conference weren't attained for another eight years. As the magazine Airport Journals reported:

A permanent place for women in the cockpit of an airliner would not occur until 1973, when a regional carrier at the time, Frontier Airlines, hired Emily Howell. Just three weeks after she was hired, American Airlines hired Bonnie Tiburzi, and the airline cockpit door was stuck in the open position for women who were qualified.

This initial hiring did not lead to a flood of female applicants, though. The field of aviation still presents peculiar obstacles to women, the two most notable of which are the culture of flying, which has its roots in the military, and its cost. In a 2011 article titled Why Aren't There More Women Pilots, A. Pawlowski of CNN Travel explained:

When they do decide to pursue flying, one of the biggest obstacles to getting a job at a carrier is money. When going the civilian route, it can cost up to $100,000 in training to become an airline pilot, said Amy Laboda, a pilot and editor in chief of Aviation for Women magazine. An aspiring aviator can skip the big costs by learning how to fly in the military, and many pilots who take this route traditionally go on to work for commercial airlines. But there are still few female pilots in military ranks. Women make up less than 5 percent of the more than 14,000 pilots currently in the U.S. Air Force, for example, according to the Air Force Personnel Center.

That alternate route, civilian training, is also one in which women seem to start at a disadvantage. As Capt. Meryl Getline recalls in an article in  USA Today:

I found out the hard way that there weren't any women airline pilots — yet. I also found out first-hand about the discrimination I and any other prospective female pilots would face, starting with the registration clerk for the Private Pilot Ground School course I wanted to sign up for. The clerk laughed at me when I announced very seriously, "I'm going to be an airline pilot and I need to find out how to go about it, please."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," he said in complete disgust. "Everybody wants to fly 747's for Pan Am, and you think you're going to? Forget it — the airlines will never hire a woman — never." Nevertheless, I did sign up for it and was the only female in the class.

However, progress has been made, more than could have possibly envisioned by the reporters shown to such disadvantage in this recording. Perhaps the most significant recent breakthrough was made  in 2002 by American Airlines Capt. Esther Horn, who became the first female pilot for a large-scale commercial airline …to retire.

 

Audio courtesy of the NYC Municipal Archives WNYC Collection.

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