Amelia Earhart was not a famous singer or Hollywood siren. She didn’t hold public office, but in 1937 she disappeared. Simply gone. There were guesses, speculation, the best minds pondered, but she never turned up. You could say she disappeared into the mists of time and history when she flew her Lockheed Model 10 Electra out over the Pacific Ocean in a failed attempt to fly around the globe as a number of her male counterparts had done just a few years before her.
But she failed. She may have underestimated her fuel supply or the impact on weather conditions. It could be that she was simply not up to the task, or that the men she flew with were not up to her skill. Regardless, new information suggests that Amelia Earhart appears to have crash landed on a remote atoll in the middle of the ocean and it’s likely either she died on impact or lived out the rest of her days as a castaway, accompanied – or not – by her male navigator.
So why even bother looking for her? Wasn’t the whole adventure a loss when she didn’t turn up? Didn’t she disappoint everyone who had put their faith in her? There must have been scores of men who gloated that the record for circumnavigating the globe would rest with men for just a while longer. Wasn’t that right? That men be the aviators, the adventurers, the mountain climbing new species discovering bold explorers?
Oh hell, no. Amelia Earhart challenged them all and was brave enough to encourage other women to take steps toward conquering their own skies. She was on the faculty of Purdue University and she supported the campaign that ultimately brought women in the United States the right to vote. She had swagger and style and in newspaper and magazine photos, she looked confident and proud, independent and strong. She was a role model certainly to young girls in the 1930s and when I was growing up, she spoke to me of an important and pivotal moment for women in the public eye because her actions spoke for her.
But this woman who was born in the 19th century – the one who failed? On some level, finding her remains or her plane is more about treasure hunting, similar to what motivated Robert Ballard to keep looking for the Titanic. Now, the old photographs that were taken of that area believed to be the final stop in her flight may reveal more than first imagined since a small repair panel from her plane has finally been identified as authentic to her plane. We are closer than ever to finding her and possibly to knowing how her flight – and her life – ended.
What I would like my daughters to know about Amelia Earhart is simply this: she set out on a brave adventure. It matters little to me that she never completed her flight but that she stepped into that plane and took off. I’m sure any number of her fellow faculty members supported her. I can imagine her friends might have tried talking her out of it if they had been in on her plans. But in the end, she flew and ultimately died pursuing a passion that most millennials now cannot comprehend.
The Amelia Earhart website quotes a letter she wrote to her husband in the event she did not survive one of her flights: “Please know I am quite aware of the hazards,” she said. “I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others.”
This is precisely why Amelia Earhart is so important. She is more than a very expensive, decades-long treasure hunt. Her failure is our cue to take her great successes one step further and to celebrate a woman who was so very extraordinary that 77 years after her plane was lost, we are still searching for her. Her message to me is “I tried” – and if I fail, you pick up the gauntlet. If I fall, you grab up the baton and start running. If I lose, you must want to win – for yourself and for me.
I’m confident now that I do not need to know someone has found her remains or identified the wreckage of her plane. I’m not so sure guys get that. It’s probably why they are still looking for her.