Our spaces, ourselves.
Fearless femmes and what it means to be
‘the right kind of girl.’
On the 2nd July in 1937, Amelia Earhart, the pioneering androgynous aviatrix, became one of the world’s most iconic missing people.
Her story is the Holy Grail of aviation mysteries. Quite similar, I suppose, to how a pigeon ended up in my room the other morning, when there were NO WINDOWS OPEN, NO DOORS OPEN, and NO CHIMNEY CHUTE in the room. Seriously what!? Someone get David Blaine on the phone.
Attempting to circumnavigate the globe in a modified twin-engine Lockheed Electra 10E, Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan mysteriously disappeared in the middle of bloody nowhere (otherwise known as the Pacific Ocean, somewhere near Howland Island, where the Department of the Interior had built her a landing strip – hush now).
Aviation began what social media is advancing – the shrinking of the globe. What makes Amelia’s story so compelling is that it happened at a time when technology hadn’t caught up with pioneering forces. And yet, the loss of flight MH370 in 2014 reminds us that while we may think we have now perfected the art of tracking objects in flight, our ability to do so is still limited. Sure, we can track the movements of an ex or a friend with an app on our phone, but we can’t find a massive flying object. We may never know what truly happened to Amelia, or MH370, or that sodding pigeon.
Amelia’s iconic status also lingers because the unburied come back to haunt us. Like those pictures of me throwing up WKD blue in someone’s back garden when I was sixteen. I know they’re out there and I’m terrified. Or those men at the bottom of my back-garden. May they soon rest in peace and quiet and never be found (they’ll be next to the daffs). Amen.
The echoes of her gender-bending, cage-rattling voice travelled, and continue to travel, wider than the wings on which they were carried.
In her last radio transmission, she said they couldn’t find Howland and were running low on fuel. And then…nothing. Amelia Earhart: the original ghoster.
“History is women following behind…with the bucket.”
Alan Bennet’s Mrs Lintott (of The History Boys) said, “History is women following behind…with the bucket.”
Amelia Earhart following behind Fred Noonan with a bucket? I don’t think so. Not even if she loved him and he had food poisoning and was exploding out of both ends, would she follow a man around with a bucket. She’d leave him be and go for a joyride. Composing a limerick about said bucket. And we all know how that punchy number would end.
I once traversed London when I had food poisoning, in order to see a man. Not exactly crossing the Pacific. But I like to think we all do weird shit sometimes. Especially when we’re emitting weird shit. Unless of course you’re Beyonce, or Amelia.
The ‘what would Beyonce do?’ school of thought just found a new alumnus. Ms Earhart wouldn’t chase a shag whilst trying to contain the shits. That’s for sure. So we can all learn a thing or two from the lady of the skies. Not only did she implicitly demand a similar recognition to her male contemporaries and antecedent aviators, and would never follow a man around with a bucket, she also flew in men’s underpants. She was onto something there. Why are they so comfortable!?
Amelia might be considered the first famed female pilot, but it was a woman who gave her her entree into fame and it was a woman who taught her to fly. Neta Snook, the first woman to own an aviation business and commercial airfield, gave Amelia flying lessons in 1921, charging her $1 for every minute spent in the air.
Although there were other female aces in the early decades of aviation, many killed and forgotten, all daring (some even said to be better pilots than Earhart), if Earhart became an ‘icon’, it was, in part, because women who aspired to excel in any sphere looked upon her as their ambassador. She was loud and proud. She was their champion.
Indeed during her lifetime, when she lectured at colleges – which she did often, promoting careers for women – she urged the women to focus on majors dominated by men (like crocheting, engineering and fine needle point), and to postpone marriage until they had earned a degree. Amelia herself never received one, which some critics over the years – those who believe that the term ‘icon’ should incite iconoclasm – have levelled against her as proof she was a charismatic upstart and amateur.
A woman who lectured college girls about ambition yet never bothered to earn a degree? Amelia was a pioneering mansplainer then. She knew how to play at being a man, being a woman; being a woman being a man being a woman, in a man’s world.
“The right sort of girl.”
Earhart found fame in 1928, when she became the first woman to cross the Atlantic in a plane, the ‘Friendship’ (albeit only as a passenger) whilst she was also working part-time as a social worker.
Mrs. Frederick E. Guest, a steel heiress and sportswoman who was forking out the dosh for the expedition, had planned to play the starring role herself. But when her husband expressed his concern (three female fliers had perished in recent crashes), a Captain Hilton Railey was hired to find a substitute.
Guest stipulated that, ideally, she’d be an aviator but, more importantly, “the right sort of girl.”
