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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.