The aviation industry has grown and evolved much over the years since its inception. While the industry has traditionally been dominated by men, women have been making their mark in aviation throughout history, often overcoming social and cultural barriers, and paving the way for future generations of women in aviation. Today we will explore the history of women in aviation, celebrating the trailblazers and innovators who have made major contributions to the field, inspiring women to pursue opportunities in aviation for themselves.
Women have been involved in aviation from early on in its history, and three figures stand out as early pioneers in the field: Harriet Quimby, Bessie Coleman, and Amelia Earhart.
Harriet Quimby was the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license in 1911 and went on to become the first woman to fly across the English Channel. Her daring and fearless spirit inspired women across the country to take up flying.
In 1921, Bessie Coleman became the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license. Coleman had to travel to France to pursue this dream, as no American flight school would admit her due to her race and gender. She later became a talented stunt pilot, performing at airshows across the country.
Amelia Earhart is perhaps the most well-known early pioneer of aviation. Earhart was the first woman to fly across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932 and went on to set numerous other flying records. Her mysterious disappearance during a flight in 1937 has captured the public imagination ever since.
World War II
World War II provided a major opportunity for women to become involved in aviation. The demand for male pilots meant that women were actively recruited to fill various roles previously held only by male pilots. The U.S. government established the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, which trained over 1,000 women pilots to fly non-combat aircraft. These women played a vital role in the war effort, freeing up male pilots for combat missions.
Jacqueline Cochran was one of the most notable female pilots of this era. She was the first woman to break the sound barrier in 1953 and went on to establish the Women in Aviation International organization in 1955, which aimed to promote the advancement of women in all aspects of aviation.
Post-War Struggles & Breakthroughs
Although the end of World War II meant the end of the WASP program, women continued to play important roles in aviation. One such woman was Jerrie Mock, who became the first woman to fly solo around the world in 1964. Her accomplishment was a major milestone in the field, inspiring women around the world to explore aviation further.
The 1970s saw major strides being made for women in aviation, with the establishment of Women in Aerospace (WIA), a professional organization with the aim of promoting equal opportunity for women in the field. Also, in 1976, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began to allow women to become commercial pilots, breaking down yet another barrier for women in the industry.
Women continue to make their mark in aviation today, both in civilian and military aviation. Examples include Peggy Whitson, who became the first woman commander of the International Space Station in 2007, and Eileen Collins, who became the first female commander of a Space Shuttle mission in 1999. The contributions of women in the military, such as Stephanie Johnson, the first African-American woman to pilot for Delta Airlines, cannot be overstated.
Challenges & Opportunities
Despite the impressive achievements of women in aviation, there are still many hurdles to overcome. In 2021, women comprised only 7% of pilots worldwide. This can largely be attributed to the lack of visibility and representation of women in the industry, as well as systemic barriers to entry such as discrimination in hiring practices and a lack of mentorship programs. However, more and more initiatives are being established to provide support and encouragement for women interested in aviation.