On the spines of books everywhere, “girls” are sticking with all the tenacity of a chewed piece of bubble gum. As the author of one such book whose title includes the word “girl” — a term even I find grating — I can offer only this defense to beleaguered readers: Contained within the woefully misapplied noun is a reminder that for much of American history, grown women were not merely called girls, but frequently treated like helpless children. In Keith O’Brien’s exhilarating “Fly Girls,” the title stands in reverence not to misplaced nostalgia but to the female aviators who were hindered by the deep gender inequities that defined the golden age of flying.
These are women few of us have heard of before, with the exception of Amelia Earhart, whose saga shines so brightly that it nearly blinds us to all other pioneering female pilots. As O’Brien explains of their forgotten histories, “each of the women went missing in her own way.” Their numbers were not large; while many wished to fly in the 1920s and 1930s, few could feasibly do so. In 1928, among the 29 million women living in the United States, fewer than a dozen held pilot’s licenses. There were fewer women licensed to fly than there were female construction workers, electricians and police officers. Those who did pilot aircraft were frequently mocked and then disregarded. The fliers garnered such a plethora of nicknames that at times the book reads like an encyclopedia of degradation: “petticoat pilots,” “ladybirds,” “flying flappers,” “powder puffs” and, of course, “fly girls.” O’Brien distills the attraction of such insults, writing, “A woman with a good plane and a bold plan was impossible to ignore — and easy to disparage.”Five of these “fly girls” provide the basis of the text: Ruth Nichols, Louise Thaden, Ruth Elder, Florence Klingensmith and Earhart. Their backgrounds and experiences are distinct: Nichols is a New York debutante, Thaden sells coal in Wichita, Elder is concealing her divorce, Klingensmith is working on airplane engines and Earhart is running out of options in Boston. Yet physical characterizations of the women tend to run together. One is “blond and young,” another “young, tall and slender,” still another, “younger and prettier, flirtatious and Southern.” Their clothing is frequently described by how it drapes the body, whether a dress is “low-backed” or a sweater is “tight.” For women whose achievements were discounted based on their sex, the frequency of skin-deep descriptions feels jarring, and occasionally makes it difficult to keep track of the characters.These superficialities nonetheless give way to vibrant accounts of airplane racing, with the women speeding around the country, crossing oceans, making fantastic turns around hazardous pylons and flying so high into the air that they carry oxygen tanks beside them. Each struggles for opportunity — begging sponsors, borrowing planes, dealing with unscrupulous organizers, and taking risks equal to those of their male colleagues — but with fewer rewards to tempt them. O’Brien’s prose reverberates with fiery crashes, then stings with the tragedy of lives lost in the cockpit and sometimes, equally heartbreakingly, on the ground.Their sacrifices were not squandered. As O’Brien puts it, “From the beginning, all the women had been connected, whether they liked it or not, building on one another’s successes, saddled with one another’s failures and pressing on together.” The exploits of these daring pilots led to the formation of the Ninety-Nines, an early organization of female aviators, as well as the inclusion of female pilots in the military and, eventually, space exploration. “More will gain admittance as a greater number knock at the door,” Earhart once explained, adding, “If and when you knock at the door, it might be well to bring an ax along; you may have to chop your way through.”Nathalia Holt is the author, most recently, of “Rise of the Rocket Girls.”A version of this article appears in print on , on Page 17 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: Winged Women