The ‘wrong sort of girl’ was Guest’s rival in the transatlantic race: Mabel Boll. A flamboyant former actress known as the ‘Queen of Diamonds’, Mabel yearned to best Charles Lindbergh and get on the round the world publicity bandwagon. She had started out selling cigars in Rochester and ended up marrying a Colombian coffee king (number two of five) who presented her with over a million dollars in jewels and an emerald-cut diamond bearing her name. Dubbed the ‘$250,000-a-day bride’, she was also known as a temperamental passenger, once injuring pilot Erroll Boyd with an Alligator handbag in flight when he made a premature landing in bad weather.
As Guest later put it to her daughter, she “just wouldn’t do.” Exit Mabel Boll, pursued by nasty women of the future.
I mean, HELLO Mabel my new best friend. Let’s all go out on the town with Mabs. She sounds fantabs. Amelia, by contrast, appeared demure, capable: boring. Of course she got the bloody job. It’s all relative isn’t it? Put yourself next to Marilyn Manson, chances are you’re vanilla. Next to Camilla Parker Bowles? You’re downright kinky.
Let’s all remember that when we’re having a bad day.
Hobo what? Hobo who?
Although her modest demeanour made her the perfect heroine for the conservative, media-conscious age, Amelia was by no means vanilla, and her journey to iconville provides as much reassurance to those who find themselves sometimes stumbling, as it does inspiration to pursue the seemingly unreachable, dizzying flights of one’s dreams.
Prior to her big break, she was a nomadic romantic who called herself “a hobo of the air”; a vagabond whose employment history reads like that of a 21st century drifter. She dropped out of college more than once, took up posts as a clerk at a phone company, an amateur photographer, a hauler of gravel, a trainee nurse; she taught English as a second language and had stints in social work and at a psychiatric hospital. It was in her spare time that she was a devoted aviatrix and featured performer in an air rodeo.
Amelia is the relatable modern careerist; seen through one lens, a perennial drifter, through the other, an artistic taster of all tales.
She reminds us that it’s ok to take your time to find your path in life. (Hey ladies, we can freeze our eggs now for…sorry how much!? Oh…) And, when you’re ready, there’s going to be a rich-diamond-queen of a flamboyant actress who makes you, the woman who can’t hold down a job, the ‘right’ kind of girl.
Wowsers, trousers? Again?
A woman, one woman, who could be both economically and erotically independent would have to wait out the Depression. She’d have to be superhero, anyway. And superheroes hadn’t quite been invented yet. So for now, let’s focus on Amelia.
As the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic ocean in 1932, it was not only her skill and daring, but her particular brand of androgyny that was the goldilocks formula to her celebrity.
Chosen for the 1928 flight in part due to her resemblance to Charles Lindbergh, Amelia projected a befuddling melee of traits with such an aura of virtue and self-assurance that she disarmed received notions of femininity. She was in fact seen as the antidote to those shameless flappers: “Hers is the healthy curiosity of the clean mind and the strong body. . . . She will become a symbol of new womanhood.” (Kristen Lubben, Amelia Earhart: Image and Icon).
So, the ‘right type of woman’ flaunted the ‘accepted’ modes of masculinity: Bob when he’s at the office in a suit and tie, not down the pub dancing on the table because he’s overestimated his constitution for tequila slammers and now believes he is the reincarnated spirit of Cleopatra.
Epicene echo chamber.
In the early decades of the 20th century, American psychological thought posited that a feminist was a woman who couldn’t accept she wasn’t a man. Thankfully we’ve progressed from that narrative. Mostly.
Despite her ‘give a fuck’ attitude to gendered ‘norms’, Putnam, the press, and no doubt Earhart herself, were aware that there was something unsettling about her appearance that had to be softened, should the occasion call for it – or perhaps should Amelia want the cash to continue to capitalise on the fame her flying accomplishments brought her, and to champion the advancement of women and other causes, about which she was passionate and outspoken.
Accordingly, photo spreads of her in her unconventional trousers and leather jacket were juxtaposed with those of a ‘well-bred lady’ in her suitable ‘lady clothes.’ But, despite having to navigate the conservative media machine of the time, Earhart helped to sew the seeds that have allowed the likes of Ruby Rose or Asia Kate Dillon to blossom.
Not only did she become the embodiment of the new roles that began to seem possible for American women, she defended a woman’s right to have a space of her own.
On her wedding day, in 1931, she handed her groom, George Palmer Putnam, a letter marked by her progressive attitude:
‘You must know again my reluctance to marry, my feeling that I shatter thereby chances in work which means so much to me…In our life together I shall not hold you to any medieval code of faithfulness … nor shall I consider myself bound to you similarly… I may have to keep some place where I can go to be myself now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all the confinements of even an attractive cage.’
The echoes of Virginia Woolf’s, ‘A Room of One’s Own’ are palpable. Its sentiment still pertinent.
