Carmen Venegas, VPI’s First International Woman Graduate

Special Collections has celebrated Women’s History Month 2018 with numerous exhibits in Newman Library and the Holtzman Alumni Center. Part of our focus has been on some of the first women who attended or worked at Virginia Tech. I’ve written before about some of VT’s female trailblazers, but I decided to concentrate on the first international woman to graduate, Maria del Carmen Venegas. She has the additional distinction of being the first known Latina/Hispanic woman to study at Virginia Tech.

The first international male student came to Virginia Tech in the 1874,  and the first women matriculated in 1921. But, it took much longer for the first international female student to enroll as Venegas joined the student body in 1935. (It would be another 18 years before the first Black male student matriculated in 1953 and another 31 years for the first Black women to enter VT in 1966.)

Called Carmen by her friends, Venegas earned one of two scholarships awarded by the government of her home nation Costa Rica, making it possible for her to attend the university. Before graduating in 1938 with a B.S. in electrical engineering, she was a member of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers and was the only woman in the organization of nearly 40 students at that time.

Maria del Carmen Venegas in American Institute of Electrical Engineers, from the 1938 Bugle
Maria del Carmen Venegas in American Institute of Electrical Engineers, from the 1938 Bugle

A founding member of the Short Wave Club, Venegas trained students in amateur radio operations. She taught classes in radio operation and acted as Hostess for the Club in 1937. The Short Wave Club is a predecessor to the student-run group, the Virginia Tech Amateur Radio Association, exemplifying how her and other students’ contributions to the university have made an impact that can still be felt today.

Maria del Carmen Venegas as part of the Short Wave Club in the 1936 Bugle
Maria del Carmen Venegas as part of the Short Wave Club in the 1936 Bugle

In addition to her school activities, Venegas is remembered as a pilot, even keeping her own airplane in Lynchburg. In 1937, the National Intercollegiate Flying Club invited her to join a convoy from Washington, D.C., to view air races in Miami, Florida. Out of 100 pilots, Venegas was the only Virginia-based woman in the bunch!

Sadly, Carmen Venegas and her alma mater did not keep in contact after she graduated. Although her whereabouts remained unknown, Venegas was listed in the alumni directories, until her name was finally removed in 1998, the 50th anniversary of her graduation.

You can read more about the first women to graduate from Tech and the legacy they left behind in the blog posts linked above as well as on Special Collections’ women’s history website for the 125th Anniversary of Virginia Tech website.

Advertisements

“History Is Not a Meritocracy:” A Deep Dive Into Confronting Gaps on Wikipedia

In honor of next week’s Art + Feminism Wikipedia Edit-a-thon

“History is not a simple meritocracy.”[1] So goes the opening salvo of Despina Stratigakos’ “Unforgetting Women Architects,” an essay on writing women practitioners back into the historical record. We’ve touched on this topic in previous blog posts about the history of women in architecture and the importance of making their work visible, especially online. Yet in advance of the Women in Architecture and the Arts Wikipedia edit-a-thon next Wednesday March 28th, it seemed an opportune time to take another look at the troubling lack of female representation on Wikipedia and within the architectural profession.

When we talk about representation of women on Wikipedia, we actually talk about two distinct, yet intimately connected, issues. One issue is a gender asymmetry in the site’s content, the other is an asymmetry in the site’s contributors.[2][3][4] Myriad and complex factors contribute to both. Wikipedia’s structure and ideology, the fact that many of its veteran editors are white and male, the perceived lack of importance and cultural relevance of issues significant to women implicit in Wikipedia’s criteria for “notability,”[5] sometimes ruthlessly enforced by the site’s self-appointed gatekeepers; these and other factors[6] cause significant lacunae and stark attrition among female editors (who account for 13% of contributors)[7][8] in an encyclopedia that purports to be the “sum of all human knowledge.”

