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Still Missing: Amelia Earhart and the Search for Modern Feminism.

Another account of the transatlantic flight of America's most famous female aviator? New evidence on that Lockheed Electra and its missing pilot? Another biography of a woman whose life-story has already been told by herself and numerous others? Hardly. Instead Susan Ware has created a new portrait of the celebrated Amelia Earhart by approaching her subject from multiple angles with cameras fitted with feminist lens and wide-angle vision. The feminist lens, as Ware herself acknowledges, does not substantially change the details or the outcome of Earhart's life. Rather it shifts the field of focus, illuminating new aspects of Earhart's life and career such as her importance as a feminist in the interwar period when a mass-based movement had atrophied. Similarly, the wide-angled vision allows the subject to be seen against the rich landscape of the 1920s and 1930s replete with such new flora as the aviation industry, mass media and merchandising, popular heroes and popular culture.

There are trade-offs inherent in such an approach. Gone is the richly textured, cohesive account of an individual life that one associates with more traditional biographies. But then Earhart's life and career are hardly the stuff of such multivolume studies. Although she began her work-life as a nurse and settlement house worker, her years as an aviator spanned barely a decade. The much-touted flight across the Atlantic in which she was actually a passenger (although the first woman to be one) occurred in 1928. (She later flew the Atlantic as pilot.) The round-the-world flight, which probably cost the pilot her life somewhere in the Pacific, took place when she was only forty.

Not only were the celebrity years brief, but in certain respects unrevealing of the woman herself. The spectacular flights were richly documented by the press, which found her a much more cooperative figure than Charles Lindberg. Earhart also added to the documentation with her magazine columns in Cosmopolitan and especially the instant books so painfully ground out at her husband's request (who was also her manager), But the drudgery of having to write in order to keep the superstar status and income that allowed her to fly left little time for the personal letters that might have illuminated the inner life of the public person. Consequently, one of America's best known women remains something of an enigma even in conventional studies where biographical detail is less sparse than in Ware's account.

The advantage of the thematic, interpretive, approach that Ware employs is the opportunity it provides the biographer for extended reflections on key topics to which the life of the subject provides entree. When the choice of topics is informed and the handling of them sure, as is generally the case here, the result can be illuminating. The challenge, however, is how to keep the individual in focus while digressing extensively on other topics - a problem that the author never satisfactorily resolves. Discussion of modern marriage and the demands of celebrity status keep Earhart clearly in the picture. In the chapter on aviation, focus on Earhart and other early women aviators shifts to gender discrimination in the more mature airline industry. Indeed, the biographical subject all but disappears in a discussion of popular heroines and popular culture which is itself a separate chapter. The frustration occasioned by the interruption of the life-story is usually offset by the insight and perspective Ware brings to these various topics, primary among them Earhart's impact on her own society and, most important, her feminism.

That Earhart belongs in the pantheon of interwar heroines whose lives were lived according to a feminist script was evident at the time of her marriage to George Putnam, a volatile, abrasive, ambitious man whose promotional zeal had much to do with making his second wife a public figure. The skittish bride's concerns about the impact of marriage upon her work, her prenuptial letter rejecting a "medieval code of faithfulness" (p. 50) binding either of them, her refusal to wear a wedding ring, her insistence on equal contributions to household expenses are enough to establish Earhart's feminist credentials with respect to her private life.

Add to the reality of an egalitarian companiate marriage (also a happy and monogamous one by Ware's account) full pursuit of a career, public and prolonged advocacy of equal opportunity, the founding of a single-sex professional organization with a gender-specific political strategy, self-conscious role-modeling and career counseling for young women, membership in the Woman's Party, the mutual admiration of the eider stateswomen of the suffrage and reform movement, and the portrait of a very public feminist emerges. That she was also a modest, generous, open, and caring individual as well as an attractive, well-dressed woman (she also designed clothes) made her an even more compelling feminist figure. Most important was the fact that she was an aviator. The very act of flying - soloing above the clouds - Ware argues, powerfully symbolized both female achievement and freedom from male-imposed constraints. Fittingly, even Earhart's good friend Eleanor Roosevelt signed on for flying lessons, determined to pilot her own plane until FDR intervened. That Earhart's fans were overwhelmingly female was also consistent with her feminist message.

The author also finds it significant that Earhart belonged to a select group of adventurous and celebrated female achievers: journalists (Dorothy Thompson), artists (Georgia O'Keefe and Martha Graham), photographers (Margaret Bourke-White), movie stars (Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis), and athletes ("Babe" Didrikson). As women who pioneered in male terrain, they engaged in considerable gender blending in dress as well as action. Earhart incorporated cap, goggles, and leather jacket into her wardrobe and Hepburn added pants with the same insouciance with which Thompson and Bourke-White appropriated diplomatic capitals and battlefields, respectively, as their domain in the years surrounding World War II. What most distinguished these women was not their blending of pants and pearls, but their pursuit of work and excellence over domesticity and, in some cases, motherhood. Work and merit were basic to their identity and, as Bourke-White added, "the only religion I have" (p. 197). As Hepburn would later write in her autobiography, "It was a matter of becoming the best actress I could be or becoming a mother. But not both; I don't think I could do justice to both" (p. 196). Or as Bourke-White would confess: "It is only work that truly satisfies" (p. 197).

