The Ninety-Nines was a group founded (and named) by 99 licensed female pilots for the purpose of advancing women into aviation, after the advent of gaining the right to vote in the United States in 1920. For the next decades, feminism moved into a new stage, no longer focusing on suffrage. The new feminism focused on individualism and on women proving they were men's equals by their achievements. Actresses like Katharine Hepburn, athletes like Babe Didrickson, and artists like Georgia O'Keefe and Margaret Bourke-White were examples. But it was the women in aviation who were the most daring symbols of the new feminism, flying as high and as fast as the men, often breaking records set by men and defeating them in races.
In the 1920s, the organizers of cross-country air races did not allow women to compete. So in 1929, the first All Women's Air Derby was organized to give women the chance to prove they could fly the same course as men. But the all-male organizing committee worried about women flying over the Rockies and relocated the starting point to Omaha, Nebraska. The women rebelled and the start was moved back to Santa Monica, California. Louise Thaden won the race. But more importantly, the normally individualistic women had discovered a sense of fellowship, which they wanted to foster.
The women decided to try to organize themselves. Four pilots, including Fay Gillis Wells, who served as the temporary secretary, sent a letter to the 117 licensed female pilots inviting them to help form a new organization. The letter promised "not a tremendously official sort of organization, just a way to get acquainted, to discuss the prospects for women pilots from both a sports and breadwinning point of view, and to tip each other off on what's going on in the industry."
The organizational meeting was held on November 2, 1929, in a hanger at Curtiss Field on Long Island, New York. The 26 women present drank tea off a toolbox wagon and debated names for their new organization such as the American Association of Women Pilots, Ladybirds, Gadflies, and Bird Women. Amelia Earhart recommended naming the group after the 99 women who replied positively to the initial letter and who would be the organization's charter members—The Ninety-Nines. Earhart was voted the first president, reflecting the leadership role she had already unofficially assumed among the women. The next morning, the New York Times reported on the meeting, promising that "the women are going to organize. We don't know what for."
From the beginning, the women were dedicated to increasing membership and promoting women in aviation. Earhart encouraged the women to increase their visibility as pilots by creating the Hat of the Month Club, which awarded a Stetson hat to the member who had flown into the greatest number of airports that month. But during the early years, the Ninety-Nines was an informal organization with a newsletter and a get-together centered around the Women's Air Derby (popularly referred to as the Powder Puff Derby). Most of their early activities were associated with races since, although organizers began to allow the women to compete, the women were restricted from equal competition with the men by the rules. For instance, women were limited to less powerful planes (an "appropriate" horsepower) and required to take a male medical representative on the flight.
The Ninety-Nines also worked to have the first female medical examiner appointed at the Department of Commerce and pressured the government to reconsider its proposed ban on flying during menstruation. It was felt that a woman's ability to fly decreased during these few days of the month. The government agreed not to institute the ban, but doubts about menstruating women's ability to function continued and often impeded their progress, especially in the early days of the space program.
The Ninety-Nines lost one of its first battles when Helen Richey, the first female commercial airline pilot, resigned because of ostracism and pressure from her male peers, despite support from the organization. The Ninety-Nines lobbied the government to ignore the demands of the male pilots to increase restrictions on female commercial pilots, but Richey gave in to the pressure and resigned.
In the early days of flight, knowing one's location was a major problem for pilots. Navigation instruments and radios were not generally available to civilian pilots, charts weren't reliable, and the airways system had not yet been established. In 1934, Phoebe Omlie was named Special Assistant for Air Intelligence of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. Using her influence within the government, funds from the WPA (Works Progress Administration), and labor from the Ninety-Nines, she organized the Air Marking Project. Under the program, states were divided into sections of 20 square miles (52 square kilometers). In each area, visible from the air, a marker with the name of the nearest town was painted on the roof of a prominent building and, where there were no buildings, ground markers were made out of stone or brick. The National Air Marking Program was the first government program conceived, planned, and directed entirely by women. The program was a success and, with the exception of World War II when the markers were removed in case of enemy invasion, the program continues today as a central program of the Ninety-Nines, now mainly at airports. It is a popular activity and a valuable aid to pilots.
During World War II, the Ninety-Nines went to war. They served in the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron and the Women's Airforce Service Pilots, organized by Jacqueline Cochran, president of the Ninety-Nines throughout the war. Pilots with nursing backgrounds pioneered the field of flight nursing. Member Ruth Cheney Streeter became the head of the Women's Marine Corps. Civilian members served as flight instructors, air traffic controllers, and commercial airline pilots.
When the war ended, women everywhere were expected to return to their previous lives. The Ninety-Nines were no exception, ignoring the enormous changes in these women's lives and attitudes. They revived races, organizing the All Woman Transcontinental Air Race, which was held annually from 1949 to1977. The monthly magazine ran articles on fashion and cooking.
But that was not what most women pilots wanted. The war had made flight training accessible to women across economic and racial lines, and these women wanted to pursue aviation as a career, not a hobby. Yet the Ninety-Nines continued on their previous path, seen from the outside as society ladies in white gloves without financial worries. Throughout the 1950s, their membership decreased while the younger women pilots looked elsewhere for support in their battle for careers in aviation.
But by the 1960s, the Ninety-Nines began to refocus and address the realities of women's needs in aviation. They supported many humanitarian projects, including an informal program of ferrying medical supplies across North America. With programs like the Amelia Earhart Scholarship, they created scholarships to help women learn to fly, pursue advanced flight training, and to encourage them to enter engineering programs. In the 1980s, in conjunction with the FAA, the Ninety-Nines organized an intensive aviation safety program. They also sponsor more than three-quarters of all pilot safety programs annually. Individual Ninety-Nines chapters sponsor Wing Scouts units, the aviation program of the Girl Scouts and Guides. Today, the Ninety-Nines serve as a professional resource for women working in aviation, working to ensure the maintenance of the economic status of these women. And ever since Rosemary Conatser and her five classmates became the first female military aviators with the Navy in 1974, the Ninety-Nines have been involved in decisions governing women in the armed forces.
In 1991, astronaut and Ninety-Nine member Eileen Collins ventured into space, carrying Louise Thaden's cloth flying helmet, signed by the racers of the 1929 Powder Puff. Derby. The connection between the past, present, and future, encouraging fellowship and support, has remained strong, moving more women to fly as high as they want, unimpeded by the restrictions of gender.
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