In fact, some quick research demonstrates the widened scope of notability criteria where men and men’s interests are concerned. As a much-circulated New York Times article from 2011 points out[9], and indeed accounts from (sometimes expert) women contributors writing about women[10], there can be a lot of pushback on articles addressing women’s interests: nitpicking about sourcing and whether an article’s subject is “notable” enough to warrant inclusion on the site; indeed, articles on women are often flagged as not even adhering to Wikipedia’s neutrality guidelines. Yet there are lengthy articles and sub-articles about video games, video game characters, male-dominated television shows, and, of course, biographical articles on men in many fields that are often published without challenge.[11] To this point, a research article addressing gender bias in Wikipedia’s content has found that women on Wikipedia are, on the whole, more “notable” than their male counterparts, indicating that one must reach a higher threshold of accomplishment as a woman in order to be deemed important enough to merit an article – a threshold that the article characterizes as “the glass ceiling effect.”[12] Also of note, the article presents evidence that certain topics are overstated in women’s biographies and tend to receive more attention than their work, i.e., their personal relationships and family status.[13]

Wikipedia culture is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a microcosm of culture writ large and its participatory homogeneity mirrors that of other kinds of open online forums that depend on user-generated content. The way the site reproduces bias, however, may be exacerbated by its claim to neutrality that is meant to bolster its reliability and credibility. This principle, when coupled with a lack of diversity in its user base, is problematic in that neutrality then comes to be synonymous with a white male point of view. This likely explains much of the resistance and flags that women encounter when they attempt to publish pages about other women.[14] They claim that women should write their gender out of their entries;[15] this may very well be because male editors have become accustomed to perceiving their own form of gendered analysis as the default – it is not, however, neutral.

Many scholars and practitioners (Susana Torre, Denise Scott Brown, Ellen Perry Berkeley, Dolores Hayden, Despina Stratigakos, Lori Brown, and Gabrielle Esperdy, to name but a few) have worked to challenge and dismantle pernicious myths about the architectural profession.[16] Institutions like the International Archive of Women in Architecture and the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation have made the collection of women architects’ papers a top priority and have helped to “recover a cultural past” and properly historicize the conditions of women’s professional exclusion.[17] Additionally, in recent years scholars, information specialists, and architects have worked to ensure greater representation in online environments – enhancing discoverability of otherwise underappreciated or forgotten historical figures.[18][19][20] Unfortunately there isn’t space here to fully unpack all of these women’s various contributions to the field and its literature. Please join us next Wednesday in the Multipurpose Room at Newman Library to engage with their analysis more fully and to rewrite digital history! RSVP for the Women in Architecture Edit-a-thon here.

References

1. Despina Stratigakos, “Unforgetting Women Architects: From the Pritzker to Wikipedia,” Places Journal, April 2016. Accessed 21 Mar 2018. https://doi.org/10.22269/130603

2. Cohen, Noam. “Define Gender Gap? Look Up Wikipedia’s Contributor List.” The New York Times, 30 January 2011. Accessed 21 March 2018.

3. Gardner, Sue. “Nine Reasons Women Don’t Edit Wikipedia (In Their Own Words),” Sue Gardner’s Blog, 19 February 2011. Accessed 21 Mar 2018.

4. Wagner, Claudia, et al. “Women through the Glass Ceiling: Gender Asymmetries in Wikipedia.” EPJ Data Science, vol. 5, no. 1, 2016, pp. 1-24.

5. Davidge, Tania. “How to be ‘notable.'”Parlour: Women, Equity, Architecture website, 24 April 2015. Accessed 22 March 2018.

6. Gardner, 2011.

7. Cohen, 2011.

8. Bear, Julia B., and Benjamin Collier. “Where are the Women in Wikipedia? Understanding the Different Psychological Experiences of Men and Women in Wikipedia.” Sex Roles, vol. 74, no. 5, 2016, pp. 254-265.

9. Cohen, 2011.

10. Vigor, Emily. “Down the Rabbit Hole: (Miss)adventures in Wikipedia.” Environmental Design blog, UC Berkeley, 3 April 2015. Accessed 21 March 2018.

