Amelia “Millie” Earhart was born on July 24, 1897. Thirty-nine years later, she disappeared. And while her life was cut short — although this technically could be debated — there is no end to the legacy she has left behind, especially for women who find themselves hitting the glass ceiling in male-dominated fields. Earhart isn’t an interesting historical figure because of her attempted solo trip around the globe and her subsequent disappearance (although that doesn’t exactly hurt). Rather, it was her dedication to pursuing her dream of flying that makes her worthy of respect, as she broke down gender barriers throughout her career. [Feature photo: Sasha/Getty Images.]
Earhart’s story begins with her birth in 1897 in Atchison, Kansas. She grew up as a tomboy, playing in the mud, collecting worms, and climbing trees. However, Earhart’s childhood was marked by a lack of stability; due to her father’s alcoholism, the family moved around as he shifted from job to job, and Earhart frequently found herself staying with family friends or other relatives. After graduating from high school in Chicago, Earhart briefly enrolled in junior college but didn’t finish, choosing instead to receive training as a nurse’s aid to help the war effort.
It wasn’t until 1920 that Earhart’s relationship with flying became something of interest. While living with her parents in Long Beach, she visited an airfield with her father and was taken up into the air. She reportedly said, “By the time I had got two or three hundred feet off the round, I knew I had to fly”. And fly she did. After Charles Lindbergh conquered the first solo flight across the Atlantic, Earhart received a phone call asking her if she was interested in taking the reins as the first female pilot to attempt the feat — she was. Earhart successfully completed the journey in 1928.
Suddenly the “Queen of the Air,” Earhart became an instant celebrity, shifting quickly into the public eye and even authoring her own book on her experience. She became an associate editor as Cosmopolitan magazine and used her position as a platform on which to discuss the role of women in the male-dominated field of flying.
Her flying endeavors increased: She was the first person to fly from Honolulu to Oakland, California alone, and she set seven aviation records between 1930 and 1935. She then took a job at Purdue University where she would give advice to women on entering different careers. It’s safe to say that Earhart had a bone to pick with the way gender boundaries kept women out of certain areas of work.
Of course, these days, much of Earhart’s fame stems from her disappearance: On her second attempt to fly around the world, all contact with Earhart was lost at Howland Island. Search attempts, which lasted until July of 1937, were fruitless. There are many hypotheses surrounding Earthart’s disappearance, and many are still being formed to this day. But it’s her birthday, so let’s focus on the undeniably positive way she changed the world while she was here instead of dwelling on the way in which she left it. Happy birthday, Amelia Earhart!