As an intern with the Aeronautics Department I had the chance to review and scan hundreds of color images from WWII. What particularly drew my attention were the images of women who served in the Navy’s reserve force, since at the time they were not allowed to serve their country through military enlistment to the same extent as men.
On August 18, 2020, the United States celebrates the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which declared that the right to vote "shall not be denied...on account of sex." Several collections in the National Air and Space Museum Archives provide short stories along the long path of the women’s suffrage movement and the 19th Amendment.
Alverna Babbs challenged the Civil Aeronautics Administration in 1944 for a waiver to earn her student pilot’s license. The CAA was reluctant due to Babb’s disability—a double leg amputation at the age of 13 months. With her own persistence and the assistance of Roscoe Turner, Babbs earned her waiver and her full pilot’s license in 1946, the first person with a disability to do so (as documented in the previous blog in this series celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act). After remarrying and having children, Alverna Williams took a 30 year hiatus from flying. She returned to aviation in the 1970s, determined once again to take her place in the sky.
Thirty years ago, on July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act came into effect. This important civil rights law prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, including jobs, schools, transportation, and all public and private places that are open to the general public. Forty-six years earlier, without the protection of law and its accommodations, Alverna Babbs, who had lost both legs as a child, fought to receive a waiver for her student license. When she succeeded, she became the first American pilot with disabilities to earn a pilot’s license.
Aline “Pat” Rhonie made a perfect three-point landing in her 125 hp Luscombe Phantom when she touched down in Manchester, New Hampshire, on June 6, 1940. Owned by Rhonie, the plane was a Warner-powered, high-wing, two-seat cabin monoplane that she flew as the American Liaison for the French Aero Club. Rhonie piloted civilian and military aircraft throughout the United States as an American aviatrix and eventual member of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, yet her mission traversed international borders to support the Allied cause.
Women in the United States have long served their country and women aviators have been no exception. Perhaps the best known efforts are those of the Women Air Service Pilots (WASP), formed in 1943, merging the Women’s Auxiliary Flying Squadron and Women’s Flying Training Detachment. But before the WASP, women pilots, such as Ruth Law, Opal Kunz, Florence “Pancho” Barnes, and Mary Charles were determined to serve their country in whatever way they could.
In the late 1960s, Poppy Northcutt was a return-to-Earth specialist with TRW, working on a contract with NASA on one of the most exciting adventures of the 20th century: humanity’s quest for the Moon. With computer programming skills and a degree in mathematics, she worked with her team at TRW on the development of the return-to-Earth program. And she became the first woman in Mission Control.
Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb, who died in March 2019, will likely be remembered for her role campaigning for women to be considered as possible space travelers in the beginning of the space age, but the Museum’s upcoming exhibits will also showcase how important she was as an award-winning pilot who flew for years as a missionary in the Amazon.