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Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History by Keith O’Brien, Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, US $28.00, Pp 352, August 2018, ISBN 978-1328876645

Airplane racing was the most popular sport of the most dangerous sports in the 1920s and 1930s. Between the mid-1920s and mid-1930s, thousands of people gathered to watch the airplanes racing in the air – and often falling from the skies – every time such races were arranged. Cities vied with one another to host these multi-day sports. Pilots were the new dashing heroes who could stare death in the face. Pilots were mostly men as female pilots were discouraged and ridiculed. In Fly Girls, Keith O’Brien says that it is not surprising that the few women who dared to enter the elite, male-dominated aviation fraternity endured harsh criticism and insults. They were not aviators, as far as the men were concerned. They were petticoat pilots, ladybirds, flying flappers, and sweethearts of the air. They were just girl-fliers — the most common term for female pilots at the time.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the press routinely published articles questioning whether a woman should be allowed to fly anywhere, let alone participate in the airplane racing. That such question could be posed – and taken seriously — might strike us today as outlandish. Keith O’Brien says that these questions were all too typical of the age. It is important to remember that the American women had earned the right to vote only a few years earlier and laws still forbade them to serve on juries, drive taxicabs, or work night shifts. By 1926, a new generation of female pilots was emerging, and they refused to be pigeonholed, mocked, or excluded. Instead, they united to fight the men in a singular moment in American history, when air races in open cockpits planes attracted bigger crowds than Opening Day at Yankee stadium and an entire Sunday of NFL games — continued. Fly Girls is the story of five brave women who got together and broke the glass ceiling. These were no “sweethearts,” no “ladybird.” If the women aviators had to have a name, they were fly girls — a term used in the 1920s to describe female pilots and, more broadly, young women who refused to live by the old rules, appearing bold and almost dangerous as a result.

In 1926, flying airplanes was a highly dangerous profession and a life-threatening sport. Propeller blades could snap and break, and planes could go down. Wings could fail, folding backward or tearing away completely. Control sticks could get stuck, sending airships hurtling toward crowds or hangars. And all too often, engines could just stop in midflight, forcing pilots to scan the ground below for a farmer’s field or a cow pasture – any place where they might land in a hurry. In clear skies, pilots often made the wrong choice. In bad weather, they had even fewer options. Keith O’Brien says, in 1926, air crashes killed or injured 240 people – a small but significant number, given that the vast majority of Americans never flew and that the government couldn’t be sure that it was counting every accident.

Fly Girls is a story that plays out over one decade when gender roles were shifting, cultural norms were evolving, and the Great Depression had people questioning almost everything in America. Keith O’Brien says, in the beginning, even independent women interested in aviation would think of themselves as mere cargo to be ferried from point to point.  In 1936, one woman did, in a stunning upset that finally proved women not only belonged in the air – they could rule. Of these five exceptional female pilots in the 1920s, only one remained in the limelight while the other four were forgotten. Keith O’Brien has retold these stories of these five forgotten women — Ruth Elder, Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols, Louise McPhetridge Thaden, and Florence Klingensmith — who fought and secured a place for women in aviation.

Fly Girls is an inspiring and insightful story of five courageous women who risked their lives and made a place for women in the male-dominated field of aviation. Keith O’Brien has shone a light on the forgotten struggle of women for equality as well as the little-known aspect of aviation history. Fly Girls is as much about the courageous female pilots as it is about the history of aviation. This meticulously researched and brilliantly written book brings those brave aviators to life. Keith O’Brien has filled the holes in scholarship about women’s struggle and aviation. Fly Girls is a must-read for everyone interested in the history of women struggle and aviation.

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