Harriet Quimby (May 11, 1875 – July 1, 1912) was many things during her short-lived life: an accomplished journalist, a photographer, and most notably a pioneering aviator. In fact, she was the first American woman to become a licensed pilot, the first woman to fly the English Channel, and is considered by some to have been the most influential pilot of her time.
In celebration, we’re sharing 10 things you should know about this extraordinary trailblazer.
1. A master of marketing and self-promotion, Harriet claimed to have had wealthy parents who put her through some of the best education in America. However, some believe it’s more likely she was the daughter of a Midwestern farmer. In either case, it’s what she did with the rest of her life that’s so incredibly fascinating.
2. Harriet’s family moved from Michigan to California when she was a young teen. The more “chill” California attitude had a deep impact on her, especially as she witnessed young women bucking the prevailing societal system and pursuing roles outside the traditional; they were attending college, studying medicine, or performing in the theater. It sparked Harriet’s thirst for adventure, which eventually helped the gifted writer land her first job in journalism at the San Francisco Dramatic Review, where she made a name for herself as one of California’s premier newspaperwomen.
3. In 1902, seeking more travel, more adventure, and more challenge, Harriet moved to New York City and began working for Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly as a travel writer. It was during this time that Harriet developed a fascination with cars and a love for the speed and freedom they represented (In 1906, she took a race car for a 100-mile-an-hour spin and wrote a compelling article about her joy ride). It gave rise to her interest in the world of aviation, a dangerous and expensive pursuit.
4. In 1910, Harriet was assigned to cover New York’s Belmont Air Meet, one of the first air shows in the U.S. After that story, Harriet knew she wanted to fly. She convinced her editor at Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly to pay for her to take flight lessons, and chronicled her experiences for the magazine.
“I’m going in for everything in aviation that men have done: altitude, speed, endurance, and the rest.”
5. Along with her friend Matilde Moisant, whose brother John was a well-known American aviator, Harriet learned to fly at the flight school he operated on Long Island. On August 1, 1911, at age 36, Harriet became the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license. PS – Matilde soon followed and became the nation’s second certified female pilot.
6. Although dresses and petticoats were all the rage at the time, Harriet famously donned a purple satin jumpsuit when flying planes.
7. On April 16, 1912 (one day after the Titanic sank), Harriet became the first woman to fly the English Channel.
8. Although the flight was a huge success and made the history books, Harriet didn’t receive the fanfare she so desperately wanted. About Harriet’s flight, The New York Times reported, “Exultation is not in order. Just a few months ago this same flight was one of the most daring and in every way remarkable deeds accomplished by man. Since then the passage has been repeated by men, and now for them there is little or no glory. The flight is now hardly anything more than proof of ordinary professional competency…. Of course it still proves ability and capacity, but it does not prove equality.” OUCH!
9. Despite the lackluster review, Harriet championed aviation as the “ideal sport for women,” writing in an article for Good Housekeeping, “There is no sport that affords the same amount of excitement and enjoyment, and exacts in return so little muscular strength. It is easier than walking, driving or automobiling; easier than golf or tennis … Flying is a fine, dignified sport for women…and there is no reason to be afraid so long as one is careful.”
10. On July 1, 1912, three months after her historic flight, Harriet went to the Harvard-Boston Aviation Meet, where she was a headlining attraction. Following a full day of activities and showmanship, she and the event organizer, William Willard, set out to test the next day’s course. As the story goes, on their return back from the course, the plane experienced a catastrophic failure, and both Harriet and William were ejected from the plane, plummeting to their tragic deaths.
Lead Image Credit: Harriet Quimby in cockpit of plane (1911). By George Grantham Bain Collection, image available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a17324. According to the LOC, “No known restrictions on reproduction.”