Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History
by Keith O'Brien

Published: 2019-03-05
Paperback : 384 pages
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A New York Times Bestseller * An Amazon Best Book of the Year * A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice * A Time Best Book for Summer
Between the world wars, no sport was more popular, or more dangerous, than airplane racing. While male pilots were lauded as heroes, the few ...
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A New York Times Bestseller * An Amazon Best Book of the Year * A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice * A Time Best Book for Summer
Between the world wars, no sport was more popular, or more dangerous, than airplane racing. While male pilots were lauded as heroes, the few women who dared to fly were more often ridiculed—until a cadre of women pilots banded together to break through the entrenched prejudice.

Fly Girls weaves together the stories of five remarkable women: Florence Klingensmith, a high school dropout from Fargo, North Dakota; Ruth Elder, an Alabama divorcée; Amelia Earhart, the most famous, but not necessarily the most skilled; Ruth Nichols, who chafed at her blue blood family’s expectations; and Louise Thaden, the young mother of two who got her start selling coal in Wichita. Together, they fought for the chance to fly and race airplanes—and in 1936, one of them would triumph, beating the men in the toughest air race of them all.

Editorial Review

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The Miracle of Witchita

The coal peddlers west of town, on the banks of the Arkansas River, took note of the new saleswoman from the moment she appeared outside the plate-glass window. It was hard not to notice Louise McPhetridge. ... view entire excerpt...

Discussion Questions

1. Fly Girls opens with the line: “In 1926, there were countless ways to die in an air- plane” (xi) and goes on to discuss the many dangers associated with aviation at that time. Why do you think that the author chose this as the opening subject of the book? Why was aviation so dangerous at that time? What did the new aviation industry create or invent in order to prove that flying was safe? Were they successful?
2. Who are the fly girls and why are they remarkable? Where do each of the women come from and what were their lives like before they began flying? What reasons do these “fly girls” give for wanting to participate in aviation and competitive aviation sporting events?
3. Consider historical and social context. When and where do the events in the book take place? What major events were taking place during this time and what effect did they have on the general population? What does the author mean when he says that “gender roles were shifting” and “cultural norms were evolving”? What was expected of women at this time? What rights did women have and what rights were they refused at this time?

4. What role did immigrants play in the development of aviation and aviation sports? Who were some of the major players in this industry and its associated sports? What do readers learn about immigration and immigration policy at this time via the description of Earhart’s work as a social worker? How do the issues and policies revealed compare to today’s immigration issues and policies?
5. What obstacles do the women face in their quest to take to the skies and compete in aviation sporting events? From where or from whom do they draw support? Who denies them support? What reasons do many of the men (and some women) give for their staunch belief that women do not belong in aviation sports? How do the female pilots overcome this? Even after the women are allowed to fly with the men, what challenges, obstacles, and inequities do they still face?
6. In Chapter 10, what decision does the author say the women made together at the end of all of the races at that time? Who are “The Ninety-Nines” and who was their founder? What mission did they share? Why does the author say that the members “hoped they wouldn’t be seen as too powerful” (116)?
7. What does Ruth Nichols believe is the key to making a successful flight over the Atlantic? What is “the usual law of Fate” and how does this contribute to her confidence that “[t]here is no possibility of failure” (132)? Do you agree with her?
8. Which of the female flyers was described as [i]spetakkel? What does this mean? What was the defining moment in this flyer’s life? When she dies in a crash during competition, what central question arises during inquests and reporting? Why do some feel that she may have been unfit to fly? What do you think of this assertion? What else was remark- able about the treatment surrounding her death?
9. In the chapter entitled “All Things Being Equal,” the female fliers send out a survey to plane manufacturers. What questions do they ask in the survey and what are the results? What examples of hypocrisy against the female flyers do the results reveal? What other examples of hypocrisy are revealed throughout the book and how do the women respond to this? Are they ultimately able to overcome this? If so, how?
10. How would you characterize the women’s relationships with one another? How do they handle their relationship as competitors despite their mutual goal of advancing women’s rights within this sport and beyond? According to the author, how are the women connected?
11. In her speech at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, what two things does Amelia Earhart say stand in the way of women’s progress? Where does she say a women’s “place” is—or should be? What does Earhart say that one woman’s failure should be for others?

12. Who wins the 1936 Bendix trophy and what impact does this have on the inclusion and equality of women in aviation? What larger implications did this victory have in terms of the greater quest for women’s equality and rights beyond aviation?
13. How did the public respond to the news of Earhart’s disappearance? What myths begin to circulate about her fate and how were these linked to historical and cultural events taking place at that time? What does the author say is the overlooked key reason for one of the most popular and enduring myths about her disappearance?
14. What becomes of each of the five female pilots featured in the book? For those who survive, what are their lives like after they retire from flying or racing? Which of the women achieve fame? Is their fame lasting? Were you surprised by the conclusions of any of the women’s stories? Why or why not?

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