Although they did not all identify themselves as feminists, the way these women lived their lives, Ware insists, affirmed a shared belief that men and women were equal and that the performance, not the sex, of the individual mattered. This elite cohort - all were white, middle-class, Protestant, and, at least publicly, heterosexual - personified postsuffrage achievements, Ware argues, keeping feminism alive in a period largely devoid of a mass-based political activism.

The author terms the feminism they embraced "liberal feminism." Underscoring individual success and personal autonomy, it emphasized leadership in the form of personal example - understandable, perhaps, in an era that celebrated popular heroes and heroines. Ware is quick, however, to point out the deficiencies: the elitism, the tokenism, the privileging of individual over institutional gains. She notes, for example, that Earhart posited as a universal model the egalitarian household in which both husband and wife contributed income and assumed household chores. But in the Earhart-Putnam household the work-driven lifestyles of both husband and wife required a level of household help available only to the more economically advantaged - cooks, gardeners, secretaries, and the like.

Ware finds even more telling Earhart's astute assessment of the discrimination and prejudice faced by women pilots in the aviation industry, which "Lady Lindy" likened to a stone wall, and the inadequacy of the strategy which she offered for dealing with institutional constraints. Earhart is quoted as saying, "Manufacturers refuse us planes, the public have no confidence in our ability. If we had access to the equipment and training men have [in commercial aviation and the military,] we could certainly do as well. Thank heaven, we continue willingly fighting a losing battle . . . , but if enough of us keep trying, we'll get someplace" (p. 89). Applauding the accuracy of Earhart's assessment of obstacles as well as the optimism and determination her words reflected, Ware is dismissive of persistence as a strategy, noting simply that the "individualistic philosophy" that these women pilots embraced "left them no other choice" (p. 89).

But were there really options for those women pilots? Are we to believe that the existence of a collective strategy on the part of a few female aviators, even if supported by larger numbers of politically active feminists, would have substantially altered employment patterns in the aviation industry in the thirties and forties? It is worth remembering that after two decades of organized feminism and equal employment policies most women pilots are still relegated to small feeder flights. Only in 1993, over half a century after Earhart's disappearance, did the military finally allow them to be combat pilots. My point is that the power of ideology (and strategy), even the right ideology, to alter structural barriers is limited. Indeed Ware indirectly acknowledges as much when, in explaining the title of her book, she suggests that "still missing" refers not only to Earhart, but to women's equality.

To expose individualism as a politically impoverished strategy for women - to acknowledge that in the 1920s "flying solo" was a metaphor both for women's aspirations and for feminism's demise as mass-based movement - is important in a book intended for the general public. As every historian of women knows, the field of U.S. history is littered with the deceptions of individualism for women. One wishes, however, that Ware had not applied the particular label "liberal feminism" to this 1920s cohort of superachieving individualists, many of whom, unlike Earhart, never consciously identified themselves as feminists. It is true, of course, that the liberal feminism of recent times has been appropriated and caricatured in ways that create a striking similarity. But there are also critical differences. As applied to second-wave feminism, the term refers to a more substantive, more political, and more communal form of feminism than that subscribed to by the achieving women of the 1920s and 1930s. When to bestow the label "feminist" and what qualifying adjective to attach to a particular variant of feminism has long agitated historians of women. Feminist agency can, of course, exist outside of explicitly movement-based organizations and politics. But whether personification of a nontraditional lifestyle and female achievement on the part of self-conscious individualists constitutes liberal feminism and whether that particular variant as practiced by popular heroines of the 1920s was sufficient to keep feminism alive in the postsuffrage decades, as the author asserts, remain open questions. What Ware might profitably have done is to explore more fully why individualism was so appealing a strategy in a culture that celebrated female achievement in the form of "female firsts" and then, as she herself notes, promptly marginalized the achievers. Indeed, one wishes that the author had probed more fully and rigorously the interaction and tension between feminism and individualism for the two have had an intertwined history in which there is much to critique, but also much to take pride.

But perhaps that is asking too much of a book that is ostensibly a biography. The book is certainly generous in spirit and polishes its heroine's luster carefully. At times Ware goes over the top in endowing elements with symbolic meaning. For example, Earhart's assertion: "I like to fly and I'm restless" is followed by: "Amelia Earhart's entire life had that restless quality to it, as if she were searching for her role as a woman in modern America" (p. 29). In the end, however, the author has given us not only a good read but a most likeable and enduring modern heroine, situated in her time in ways that will appeal to social and cultural historians as well as to historians of women. Even after more than half a century, one cannot help being inspired not just by Earhart's daring and courage, but by her determination to make her flying count for women.

Jane Sherron De Hart, Department of History, University of California, Santa Barbara, is currently at work on a collection of essays on feminism, antifeminism, and the state. Her latest publications are "Equality Challenged: Equal Rights and Sexual Difference," The Journal of Policy History 6 (1994): 40-72, and "Rights and Representation: Women, Politics, and Power in the Contemporary United States," in Linda K. Kerber, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Kathryn Kish Sklar, eds., U.S. History as Women's History (1995).
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Author:De Hart, Jane Sherron
Publication:Reviews in American History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1995
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