‘Women’s’ spaces are seeing a resurgence – from London’s University Women’s Club to New York’s ‘millennial-meets-suffragette space’ The Wing (opened by political consultant and friend of Lena Dunham, Audrey Gelman). So, it’s a truth to be acknowledged that, sometimes, women still need somewhere that enables them to deal with an often male-dominated society. An oestrogen echo chamber.
Rather than arguing that these spaces stunt feminism at a time when the fight for gender equality is more dynamic, more pluralistic than ever; that we should be sharing our opinions, our modes of working, our aspirations with those who need to be exposed to it the most: men. Let’s posit that women sharing ideas and acting as mentors is in fact accelerating the movement, especially amongst ‘professionals’ who often find themselves fighting in still male-dominated working environments and professions.
Whilst campaigns like HeforShe have done brilliant work in addressing the vital need for men to participate in the conversation, it is also key to acknowledge that, somewhere amid the mysterious spark in the connections and conversations women have with one another, there lies the desire that sometimes, just sometimes, we want all the men to just fuck right off.
A free flowing,
After years in an all-girls school, where competitive cattiness clipped the air like Elizabeth Taylor clipped the critics of her catches, I had thought myself not one to promote female only spaces. But they are, as I recently discovered, utopias, where I’m convinced the next coming will resurface.
I have seen the anti-cage future, and it’s a tit soup idyll. A free flowing, free-foof-wheeling pre-lapsarian Eden. Otherwise known as…Kenwood Ladies’ Pond. I am horrendously late to the game as a born Londoner, it’s not actually the future, rather the ‘been here for ages love where have you been exposing your breasts?’ (don’t ask), but, as Earhart reminds us, it’s never too late. For anything. Especially not boobie-bliss.
There was a softness, a serene sparkle in the air, which had nothing to do with the dazzling heat wave. Women leave their bags and breasticles with abandon, skip into the sludge coloured waters for a dip before returning to find everything in tact. Students recline perpendicular to pensioners, and for every swimsuit-sheltered form, there is a jiggling, naked bottom. Reserve is balanced out by reckless abandon of one’s boobies to the basking sunlight.
Now, I’m not advocating a world in which we bear our children by parthenogenesis (à la Charlotte Perkins Gilaman’s Herland which was, arguably, a symbolic ploy to advocate sex without that pesky, bumpy side effect, in an era when contraception was illegal).
But, reader, I am moving to the Ladies’ Pond. Find me in a tent by the brambles.
‘Great girdle of Aphrodite!’
And if I’m not there, find me in a world that looks like something out of Forbes’ most exclusive retreats. A world that the nineteenth century suffragists, following the work of anthropologists, believed once existed. An island matriarchy that predated the rise of patriarchy. An island of Amazons: Themyscira.
In America in 1911, ‘Amazon’ was synonymous with any woman rebel – essentially, any girl who left home and went to college. These ‘New Women’ desired themselves to be as free as men.
By 1937, the year of Amelia’s disappearance, the American Medical Association finally endorsed contraception. And a Mr William Moulton Marston held a press conference in which he predicted that women would one day rule the world.
I mean, I think we’re still waiting…but it’s nice that he tried.
Dr Marston was a psychologist with a Ph.D. from Harvard. He was also, of course, the man who created ‘Wonder Woman’. She debuted in 1941, four years after Amelia vanished, and her origin story comes straight out of feminist utopian fiction. A press release explained:
“ ‘Wonder Woman’ was conceived by Dr. Marston to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and achievement in athletics, occupations and professions monopolized by men because “the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity.”
Well, yes. Just all the yes.
In Cara Buckley’s NY Times interview of Patty Jenkins, the director said this, “The world is in crisis…I wanted to tell a story about a hero who believes in love, who is filled with love, who believes in change and the betterment of mankind. I believe in it…Art is supposed to bring beauty to the world.”
That beauty made me (and others, I’m assured) sob. From about five (ok two) minutes in, until the end. I can’t explain it. Well, actually I can – there are NO MEN DOING THE FIGHTING FOR THE FIRST TWENTY MINUTES. Also, Robin Wright. The effect of it was startling. An unexpected shock to the system. For a die-hard Buffy and Xena fan, used to seeing a strong woman dominate a fight sequence, I felt winded by the beauty of Themyscira and the grace and grit of its lady inhabitants, by Diana’s effervescent yet effortless dismay at the men around her. By the end, I vibrated with the sense of empowerment, but also, deep sadness at the ways in which women are still disparaged, demoted and disbelieved in terms of their abilities and freedoms.
And for anyone that thinks otherwise, just think that even the fight for birth control and choice isn’t over.
Feminism or fetishism?