11. Ibid.

12. Wagner et al., 2016.

13. Ibid.

14. Vigor, 2015.

15. Gardner, 2011.

16. Torre, Susana, 1944, and Architectural League of New York. Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective : A Publication and Exhibition Organized by the Architectural League of New York through its Archive of Women in Architecture. Whitney Library of Design, New York, 1977. Scott Brown, Denise. Having words. Vol. 4;4.;. London: Architectural Association, 2009. Berkeley, Ellen P., and Matilda McQuaid. Architecture: A Place for Women. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington [D.C.], 1989. Hayden, Dolores. “What would a Non-Sexist City be Like? Speculations on Housing, Urban Design, and Human Work.” Signs, vol. 5, no. 3, 1980, pp. S170-S187. Stratigakos, Despina. Where are the Women Architects?. Princeton University Press, in association with Places Journal, Princeton, 2016. Brown, Lori A. Feminist Practices: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Women in Architecture. Ashgate, Burlington, VT; Farnham, Surrey, 2011. Esperdy, Gabrielle. “The Incredible True Adventures of the Architectress in America,” Places Journal, September 2012. Accessed 22 Mar 2018. https://doi.org/10.22269/120910

17. Torre, 1977.

18. Moritz, Cyndi. “Project Aims to Raise Profile of Women Architects on Wikipedia.” Syracuse University News, 1 June 2015. Accessed 21 March 2018.

19. “The Year Five Campaign.” Art + Feminism. Accessed 22 March 2018.

20. “Welcome to Parlour.” Archiparlour. Accessed 22 March 2018.

The History of the LGBTQ Civil Rights Movement

Have you ever thought about the history of LGBTQ rights in the United States? Did you learn about historic figures and events in the LGBTQ Civil Rights Movement in elementary school? middle school? high school? college? Did you ever learn about these important figures and events in US History? For the majority of people, the answers will be “no”. It’s a sad reality that this topic isn’t covered in most schools and that most students will not be exposed to this history unless they choose a course of study in college that requires a course about LGBTQ people.

As part of our efforts to collect and highlight archival material about the LGBTQ+ community, our partnership with the LGBTQ+ Resource Center at Virginia Tech, and in support of LGBTQ+ History Month (October), we arranged to host an exhibit from the ONE Archives Foundation highlighting archival material from the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives at the University of Southern California (USC) Libraries. The exhibit is titled The History of the LGBTQ Civil Rights Movement.

Photograph of a directional sign reading "The History of the LGBTQ Civil Rights Movement exhibit begins here"
The start of the “The History of the LGBTQ Civil Rights Movement” exhibit on display at Virginia Tech. The exhibit is on display from right to left due to the normal traffic patterns in this part of the library, so a sign noting the start of the exhibit is helpful.

The exhibit consists of 39 panels that are 24 x 36 inches. We had them printed on adhesive vinyl and put them up in the hallway outside the library’s new digital humanities classroom. The exhibit includes information on early “gayborhoods” in the 1940s, the Lavender Scare during 1950s McCarthyism, the Stonewall Riots in the 1960s, the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, the push for marriage equality in the 1990s and 2000s, and more.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We first posted the exhibit during LGBTQ+ History Month and invited attendees at our LGBTQ+ History at Virginia Tech archival exhibit to take a look after viewing documents from local LGBTQ+ history. Since then, many people have stopped to read through the exhibit panels.

In November, Aline Souza, a graduate student in Creative Technologies and Architecture, took some time to look through the exhibit. After reading through the panels, she said “I like the exhibit because it gives me a chance of a transformative experience on my way to class. I find it unique because it combines good graphics and colors with information about things that happened that I’d never know about.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The History of the LGBTQ Civil Rights Movement exhibit was put up on on October 16, 2017 and will be on display through December 21, 2017 on the first floor of Newman Library (from the cafe, head up the ramp and turn right at the bathrooms). If you’re on campus, take a moment to stop by Newman Library and take a look.

Building the Builders: Egalitarian Pedagogy and Sustainable Design

When taking part in Frank Lloyd Wright’s preeminent architectural school known as the Taliesin Fellowship, Lois Gottlieb came to understand architecture as a kind of Lebensphilosophie, in that she came to consider it a mode of living that touched on and derived inspiration from all aspects of life. Hence the title of her account of her apprenticeship A Way of Life, which deftly highlights the interplay of the rarefied and the mundane, the interdependence of humans and their natural surroundings, and the fluidity between the concreteness of day-to-day living and abstract worldview. Furthermore, it presents art as an act of cultivation and sustained effort, rather than a quasi-mysterious realization of personal genius.Gottlieb005

