Recently, I decided to browse through some historical articles in Flying Magazine. (Thanks to Google Books, all of Flying Magazine’s issues dating back to the 1920s are available for one’s personal exploration here.) I wanted to see not only how Joan Merriam Smith and Jerrie Mock were covered by one of the aviation industry’s leading publications in the 1960s, but how other women pilots were covered as well. It was quite the experience.
Flying Magazine’s 1960s Coverage of Women Pilots
While I had known about the ridiculous feature story written about Joan following her death entitled “The Loser,” which is buried on page 80 of the August 1965 issue, I was shocked to find an editorial in the very same issue about women in aviation from none other than the editor of the magazine himself, Robert B. Parke.
In “The feminine case” on page 28, Parke writes:
“There have always been a good many reasons why women shouldn’t fly and a few reasons why most of them don’t. The reasons are not related. The ‘shouldn’t reasons’ are largely based on man’s shrewd insight into women’s natural shortcomings—their lack of mechanical aptitude, their emotional and irrational behavior in emergencies and their well-known limitation of being able to do only one thing at a time.”
He goes on to explain:
“But a hint of change is in the wind. A tiny ripple is appearing on the vast ocean of consummate diffidence of women toward the airplane … of course the presence of hordes of women in an activity does revolutionize the activity, and this we should be braced for. You can almost certainly expect potted geraniums outside the hangars, curtains and rugs in the pilots’ lounge and clean restrooms. You can look, too, for more tasteful paint schemes on airplanes, fewer skirt-stretching steps and more readable instrumentation. Perhaps there will even be a new phonetic alphabet—Annie, Bertha, Carol.”
On page 30 of this issue, there is a similar article entitled “For Men Only: A Women’s Place is in the Kitchen.” Author Milton W. Horowitz, PhD writes “There are those who look with distaste upon the prospect of women swarming into aviation like lemmings: this professor of psychology, for one.” Ouch. But seriously, you must read the article for yourself to get the full effect.
Then on page 39 of this issue, there is an article entitled “The Invisible 99s” (also by a man named Richard Bach). He writes: “Women are people who seek to clutter the air with tea and talk, using the sky as a sort of highway where you don’t have to signal your turns, and an airplane as a thing wherein this is a knob you push and this little wheel you twist and if you’re lucky and keep your fingers crossed you arrive where you are pointed.”
NOW – if this isn’t the definition of mansplaining then I don’t know what is! Hard to believe that this sentiment was so deeply infused into the mainstream thinking, and that the editor of an industry magazine (marketed as “the world’s most widely read aviation magazine” on their front cover), in the case of Parke, actually held such views. Hearing this perspective, however, does offer an enlightening peek back into the past. It brings to light some of the insidious challenges that Joan and Jerrie faced, and the difficulty it took to not only navigate the world in an airplane without GPS, but an ultimately condescending, unfriendly, and unsupportive network upon which they relied to achieve their respective undertakings.
Joan Merriam Smith Branded as “The Loser”
Taking the above-mentioned coverage into consideration, it is therefore no surprise to find a story like “The Loser” written about Joan. For a woman who became the first to complete Amelia Earhart’s route, the first to fly solo around the equator, the first to complete the longest single solo flight of her time, and the first female to seek out and take off for (but not be the first to complete) a flight around the world solo, all she gets in the end is an unfair commentary from a biased, male, associate editor at Flying Magazine in 1965 to sour her accomplishments. Not to mention coupled with a terribly chosen photo.
In the article, Mr. James Gilbert writes:
“She was a little tornado of a girl who flew alone around the world, and in so doing made the longest solo flight in history. It was for her the fulfillment of a childhood dream of immortality, the achievement of a life-long ambition to finish the unfinished last flight of the girl she had ever idolized—Amelia Earhart. yet the journey was also a fiasco and a defeat, a losing race with another girl, a girl who got home weeks ahead, and who got all the official world records, the handsome gold medals and the lioness’ share of the fame.”
Gilbert goes on to talk about the controversial sanctioning process, commenting that it was probably Joan’s fault as to why she didn’t get the sanction. (Of course in my book, based on my research, I beg to differ.) It’s therefore no surprise that someone like Gilbert would write:
“You might say she hemmed and hawed and procrastinated for so long that someone else beat her to it. Surely the NAA is right here: it’s nice, neat completed application forms that count, rather than vaguely expressed intentions to have a go … all the NAA could do was sit tight and see whose completed application came in first. And bad luck on the loser.”
Gilbert also goes on to share his opinion about how Joan’s way of finding sponsors was wrong. He talked about how the plane she chose was wrong. He talked about how her route was basically, you guessed it, wrong. He talked about how her supporters and advisors were wrong. Of course, this was just an opinion. It was one man’s biased, third person perspective, and an unfair framing of a situation that he had zero involvement with. The biggest tragedy of all was that this article in some ways was the final word on her legacy. And it left a very bad mark. In fact, it was one of the very first articles I received a photocopy of from various archives when I first began my research into Joan’s world flight.
Jerrie Mock Branded as “The Winner” (In a “Race” the Two Women Didn’t Acknowledge as Such)
To compare the coverage Jerrie Mock received in Flying Magazine, it’s easy to feel the sting of what Joan must have felt. In the July 1964 issue, Jerrie was highlighted in a feature story about her world flight entitled “Jerrie Mock: Winner Take All” with a subhead that reads: “blend a diminutive 38-year-old Ohio housewife with an 11-year old single-engine airplane; add courage and determination; stir in a pinch of competition; mix well and presto—7 world records.”
The story includes a picture of Jerrie receiving a medal from President Lyndon B. Johnson. There is hardly any mention of Joan.
Jerrie is also introduced in the publisher’s letter at the opening of the magazine. He writes this about Jerrie:
“At the Wings Club luncheon, Bill Lear was warmly applauded. But the assembled aviation personnel—chief pilots, private pilots and non-pilots alike—saved most of their energy for a well-deserved, five-minute standing ovation for Jerrie Mock, whose total flying time after her flight is still less than 1,000 hours.”
In other parts of the magazine, Jerrie appears in advertisements such as these:
While there is nothing wrong about Jerrie being celebrated and featured for achieving such a fantastic feat, the absence of coverage regarding Joan’s accomplishment is deafening. When comparing the coverage of Joan and Jerrie in Flying Magazine, and taking into the account the general sentiment about women in aviation at the time, I do find one thing a bit odd. Why such celebratory coverage of Jerrie if the men didn’t want women in aviation to be taken too seriously? A closer look at the article reveals something interesting: the main author who wrote the story? Her name was Betty Vail.