Wednesday, March 9, 2011

any particular claim to being a feminist

March 9 - Today's post is provided by Tami Lewis Brown


     In a 1930 profile titled “New Woman”, the New Yorker magazine said “Miss Elinor Smith… has never made any particular claim to being a feminist. On the other hand, feminism would do rather well to claim Miss Smith.” When I read this line, up to my elbows in research for my picture book biography SOAR, ELINOR! I was stopped cold. The sentence shocked me—in two ways.

     First I was amazed by the use of the term “feminist” in 1930.Writers are word people and words count, particularly when read in their historic context. And even more particularly when a word – Feminist- remains politically charged to this day, eighty years after the article was published. Were there “feminists” in 1930?

     Clearly there were feminists in 1930 and long before. Although women had fought for the right to vote in our country since the 1700’s, suffrage hadn’t been granted in the United States until 1920, a mere ten years before this article was published. Elinor Smith was already nine years old, starting flying lessons, when her mother and grandmother voted for the first time.

     But I was more shocked by the statement that Elinor had “never made any particular claim” to being a feminist. In 1926, Elinor had become the youngest American, boy or girl, to hold a pilot’s license. Orville Wright had disputed women’s right to shoot for aviation records but teenaged Elinor wouldn’t take no for an answer. Probably the lightest pilot in America—in 2007 when I met her,  Elinor, physically fit and mentally sharp, barely reached my shoulder and weighed, as she always had, well under one hundred pounds. Sputtering biplanes reached unheard of heights with a girl smaller than a jockey at the controls. She did what no man or boy could do-- Elinor Smith was a teenaged test pilot, pushing the latest, most dangerous machines to their limits.

     No particular claim to being a feminist? What did a girl have to say or do to qualify?

     In late summer 1928 a cocky failed barnstormer insulted Elinor, first contending she and all other females should stay out of the sky, then betting she couldn’t fly under one of the East River bridges.  Real betting. Pools were set up at Roosevelt Field, with cold hard cash at stake. Would that freckle-faced girl make it under all four landmark New York bridges or would she die trying?

     As I tell the story in SOAR, Elinor did make it, even zipping beneath the Brooklyn Bridge sideways.

     Elinor Smith’s accomplishments- flying highest, flying longest, hosting her own radio show, first pilot to fly a multiple parachute jump, and first woman to refuel a plane mid-air may not bear the gravity of Emmeline Pankhurst’s achievements winning women the vote. An airplane flight is not the same as a hunger strike. But Elinor Smith was a feminist, and an important one. She dreamed of what she could become and she didn’t let anyone else limit or define her. She succeeded in “a man’s world,” making a good living as a professional pilot but she was also a wife and eventually mother of four children. Her actions speak louder than any words declaring herself a “feminist” ever could.

     I don’t know about the feminists of 1930, but Elinor Smith is one feminist I claim, both for what she did in her time and the legacy she passed on to women and girls of today.

Tami Lewis Brown is the author of SOAR, ELINOR! and the forthcoming THE MAP OF ME, both published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. Visit her Facebook page, Author Tami Lewis Brown, for activities, profiles, and contests celebrating women’s history through the entire month of March.


  1. I noticed that many people reviewed your book for this week's Nonfiction Monday event @ Picture Book of the Day. Of course, they all loved it! The Women's History Month Activity Kit and Curriculum Guide available on your website ( are great resources, too! I plan on using them at the library. Thanks!

  2. Ms. Brown & KID LIT Celebrates WHM - many thanks for this post.
    I hope teachers everywhere see it.
    I had appreciated the cover online before & knew it was about a woman aviator of accomplishment, but didn't fully understand the depth of aviation achievement of Elinor Smith, onward from the age of 9.

    SOAR, ELINOR! should become the basis of a movie.

    The moxie of a teen pilot - in the 1920s - who is also a girl, who flies UNDER the Brooklyn Bridge, will have folks cheer directly at the movie screen. Her story could also be a fabulous play.

    I'm already thinking of who would be great for the various roles. Her parents must have been some kind of special.

    I look forward to reading this story & hope to hear Ms. Brown speak some time.

  3. Wow! Sounds like one daring woman! Loved the part about the bridge challenge and the subsequent betting; I agree with Jan that this would make a great movie!