It’s of note that Wright’s teaching style deviated significantly from the norms of his time and tended to subvert the traditional master-apprentice relationship. His radically egalitarian approach to pedagogy came to inform Gottlieb’s own teaching style and her outlook on the ways humans shape and control the environment. Her first major publication, the book Environment and Design in Housing, first workshopped as a series of lectures at UC – Riverside, articulates the effects of design on both the micro- and macro-scale, i.e., the way the “[physical] environment we each create for ourselves and our families does affect every part of our lives” [1] and the implications of poor design in terms of ecological sustainability and financial cost. In her view, humans have an unrivaled capacity to adapt the environment to their needs – a capacity that is problematic at scale and exacts high tolls, both from the land itself and from people affected by landslides or other natural disasters (see picture below). In light of these concerns, she advocates a more thoughtful approach based on client needs and leveraging the natural assets of building sites rather than the one-size-fits-all attitude of traditional design. (As a side note, Julius Shulman, famed architectural photographer, worked with Gottlieb on this book as photography consultant. The work itself features many of his gorgeous black-and-white photographs, prints of which are available for viewing as part of Gottlieb’s architectural collection here at Virginia Tech. Two copies of Environment and Design in Housing are also available for research as part of Special Collections’ selection of rare books – the captions and broader expositions provide invaluable context for the photographs.)

Gottlieb008
Gottlieb’s caption: “The result! The gadgets in the kitchen no longer matter.”[2][3] Photographer: Julius Shulman.

Design and Gender Norms

A notable feature of this book is its emphasis on practice and its demystification of architectural knowledge. While much of Gottlieb’s approach is informed by cultivating self-knowledge and considering the dwelling as a vehicle for personal expression, it tends to balance this view with injunctions to draw on the specialized knowledge of experts – lending itself to a kind of tempered humanism and recognition of personal limitations. This methodology, I think, can also be traced to Gottlieb’s time spent at Taliesin, which, for the time, was certainly unique in its combination of self-reliance and communal dependencies.

A different, but related, novelty of the school’s social structure was its disregard for gender norms. It is generally recognized these days that, historically, there have been gender-inflected labor divisions in both the public and domestic sphere. At Taliesin, these “traditional” divisions were not enforced – men would often perform tasks like preparing dinner while women would thresh wheat. “Homemaking” was not the strictly circumscribed domain of women, nor was outdoor labor the exclusive domain of men. While her work’s primary focus isn’t on cultural assumptions regarding women, Gottlieb clearly has thoughts on the connections between gender and under-recognized labor. On the subject of domesticity, design, and value, she offers the following observations:

“Another attitude toward the occupation of homemaking is that it is ‘nothing’ or of little importance. An answer to the typical question ‘What does Jane Doe do?’ is ‘Oh, nothing,’ or ‘She doesn’t work, she is just a housewife.’ Yet this housewife is supposed to do most of the buying for the family, keep them all in good physical condition, keep them attractively housed and clothed, see to it that the children are educated, and so on and on.

“In other situations any of these tasks is considered a field of specialized knowledge…But the homemaker is supposed to have absorbed and be all these things at once, a sort of twentieth-century version of the Renaissance man” (without any of the credit for doing so, presumably).[4]

 

It’s clear that Environment and Design in Housing is at least partially intended to serve as a practical resource for homemakers. It’s also clear that the book is meant to bring analysis to typically underserved segments of society and to address real (if hidden) needs.

Gottlieb010
Gottlieb-designed home – a great example of California Mid-Century Modern architecture. Photographer: Morley Baer.

References

1. Lois Davidson Gottlieb, Environment and Design in Housing (New York: Macmillan, 1966), 1.

2. Gottlieb, 5.

3. Lois Davidson Gottlieb Architectural Collection, Ms1997-003, Special Collections, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg, Va.

4. Gottlieb, 231.

Oh, it is a Long Story


Marie-Louise Laleyan once wrote in an article for the “Daily Pacific Builder’s” Women in Construction issue of an exchange she had with her father during the opening reception for a public housing project for which she had been the architect. She recounted that upon seeing their nametags a group of happy attendees approached them exclaiming, “Here is the architect” and promptly shook her father’s hand:

“They are congratulating me because of my daughter!” He was almost in tears.
“Well … no. They think you are the architect.”
“Why would they think that?” he wanted to know.
“Oh, it is a long story. I may even write a book about it. Let’s go home.”’

And it is that long story, nestled here into a fond anecdote, that defines a great deal of Laleyan’s work within the broader architectural profession.

img001
Daily Pacific Builder, Friday, October 31, 1986
img002
Daily Pacific Builder, Friday,October 31, 1986.

