Month: March 2014

Amelia Earhart—Inspiring Queen of Aviation

The search for Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which has stretched out over the past three weeks, has reawakened memories of the famous

Amelia Earhart's airplane

Amelia Earhart’s airplane

lost flight of Amelia Earhart a pioneer of women in aviation. Although Earhart’s plane disappeared in 1937, people are still speculating about what happened, whether the plane really did crash into the ocean, and what became of Amelia.

It is easy to forget that when airplanes were first produced, people weren’t quite sure what to do with them. They were viewed by many as a sort of toy for adventurous young men—the type who nowadays go in for extreme sports like bungee jumping or whitewater kayaking. World War I proved the value of airplanes as weapons of war, but piloting remained a dangerous activity and one strongly dominated by men. Ten years after the war, in 1928, Amelia Earhart made headlines by being the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, even though she traveled as a passenger rather than a pilot. When she returned to New York with the pilot of the plane, they were given a ticker tape parade to celebrate the event. But women definitely needed to do more than just be passengers to prove they belonged in a cockpit and Amelia was determined to prove just that.

By that time she did have a pilot’s license. In 1923 she had become the 16th woman to be issued a pilot’s license by the international aviation federation. Still there were not many opportunities to fly except in exhibitions; Amelia earned money by being a sales representative for Kinner aircraft and by writing an aviation column for a local newspaper. Luckily, George Putnam a publisher and publicist had been one of the people who had made arrangements for Amelia’s transatlantic flight. The two of them soon teamed up to help promote aviation and especially women’s place in the world of flight. In 1931, they became more than business parties when they married. For the rest of her life Amelia and her husband worked together to promote aviation.

In 1932, Amelia became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic and that flight earned her a Congressional Distinguished Flying Cross. Between 1930 and 1935 Amelia set more records for altitude and length of flight. Just as she had hoped, she was demonstrating that a woman could be just as good a pilot as a man and more than that she was helping the public become accustomed to flying as a normal

Amelia Earhart in flying gear.

Amelia Earhart in flying gear.

activity not just a daredevil sport.

The next challenge Amelia Earhart decided to take was to fly around the world; in 1937 she made plans for this flight. It would not be the first time pilots had flown around the world, but it would be the longest trip because it would circle the equator rather than take a polar route. The flight started in Miami and travelled west. Amelia and her navigator stopped numerous times along the way to refuel, but their final stop was in Lea, New Guinea. After the plane took off from there, it was never seen again. You can read accounts of the final radio transmissions from the plane and the long search by air and sea for the plane in numerous sources online and in print. The mystery of Earhart’s disappearance was a major drama of the 1930s and caught the attention of people around the world, attention that still continues.

Many theories and legends have grown up around Amelia Earhart’s disappearance. The most credible theories seem to be that the plane either crashed into the ocean and sank or that it landed on Gardner Island, a small atoll in the Pacific. With no means of surviving on the small island, the fliers would have died and the plane eventually disintegrated. Other legends are more colorful and are still considered possible by a few people. Earhart had many prominent friends, Eleanor Roosevelt among them, and one theory is Franklin Roosevelt asked her to spy on the Japanese. Some writers have even suggested that Earhart survived the flight and returned to the United States where she lived under a different name.

There is a wealth of books and other materials about Amelia Earhart’s life and flights. Many of the books about her have been written for young people, especially young girls. Perhaps Earhart’s most important legacy has been serving as an inspiration to generations of girls growing up in America and around the world. For almost 100 years her skill and daring have helped girls to decide they too can become pilots or doctors or astronauts. Despite the tragedy of her early death, her spirit lives on.

St. Patrick’s Day 2014

19th century Irish harp in the Boston Museum

19th century Irish harp in the Boston Museum

St. Patrick’s Day is here again with parades and songs and shiny green hats and beads not only for the Irish but for anyone who enjoys a party. But while people are busy celebrating, the world seems to be trembling on the edge of more violence and possible wars. The Irish are famous for writing verses, so this year let’s not forget the Irish tradition of anti-war poetry and songs including the familiar “Johnny I hardly knew ye”.

While goin’ the road to sweet Athy, hurroo, hurroo
While goin’ the road to sweet Athy, hurroo, hurroo
While goin’ the road to sweet Athy
A stick in me hand and a tear in me eye
A doleful damsel I heard cry,
Johnny I hardly knew ye.

With your drums and guns and guns and drums, hurroo, hurroo
With your drums and guns and guns and drums, hurroo, hurroo
With your drums and guns and guns and drums
The enemy nearly slew ye
Oh my darling dear, Ye look so queer
Johnny I hardly knew ye.

Where are the eyes that looked so mild, hurroo, hurroo
Where are the eyes that looked so mild, hurroo, hurroo
Where are the eyes that looked so mild
When my poor heart you first beguiled
Why did ye scadaddle from me and the child
Oh Johnny, I hardly knew ye.

Where are your legs that used to run, hurroo, hurroo
Where are your legs that used to run, hurroo, hurroo
Where are your legs that used to run
When you went to carry a gun
Indeed your dancing days are done
Oh Johnny, I hardly knew ye.

