Who in the Heck is Harriet Quimby?

Posed photo Harriet Quimby
Photo at william-m-drew.webs.com

Harriet Quimby was the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license, the first woman to fly at night, and the first woman to fly across the English Channel. She was a pioneering journalist, who wrote for San Francisco newspapers and ultimately as a staff writer for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, a widely-read New York paper. Quimby also wrote several movie screenplays for D. W. Griffith. Known as the “Dresden China Aviatrix” because of her stature and fair skin, she cultivated a daredevil persona that led to commercial endorsements and earned six-figure fees for appearing at Air Meets. Her career kept her too busy for marriage. She died at age 37 in a tragic accident at an air show.

Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.

Amelia Earhart, citing Quimby’s legacy as a role model

I was playing a game where you have to generate names of things starting with specific letters. Ready? Think of Auto Models, Occupations, Ice Cream Flavors, Scientists, and Countries of the Eastern Hemisphere starting with ….Q. (Quest, Quartermaster, Quince–yes, there is quince flavored ice cream, ugh pass on scientist, Qatar). I was really stumped on Q-named Scientists. Internet lists only mention three: statistician Adolphe Quetelet, astronomer Thabit ibn Qurra (who was known as Thabit, so really doesn’t count), and Harriet Quimby. Ah, the entrance to a cyberspace rabbit hole.


Since this week is the fiftieth anniversary of Apollo 11, it is a perfect time to dig into legacies of aviation, and Harriet Quimby is a shining example. As often happens when I dive into the burrows of yesterday, I hear a cacophony of historical voices, and I have to sort them out. I now know way too much about Harriet Quimby, too much to fit in a reasonable length blog. Much is inspiring; some is sad; some is still mysterious. I know that Rachael Peakham, a professor at Marshall University, wrote her dissertation about Quimby and wrote her own excellent mini-biographical and autobiographical account here in Navigating with Harriet Quimby.

Quimby was born to farmers eking out a miserable existence in the backwoods of Michigan. They moved to the southern California coast, where her mother changed her daughters’ ages and created stories about family wealth, probably to enhance their social opportunities. Quimby herself settled in northern California, and ran with the new persona embarking on a career on journalism when careers for women were not a Thing.

Quimby publicized for flying
from the Iowa Times-Republican, June 1911

In 1910, seven years had passed since the Wright brothers had successfully launched the first flight. Air Shows were one of the great new attractions. During a New York show in October, Quimby watched pilot John Moisant win a race flying around the Statue of Liberty. She asked him to teach her, and he agreed to help. She convinced her employer at the time, Leslie’s, to finance the lessons so that she could write about it for readers.

The hard part was the flying school. The Wright brothers’ school in Ohio wouldn’t take women. Eventually, Moisant’s school let her attend; Moisant himself had been killed in a plane accident in the intervening months. She initially attempted to avoid publicity, taking lessons at sunrise, “disguised” as a man. But news spread, and her attempts to learn became widely chronicled,. The Aero Club of America, which issued pilots’ licenses, first resisted letting her take the pilot’s exam. Women at the time were considered too weak and helpless to operate the controls, not to mention imprudent for putting themselves in danger. But the public was fascinated, and finally, on August 1, 1911, Quimby passed the test, setting an accuracy record for her landing. She became the first American woman and the second woman in the world to earn a license (Frenchwoman Elie-Raymond Deroche was first.)

Quimby depicted as birdwoman
from the San Francisco Call, July 1911

Not a Feminist By Any Means

When you know about her early upbringings, how three siblings died young, and how her mother wanted her to have financial independence, it’s no surprise that Quimby was willing to defy social conventions and critics. Journalism paid well; flying paid really well. Pilots were making thousands for appearances. Quimby had taught herself to type, to take her own photographs, and to drive a car–occasionally describing the experience of driving 100 miles an hour. Once she saw a plane, it seemed a natural next step.

It really looks quite easy. I believe I could do it myself, and I will.

Harriet Quimby, quoted in Encyclopedia.com

However, the floor-length skirts of the current fashion were completely impractical for a pilot. Yet she didn’t necessarily want to don men’s clothes. So she designed her own flying suit, made of purple satin, a single piece with a hood, knickers, and high-laced boots, sometimes augmented with jewelry in publicity poses. Some articles even described, at length, her interest in Indian or Chinese jewelry. While she was called the “Dresden China Aviatrix” because of her doll-like features, other writers ran with the idea and described her features as “oriential”–code for exotic. Quimby didn’t shy away from such characterizations. She took the spotlight and turned it into opportunities.

Quimby advertisement for Vin Fiz

Yet Quimby steered clear of the political feminists of the time, the suffragettes. She thought that women ought to be allowed to vote but had no interest in some of what she saw as inflammatory tactics. For example, when reporters suggested she name her plane after Pankhurst or Catt, she instead chose Genevieve, the patron saint of French pilots.

She was not a feminist by any means; she opposed confrontation. She viewed her ability to fly as demonstrating through example that woman can do almost anything men can do.