I have been encountering—in part through happenstance, but also likely in part because of the particular architectural collections with which I have been most involved as of late—an abundance of materials related to the status and (often) undervaluation of the contributions of women in many professional fields. Apart from archival records, I recently listened to a 2016 episode of the podcast 99% Invisible that showcased the near erasure of photographer Lucia Moholy from the history of the Bauhaus—an institution that owed its reputation at least in part to her astounding (unpaid and uncredited) documentation. Recent books, such as Where are the Women Architects, and excellent articles such as the 2012 piece “The Incredible True Adventures of the Architectress in America,” which appeared in the journal Places, have refocused my attention on how that “long story” that Marie-Louise Laleyan mentioned fits into an ongoing conversation. A call to examine the current state of the architectural field—of nearly any field—also encourages reflection on how past decades of women’s experiences and actions can inform a conversation going forward.

Laleyan had what is likely a common experience for women entering the American architectural scene in the mid-1960s, which is to say that she was often told that firms did not hire women. She noted in an interview years later that, “My reaction of ‘how stupid’ has not changed in 22 years!” To say she defied the barriers to entry is an understatement. She went on, after working her way up in several firms, to found Laleyan Associates, Architects. Her project records, held by the International Archive of Women in Architecture (IAWA), reveal a lot about the constant need to assert her authority as an architect.

 

For instance, filed into the general correspondence associated with any project, we find glimmers of the difficulty Laleyan sometimes faced in being taken seriously or authoritatively. Between the contracts, bid documents, cost estimates, schedules of work, invoices, field reports, change orders, specifications, revised plans, and the general back and forth between architects, owners, and contractors, are observations about undercutting. When viewed en masse, these suggest a challenge to the expertise of a woman working in a male-dominated field.

In some of the following examples, Laleyan has to remind contractors and owners of her professional role in a project, ask that they do not undermine her, and note the outright disrespect of her knowledge and expertise.

L1008
In the last section Laleyan notes her encounter with a sub-contractor during an inspection. He, among other challenges, asserts that “she doesn’t know what she is talking about.” Laleyan goes on to record that this is a repeated challenge and that she will not tolerate such interactions.

L1002In reference to a letter from a contractor, Laleyan notes in section A that “I do not “challenge” contractors. I administer the construction contract as required by my agreement…” and later notes “occasionally contractors have disagreed with my interpretation of the contract documents, but you are the first who has challenged persistently my authority to interpret those documents and my right to make decisions, based on those interpretations.”

L1005The notes in the last section recount Laleyan’s experience of being yelled at in front of a job superintendent, workers, and others. She goes on to mention that while she did not respond on grounds of professional behavior, she will not tolerate a project development  supervisor undermining her authority with the contractor.

L1023Laleyan notes that she would appreciate it if her designs were followed and not “improved upon” by the contractor.

Many more records can be found in the Marie-Louise Laleyan Architectural Collection.

Beyond Laleyan’s success as an architect and owner of her own firm, she had a prominent role in professional organizations and helped to begin actively addressing the challenges that she and other women were facing. She tackled barriers to entry, noting that when she had studied in Bulgaria half of the architectural students were women. She went on to co-found the Organization of Women Architects in 1972, and against the background of 1970s feminist initiatives she contributed a great deal to the conversations and actions that were taking place to encourage a sense of equity within the profession. Apart from participating in organizations that helped to support and encourage other women in the field, Laleyan worked in high-level roles in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), which had a high barrier to participation for professional women. She co-authored the 1975 AIA Affirmative Action Plan and co-chaired the AIA Task Force on Women in Architecture, among other roles. The studies and action plans outlined as part of the AIA initiative helped to move the inclusion of women in the professional activities of the field forward, but as Laleyan noted in her 1980s article for Daily Pacific Builder, “the arguments about the success of the Affirmative Action Plan still go on.” It’s arguable that the core of those recommendations and the issues they address are still relevant today, and are applicable in many fields where women still represent a minority of participants. Still, the increased awareness and forthright conversation about barriers, as well as the existence of toolkits and resources to support women entering the field, likely owe their existence to earlier initiatives such as these.