I’m happy for to see ye home, hurroo, hurroo
I’m happy for to see ye home, hurroo, hurroo
I’m happy for to see ye home
All from the island of Ceylon
So low in the flesh, so high in the bone
Oh Johnny I hardly knew ye.

Ye haven’t an arm, ye haven’t a leg, hurroo, hurroo
Ye haven’t an arm, ye haven’t a leg, hurroo, hurroo
Ye haven’t an arm, ye haven’t a leg
Ye’re an armless, boneless, chickenless egg
Ye’ll have to be put with a bowl out to beg
Oh Johnny I hardly knew ye.

They’re rolling out the guns again, hurroo, hurroo
They’re rolling out the guns again, hurroo, hurroo
They’re rolling out the guns again
But they never will take my sons again
No they’ll never take my sons again
Johnny I’m swearing to ye.

Constance Wilde–victim of her century

The recent mini-battle in Arizona about whether same-sex couples should receive the same kind of services that other couples get, has called attention to recent the dramatic changes in the way a majority of Americans view gays and lesbians. While celebrating the change in attitudes that have resulted in more respect being given to different groups, it is sad to look back on some of the tragedies caused in the past by harsh anti-homosexual laws.

Constance Lloyd Wilde was a woman whose life was shattered by the trial and imprisonment of her husband, Oscar Wilde, on charges of gross indecency. Born in London in 1859, Constance Lloyd grew up in the Victorian era when marriage was considered sacred, but adultery was

portrait of Constance Wilde

Constance Lloyd Wilde

common. Among many middle-and-upper class British couples, men were routinely pardoned for engaging in extra-marital sex, and while the rules were stricter for women, many of them could have affairs as long as they were discreet. Constance grew up under the supervision of parents who would be considered neglectful today, but were following the usual pattern of paying little attention to their children and bestowing little affection on them.

Despite this unpromising start, Constance received a good education and grew up to be a spirited, intelligent and very attractive woman. She was determined to make something of her life so she did not rush into marriage, but mingled with the artistic set which included painters, designers and writers. She became interested in Aestheticism and began to design her own dresses using the new Liberty fabrics, which reflected the tastes of modern young people. Oscar Wilde a young Irish poet and critic who had left Oxford and moved to London was a leading member of this group and it was not long until the two met.

Oscar Wilde soon became a prominent figure in London society. He earned his living by writing and lecturing on cultural life. In 1878 he traveled to America on a lecture tour during which he was both lionized and made fun of by the press and public. Whatever he did his fame continued to grow. After he returned to London, he continued to see Constance Lloyd and in 1884 they were married. Oscar was 30 years old at the time and Constance was 25; they were both well-educated intellectuals, but in terms of understanding their own desires and sexuality they probably knew less than the average college student today.

The early years of their marriage were happy. They had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan, and became a much-noticed couple in the London social scene. Their house was a showplace of Aesthetic interior design and Constance’s avant-garde clothes were noticed and discussed by many friends, acquaintances and even the press. Constance brought an income of 250 pound a year to the marriage, which would have been adequate for most middle-class families, but the Wildes had expensive tastes and expensive habits.

As the years went by Oscar Wilde’s life became more chaotic. His plays were hugely successful, but his lifestyle was difficult to maintain. He enjoyed the company of young men and began spending more and more of his time away from home. Whether Constance realized that these ardent friendships were replacing her in Oscar’s affections is difficult to know. Looking back from the 21st century, it is easy to think that she must have known he was homosexual, but so many of the realities of sexual life were hidden from women in those days that we cannot be sure about how much of her husband’s life she understood. She carried on her life, taking care of her boys, maintaining a social presence, and even writing a well-received children’s book called There Was Once. She and Oscar remained close, but their way of life was becoming too fragile to maintain.

Almost everyone has heard the story of the downfall of Oscar Wilde. He developed a long-lasting crush on a young man, Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie), whose father was the Marquis of Queensberry. When the Marquis began hounding Wilde with the threat of bringing charges against him, Wilde foolishly sued the Marquis for libel. He lost the suit and was charged, convicted, and eventually imprisoned for gross indecency. England was the only country in Europe at that time that had a law against homosexuality, but Wilde unfortunately refused to leave the country to escape the charges.

Almost overnight not only Oscar’s life, but the life of his whole family changed dramatically. Many old friends stopped speaking to Constance and the English schools to which she hoped to send the boys refused to accept them. She moved to the continent, changed both her name and her sons’ names to Holland, and enrolled the boys in German schools. Through it all she was not completely estranged from Oscar but continued to hope for reconciliation. Time ran out on that hope because Constance died in Genoa in 1898 at the age of 37 without ever seeing Oscar again. Oscar died two years later without having seen his sons again.

You can follow the whole story in Franny Moyle’s recent biography Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde.

The tragedy of the lives of the Wilde family is that so much of the suffering was unnecessary. Certainly their marriage was under a great deal of strain as Oscar came to terms with his nature, but if they had been living in 2014 instead of the 1895, they might have been able to work out the issues privately. The public outcry and the exile of Constance and the boys were pointless. The disruption of the lives of these innocent people helped no one. It has taken a hundred years for society to understand this and to accept the right of gays and lesbians to live their lives in peace and security for themselves and their families. Things aren’t perfect today, but at least this is one area in which real progress has been made.


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