Quimby Internet bio

Of course, this disdain of feminism strikes a familiar chord. “She was no feminist.” She merely wore pants–but not men’s, smoked, drove, broke the rules, encouraged other women, and believed that women shouldn’t be restricted from doing things. You know, not feminist.

After becoming the first woman to fly at night, on September 4, 1911, she looked to bigger challenges. Louis Bleriot, who went on to his own fame as inventory and aircraft manufacturer, had been the first man to fly across the English Channel three years earlier. Quimby herself took off in fog on April 16, 1912, and landed in France, overshooting her Calais target due to the inclement weather. Unfortunately, her achievement was dwarfed by headlines of the big event from 1912, two days prior: the sinking of the Titanic.

Still, the flight over the Channel helped boost her celebrity status. When she agreed to participate in the July 1912 Boston Air Meet, she commanded a $100,000 fee. But the organizers agreed to it, and the stands were full when she took to the cockpit for a sunset flight over the waters of Boston Harbor.

Salt Lake Tribune Quimby obituary
“Obituary” from the Salt Lake Tribune, July 1912

The Fickle Finger of Fate

When I first read that Quimby died at the Boston Air show in a plane crash, it felt like a gut punch. For a short time, I tried to conjure up variations of what might have happened. She had a passenger–organizer William Willard, who had “won” a coin toss with his son for the privilege of going up with her. What if he was a corrupt airplane manufacturer trying to convince her his plane was safe? What if had been trying to sexually harass her or even blackmail her, was trying to accost her during the flight? Maybe Willard was a Nazi spy? Hmm, too early for Nazis–maybe he was a spy for Kaiser Wilhelm? I tried to think of something, even if ridiculous, to explain anyway what happened.

Some newspapers claimed that she was too weak to operate the controls. The Salt Lake Tribune concoted a lengthy claim that she feared a giant supernatural agency wiggled its fingers among the clouds. I haven’t dug into historical documents. I don’t know if anything quoted by the Tribune is accurate.

What is known is the following. She was a careful pilot and had written about the importance of wearing safety harnesses and performing safety checks. The plane, a Beriot 70-hp, was a new model and had been known for instability in other accidents. Willard at 200 pounds, may have been too heavy for the plane. That particular model had no seat belts because it provided easier access to an engine which “often caught on fire.”

Quimby and Willard flew out over the crowd and around the harbor, returning as a silhouette against the setting sun. Willard, for unknown reasons, stood up. Quimby, in front, would have been unable to see him. He fell out of the plane. The lightened tail tipped upwards, and the plane took a nosedive. Some reported that the dive occurred prior to Willard’s fall, but it’s unlikely he would have stood during a dive.

Wreckage from Quimby flight in 1912
Photo from San Diego Tribune archives

The plane bucked as Quimby tried to adjust the controls, but the tail flipped up again, and Quimby herself was bucked out. She and Willard were thrown into shallow muddy waters of the harbor and did not survive. The plane, without the bothersome weight of passengers, glided to a stop and landed back on the field.


Daredevil John Moisant died in a plane crash. Sophie Blanchard was the first woman to pilot her own balloon and died in a balloon crash. Thomas Selfridge was listed as one of the first Americans to die in a crash, in a plane operated by Orville Wright. Many early pilots died in crashes; the danger was part of what allowed pilots to demand such high fees.

Some of the articles about Quimby simply say, “Fell from not wearing seatbelt” rather than “Passenger error” or “Plane unbalanced.” It took three or four articles before the “Comments=she should have worn seat belts” were replaced with “…blamed the monoplane [design]…” Quimby had tested the Beriot with sandbags in the back for ballast and knew the plane had a tendency to dip and stall. She had discussed the issues with her mechanic, but they couldn’t find a specific way to adjust the plane. Aircraft magazine published an article a month after her death arguing that the monoplane design would be vulnerable to stability, citing a dozen European pilots who had died in similar circumstances.

Astronauts from Apollo One died on the launch pad, in a fire during a test run. There had been no way for them to escape. It seems an eerie parallel of Quimby’s experience, where a history of careful testing and lengthy flying experience seems overshadowed by an ending that seems almost foolish to later generations. Yet Quimby’s legacy, like those of all the early pilot pioneers, is one to inspire rather than to critique or pity.

Celebrated at the International Women’s Air & Space Museum, Quimby also was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame. Then she was afforded one of the ultimate honors and well deserved.

She made it to a postage stamp.

Quimby postage stamp

She Plays Sports, But…

Famed science fiction writer Joanna Russ once laid out the arguments against the value of women writers in a series of essays detailing typical criticisms of women’s work, which started with “She didn’t write it….” This list* came to mind as I pondered the discussion about the phenomenal achievement by the U.S. women’s soccer team in winning this year’s World Cup. With a nod to Ms. Russ, I offer my version of “She plays sports, BUT…”  Each time a complaint is leveled about women’s sports, women provide the answer, only to create a new variation of the “Yes, BUT…”  Call it, “She isn’t worth the sports money because…”

Kajmeister take-off of the famous litany by Joanna Russ: “She writes, BUT…”

The US Women’s National Team kicked ass every which way but Sunday, last Sunday. They want the adulation, respect, and money that goes with it. They’re getting the adulation, but the respect and money will be harder to get.