Looking through a historical lens at Marie-Louise Laleyan’s work provides a microcosm of the experiences of many women architects working at the time (certainly the papers in many of the IAWA Collections attest to similar experiences). But such bridges to the past that examine issues of gender equity, professional practice, and labor issues almost demand to be viewed along a continuum and alongside the work of women in related fields. As Laleyan stated practically with regard to the 1970s AIA Affirmative Action Plan, “What has been achieved in the last ten years is more than I expected. The rest is up to the next generation.”

L1009
One of many drawings related to the numerous public housing remodeling projects that Laleyan completed during her lengthy career.

The OWA still works on behalf of the vision the group outlined in the 1970s. Visit the website for history, newsletters, and current initiatives and projects. Papers from the IAWA Collection are available to view in person in the Virginia Tech Special Collections reading room.

Looking Back, Moving Forward: Addressing Architecture’s “Woman Question” Then and Now

Forty years ago the book Women in American Architecture: A Historic and Contemporary Perspective took shape under the editorial hand of Susana Torre. While the work arose out of an exhibition meant to expose the undervalued contributions of women to the built environment, it evolved into a discursive response to a series of dogged and complex questions concerning the roles of women in society, the exclusions of educational and professional culture, and the ideological underpinnings of “tradition.” (Torre’s papers are held by the International Archive of Women in Architecture here at Virginia Tech and the collection contains a wealth of research material related to her work on this exhibition and book project.)

Yet after two-fifths of a century have passed, a few questions linger: Have women made appreciable gains within the profession? Did Women in American Architecture’s 1977 publication herald a sea change in the attitudes of practitioners and architectural culture writ large? The answer may effectively be found in a book published just last year called Where Are the Women Architects? by Despina Stratigakos: while significant advances have been made, yes, equity (in pay, recognition, representation, etc.) has yet to be achieved. Indeed, in an interview with The Architectural League just four years ago, Torre commented that she had hoped sexism in the field would have become an artifact of the past: “I would have hoped that by now this topic would have become entirely passe…that it would be a quaint reminder of another time.”

In certain respects, women are still battling a culture that lionizes the “exceptional one:” a culture that valorizes individualism–the “lone genius”–while erasing female collaboration and one that lauds exceptional women to justify the marginalization of other women architects (paraphrase of Torre’s words). The “lone genius” archetype is partially a product of the narrative structure of many architectural histories (I’m looking at you, monograph). Stratigakos re-examines this emphasis on “stardom” and its underlying assumption “that the best architecture is created by mavericks.” Alongside assumptions that persist in mainstream treatment of architecture, Stratigakos looks at the bare fact that young women still confront woefully high professional attrition rates and a lack of visibility in educational curricula, the analog historical record, in online content, and among online content creators.

Digitization and Representation: Strategies For Winning Over Hearts and Minds?

Part and parcel of rectifying gender imbalance involves the activist approach of “consciousness-raising,” which partially entails the documentation and recovery of a cultural past that is often unrecognized or invalidated in historical works. The IAWA, founded in 1985, was itself borne out of Milka Bliznakov’s frustration that the historical record for architecture remained so lopsided: as many women grew old or died, evidence of their work was quietly being relegated to the ash heap of history. In some ways the digital era has presented new challenges regarding historical incompleteness.

In recent years, the internet has played a profound role in shaping cultural memory and, in some cases, reproducing bias–where ample content can be found and accessed so easily, many people erroneously believe that most information resources have been made available online and, following from this assumption, (mis-)perceive an absence of online content as a positive demonstration of triviality or non-existence. As Ricky Erway and Jennifer Schaffner noted in their digitization report “Shifting Gears,” “in a world where it is increasingly felt that if it’s not online it doesn’t exist, we need to make sure that our users are exposed to the wealth of information in special collections.” The current CLIR grant-funded project to digitize the IAWA’s holdings is underway and one of its express goals is to combat the notion that women architects didn’t exist or didn’t contribute much to the built environment. For those of us working on the project, it’s our belief that the work of changing hearts and minds can begin with something as (seemingly) simple as visibility. Check back in another forty years.

 

 

Hero’s Welcome

A Souvenir Menu Recalls Earhart’s Triumphant Return to the U. S.

