The Culture War That Was Fought in the SkyRoundup
tags: culture war, womens history
Ruth Elder breezed into Long Island in September 1927—four months after Charles Lindbergh flew the Atlantic—with all the subtlety of a gale.
Her colorful sweaters were tight, and her brown hair was bobbed in the latest style. The Alabama native almost never appeared without a rainbow-hued scarf wrapped around her head, pinning back her wild curls. Her airplane was equally eye-catching; the single-engine, Stinson Detroiter monoplane was a brilliant shade of orange. The color choice had less to do with flair than practicality. In a wide expanse of gray-blue ocean, it was easier to spot the floating wreckage of an orange plane than, say, a silver one. And that could prove helpful to Elder. She intended to become the first woman to fly across the ocean, flying this plane—her orange plane—the American Girl.
“Gas bought, runway ready, plane dandy, pilots OK,” Elder told reporters just after Labor Day at Roosevelt Field on Long Island, the same airstrip where Lindbergh had taken off four months earlier. “Give us a weather break and we’ll take off then.”
Elder—brash and bold, at 24 years old, with her copilot, George Haldeman, at her side—was quickly the talk of New York. But she wasn’t alone. Three hundred miles up the coast, another woman was waiting as well for the weather to break—with dreams, money and an airplane of her own. Frances Grayson, a self-made real estate agent from New York, had dubbed her hulking seaplane the Dawn because this was a new day, a time for strong women like Grayson to choose their own path. Grayson, 35, also intended to be the first woman to ever fly across the ocean to Europe, hiring two men to fly her there. “The Dawn,” she said, “will awake American women to new efforts and bind closer the women of two continents.”
Elder and Grayson emerged at a unique moment in American history: air fever. In the summer of 1927, stories of daring flights filled newspapers across the country. And radio broadcasters followed the newly minted American hero Lindbergh everywhere as he flew the Spirit of St. Louis in a goodwill tour across America. Now, improbably, came two heroines—Elder and Grayson—elbowing their way into the national conversation. Reporters loved writing about their plans—and their planes. They also enjoyed belittling them every chance they got. They called Grayson “The Flying Matron.” And they doubted whether Elder was truly serious about her trans-Atlantic flight.
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