The secret history behind Wonder Woman is fascinating, as Jill Lepore explores in her latest book. Marston was was not only the man who invented the lie detector test, but who also claimed – after an experiment in which women were cuffed to his ’Love Meter’ (a chair, apparently, heard that before) whilst watching romantic movies – that brunettes are more excitable than blondes. Well, that explains it. And he certainly liked to make sure that Wonder Woman often found herself tied up.
Whether we read his strips as feminist manifestoes, or as the working out of issues by a man who could be Alfred Kinsey’s weirdo cousin that likes to whip people in the basement, or both, is debatable.
Regardless, Marston believed that “People must be taught that the love parts of themselves, which they have come to regard as abnormal, are completely normal.” Just do you. In other words. Not a bad philosophy.
Good old Will and the women who influenced his creation (he lived in a polyamorous set up with two women who, incidentally, continued to live with each other long after his death) were onto something. As the Diana of the movie says, “It’s not about (what people) deserve. It’s about what you believe in. And I believe in love. Only love can save the world.”
Marston died in 1947, and the strip went downhill, to be later rediscovered and championed by Ms. magazine (an organ for a revived feminist movement) in the 1970s. The same magazine that featured Earhart on a 1976 cover, promising a story ‘better than the myth.’
That myth was perhaps something to do with the conspiracy theorists, who have suggested that Earhart was on a hushed-up mission to spy on the Japanese who interned her; that she became Tokyo Rose; or that she returned secretly to America and lived out her days as a housewife in New Jersey. Shit happens after you’ve tried to change the world.
History raises questions about the nature of truth, but to leave the dead wholly dead is just rude.
So, sometimes, fantasy intercedes…
New evidence suggests that Earhart did not crash in the Pacific Ocean, but instead made a forced landing on Nikumaroro’s smooth, flat coral reef, and that she and Noonan may, for a while, have survived as castaways and eventually died on the atoll.
Maybe Earhart, like Wonder Woman, did rescue herself. Except in her rescue scenario, she has company. Until the end of her days.
I can just picture them, sun blazing down, foraging for berries and branches with which to build a make-shift hut. They bask in the Pacific sun, entangling themselves for hours in the sand, not thinking on the passing of time, for why, when time is etched in the glory of sunrise and sunset and the silence (or not so silent, because hey, they’re all alone on a desert island) of sweet embraces.
Then one day, a plane can be heard in the distance and for a moment, they consider not writing a message on the shore, briefly contemplating perpetual solitude and abandoned animality. But consciences are pricked and they scrawl an SOS from below. The clouds descend. The plane disturbs them not. Edenic foraging continues.
Sometime later, perhaps months, perhaps years, the distant echo of the click of a clock begins to swell within them. Noonan’s face all of a sudden seems to resemble a squashed sausage, his nose is hairier than she had previously thought, he’s stoned on a narcotic root a little too often, his silly faces, silly voices and early morning erectile energy start to grate.
Earhart begins to contemplate hitting him over the head (perhaps with a bucket) and burying him beneath the tree they engraved their names in because, let’s face it, that was going to happen sooner or later. The idyll is all irk and no ink with which to sign the divorce. Earhart does nothing to piss Noonan off, of course. Because she is always right. Right? RIGHT!?
Earhart knew that there were few Edens in this world, especially between men and women. Especially when they are trapped with one another on a theoretical atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. But we do our best.
Elizabeth I once said, “Men fight wars, women win them.”
Amelia wrote to her husband George, on the eve of her fateful flight:
‘Please know that I am aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try and do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be a challenge to others.’
Until a time when Elizabeth’s tenet becomes truth in text and laws, let’s look to our unconventional, liberated, challenging women; the wonder women we still need, because, hey, who would have guessed it, we’re not there yet. (‘There’ being Howland? Herland? Themyscira, obvs.)
Until then, pick up your lasso, polish your golden cuffs, and shower everyone with love, until the tides change, and the skull of Earhart is found, smiling from the coral flecked sands on Nikumaroro.
Today, here’s to being the ‘wrong’ type of woman. Or the ‘right’ type of woman. Here’s to praising all the people in our lives that don’t fit, that break received notions of anything ‘normal.’ Those that lead by love. After all, Wonder Woman isn’t really an Amazon at all, arguably (depending on what age you look to in the series’ history): she’s a demigoddess. Aren’t we all! Say it three times out loud and then add in a ‘Suffering Sappho!’ for good measure.
No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else.
Even if he liked a little kinky bondage playtime, and had her bound and gagged quite (maybe a little too) often, Marston reminds us that we are all wonder women. We can all be Amelia Earhart. We must all keep challenging. And we will never follow behind the men with the bucket.
Amazons, Earharts, all. Hear us bloody roar.