The recent reports about possible new evidence in the 80-year mystery of Amelia Earhart’s disappearance reminded me of a little item in our collections: a menu for a 1932 dinner honoring the pilot. Housed, perhaps incongruously, within our Aviation Pamphlets and Brochures Collection (Ms1994-015), this souvenir  commemorates a milestone in aviation and women’s history.

Cover of the Earhart Waldorf-Astoria dinner menu. Though Earhart did not take her husband’s name after marriage and is invariably identified today by her maiden name, the press and others most often referred to her as “Amelia Earhart Putnam” or “Mrs. Putnam” during the years of her married life.

Though Amelia Earhart’s name endures, it may be difficult for us to imagine today the level of fame she attained through her derring-do.  The word “icon” has perhaps been devalued through overuse in recent years, but Earhart’s solo crossing of the Atlantic made her a true icon and arguably the most famous woman of her time.

Even before Earhart undertook her solo transatlantic flight in 1932, she had gained fame through her feats: as the first woman to cross the Atlantic via airplane (1928), as the first woman to make a solo transcontinental roundtrip flight across the U. S. (1928), and as the record holder for the highest altitude attained in an autogyro (1931). Despite occasional criticisms leveled against her skills as a flyer, Earhart through her personality and her penchant for self-promotion put a face on women’s advances in fields  that previously had been reserved for men.

The menu includes a brief list of Earhart’s accomplishments to 1932.

Earhart departed Newfoundland on May 20, 1932 and landed in Ireland the following day, exactly five years after Charles Lindbergh’s historic solo flight across the Atlantic. While most know that Earhart was the first woman to make such a flight, few may remember that no pilot had successfully made a solo transatlantic flight in the five years after Lindbergh.

Within the menu is this photo of Earhart in Ireland. The caption celebrates her crossing of the Atlantic in 13 hours and 30 minutes, a new record for a transatlantic flight.

In the following weeks, Earhart toured Europe, receiving a number of honors and being feted by various dignitaries. After several weeks of enjoying her celebrity, Earhart  embarked for home. Despite her accomplishment, transatlantic flight remained a dangerous undertaking reserved for pioneering daredevils. (The transatlantic passenger service established by Germany’s Graf Zeppelin in 1928 averaged only about 20 flights per year for the next decade. Weather and distance would prevent the commercial viability of transatlantic passenger plane flights until the late 1930s.) The singularity of Earhart’s feat is underscored by the fact that she returned to the U. S. via cruise ship.

With the country in the throes of the Great Depression, Earhart had asked that her welcome home be an understated affair, but it was perhaps because of the desperate need for something to celebrate that the flyer’s request went unheeded. When the Ile de France arrived in New York on June 20, it was greeted by all the fanfare the city could muster, including a tickertape parade. Following a luncheon hosted by the Advertising Federation Convention and several rounds of interviews, the day’s activities concluded at the Waldorf-Astoria, where a full-course dinner was held in Earhart’s honor. Speakers included Charles Lawrence, president of the Aeronautical Chamber of Commerce of America; Don Brown, president of Pratt & Whitney Aircraft; W. Irving Glover, second assistant postmaster of the United States; and Earhart herself. The speeches were broadcast nationwide via radio.

The menu for Earhart’s dinner.

Unfortunately, as far as I was able to determine (in an admittedly cursory search), Earhart’s words that night seem to have gone unrecorded. She reportedly recounted the experiences of her flight. Perhaps she also repeated some of the responses she had given earlier that day to critics who derided her flight as a non-event. In interviews, Earhart said that she regarded her flight as a personal mission, a justification. After she had flown across the Atlantic in 1928 as a passenger, one commentator downplayed the feat, likening her usefulness on the flight to a sack of potatoes.

In The Sound of Wings, biographer Mary S. Lovell writes of Earhart’s solo flight, “[T]hough the flight in itself offered no particular breakthrough, the mere fact that there were pilots prepared to risk all to gain records encouraged manufacturers to further technological effort. … In the public eye, too, the flight was a triumphant success at a time when newspapers carried daily reports of fatal air crashes. So her success encouraged confidence in aviation as a principle.”

Despite her protestations to the contrary, Amelia Earhart had done much more than answer her critics, and the public responded in a big way, as evidenced in a little menu in our little collection.

In addition to the Earhart menu, the Aviation Pamphlets and Brochures Collection contains a number of interesting pieces relating to the first half century of aviation history. For a complete list, see the collection’s finding aid.