Icons / April 2019

AMELIA EARHART: A SYMBOL OF NEW WOMANHOOD

Amelia Earhart disarmed ideas about femininity in her manner and her attitude, and her legend is as strong today as it ever was.

(Original Caption) 4/8/1931-Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-Amelia Earhart in the cockpit of her autogiro after setting a new altitude record for women in planes of this type.

In March 2018, an announcement was made that seemed to clear up a mystery that, despite persisting for the best part of a century, had lost none of its potency. The journal Forensic Anthropology claimed that an assortment of bones found on the eastern Pacific island of Nikumaroro in 1940, including a skull, were “a 99 per cent match” for those of Amelia Earhart, the pioneering aviator who had become the world’s most famous missing person when she disappeared — along with her navigator, Fred Noonan — on July 2, 1937, during an attempt to circumnavigate the equator in her twin-engine Lockheed Electra. Alongside the bones were a woman’s shoe, a navy tool used by Noonan, and a bottle of the herbal liqueur Benedictine — apparently Earhart’s airborne beverage of choice. The original analysis had concluded that the bones were male, but Fordisc, a computer forensic anthropology programme, now posited that the remains belonged to a “taller-than-average woman of European descent” (Earhart was a little under five foot seven). There was just one glitch: the bones themselves had been lost, and so couldn’t be re-analysed.

The fact that closure hadn’t quite been achieved was a boon to the continuing Earhart mythology industry, which has trafficked in everything from conspiracy theories (she was on a secret mission to spy for the Japanese, who interned her! She returned clandestinely to America and lived out her days as a housewife in New Jersey!) to cultural canonisation (in the 1990s, she appeared in both Gap and Apple ad campaigns, promoting khaki trousers in the former and embodying the latter’s ‘Think Different’ slogan) via all manner of elegiac tributes, from Joni Mitchell’s plaintive lament Amelia (“A ghost of aviation/She was swallowed by the sky/Or by the sea, like me she had a dream to fly”) to Jane Mendelsohn’s 1996 novel I Was Amelia Earhart, which imagines Earhart and Noonan’s post-disappearance afterlife as a (Mrs.) Robinson Crusoe-style atoll romance, complete with fishing, foraging and “unencumbered” sex.

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Stuart Husband