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Queasy Endings, Happy Endings in Shakespeare

As You Like It , 2019, an excellent musical version, free in the park by SF Shakespeare

Shakespeare is my jam, which is why I particularly like summer with its Shakespeare Festivals popping up in every district park and on every street corner. I also just finished a class, which knocked me on my ass, filled my head with iambic pentameter, and turned a lot of my bardic understanding upside down. Isn’t that just like a comedy?

There’s nothing like a good lusty Elizabethan comedy – boy falls in love with girl at first sight, girl dresses up as a man, twins get mistaken for each other, bears and donkeys gambol in the forests, and they all get married in the end. Eighteen of Shakespeare’s 38 plays had the comedy label slapped on them by the playwright’s buddies who helpfully subdivided his plays the early folios. We all learned about those divisions in school: comedies end in marriages and no (usually) deaths; tragedies center around a protagonist whose flaw causes mayhem and his own death; and histories were about the kings.

Yet comedies aren’t so easy to categorize. In fact, the last five chronologically are often recategorized by modern scholars as “romances” because they contained tragic elements. But, then, there are the three middle comedies, written before the romances, which have also been called “problem plays.” They are problematic indeed.

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Are We Not Proud?

As 2019 is the 50th anniversary of Stonewall and the 49th anniversary of the San Francisco LGBT Pride March, this seems the perfect essay topic to round out the month of June. It’s also the 30th anniversary of the first time I marched in pride, the 26th year since I was at the 1993 Million Queer March in Washington D.C., and the 7th year since the last time I did that slow walk down the mile or so on Market Street in June, tweeting on a whistle, waving my rainbow flag, and wishing I could sit down soon.

American Pride, American Anti-Pride

Our unique cultural history is full of expressions of pride and also full of disapproval. After all, some of the original European settlers were Puritans, “thrown out of every decent country in Europe,” as Bill Murray says in Stripes. Puritans were excessively anti, weren’t they? Plus the Catholics. Pride is the first and, therefore, worst deadly sin. Being proud in some religious interpretations meant you were unwilling to surrender–theoretically to a higher power–but logistically to the control of the straight white man standing on the pulpit.

It’s always seemed a bit ironic that the Puritans were seeking religious tolerance in the New World so that they could practice their religious intolerance, but we’ll let history sort that part out. Certainly, the New World liked the tolerance part of it and established that clear separation in government between church and state, which started to let different attitudes about sinning and behavior–including pride–blossom throughout society. When the writer of the Declaration of Independence becomes a Deist, fire and brimstone speeches naturally become less popular.

The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia

At the same time, these new Americans in 1776 were ecstatic about the nation they were bringing into being. John Adams wanted “pomp and parade” and fireworks, and the United States has celebrated just so for centuries now. Americans love to revel in their pride of country on July 4th, now replete with parades and festivals. It’s coincidental that the holiday comes right after LGBT Pride Month, but great that we can continue the celebratory spirit.

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R.U.R.F.R. Are You Ready for Robots?

Creepy? Silly? Big Brother? Futuristic? The Beginning of the End? The Signal for the Singularity from which the Terminator emerges?

Malibu Security Mart Robot, photo from Roland Woerner

Mobile security robots are popping up with increasing frequency at gas stations, malls, and casinos. It caught my attention when this morning’s news had a snippet that Huntingon Park is installing a “robocop” to patrol city streets. Another story from CBS Los Angeles back in February asked, “Is 2019 the Year Robot Security Guards Go Mainstream?” Whether we label them robots, bots, nanos, androids, automation, or Big Brother, the permeation of programmed surveillance throughout our culture is something that requires continuous vigilance and assessment.

Robocop from 1987, photo from filmschoolrejects.com

Imaginary Cautionary Tales

Like many, I find the increasing examples of robo-guards disturbing, in part because there are so many stories about robots gone haywire. Reference to the word “robocop” immediately conjures up Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 dystopian tale of a privatized military and a militarized police force. Will Robinson’s companion robot from Lost in Space, the show I grew up watching, was originally programmed to sabotage the ship and murder the humans. Even when the robots are cute, like in Wall-E, there are often mastermind machines behind the scenes determined to tame or neuter humans. See also Oblivion. See also Forbidden Planet. See Iron Giant, Westworld, well, just see this handy list from BuzzFeed.

The word “robot” comes from a 1920’s Czech play by Karel Capek called R.U.R., which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots. Capek coined the word roboti as a deliberate reference to the Old Slavic word rabu or slave. In the play, humans are producing robots (androids we might say, since they have human features and characteristics) originally to take on menial work. But the humans start to die out, the robots rebel, and they are left to restart the world in their image.

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