Each year on the 8th of March, the world celebrates International Womens Day. Across the history of aviation there have been some inspirational women who have achieved great things and contributed much.
Museum Director Barbara George hopes you will join us in remembering some of these famous women:
“On this day, we are celebrating women’s professional achievements. By sharing motivational stories of success, we are sending a message of hope and inspiration to all the women and young girls around the world who still struggle to gain equal access to education and career opportunities in 2021. Every woman’s life and every woman’s contribution to the world matters. Only by working together and respecting each other will men and women succeed in building a better world.”
Today we acknowledge that IWD gives us an opportunity to draw attention to our own struggles for women’s rights, to link this with women’s struggles worldwide and to demonstrate international sisterly solidarity with working women everywhere.
Some Remarkable Women in Aviation and Conflict
Lettice Curtis – ATA Pilot and Flight Test Engineer
Lettice Curtis was one of the first pilots to join the Air Transport Auxiliary at the outbreak of World War Two. She commenced her ATA career by delivering primary training aircraft such as the Tiger Moth, progressing to the Miles Master and North American Harvard advanced trainers.
During her ATA service she graduated to fly all categories of wartime aircraft and was one of the first dozen women to qualify to fly four-engined heavy bombers. She was the first woman pilot to deliver an Avro Lancaster bomber and also flew 222 Handley Page Halifaxes and 109 Short Stirlings. She flew continually during World War II from various Ferry Pool locations delivering all types through all weather to various destinations. She flew “thirteen days on, two off, for sixty-two consecutive months”, between July 1940 and September 1945.
After the war she joined Fairey as a senior flight test engineer. In 1992, she qualified as a helicopter pilot, before finally voluntarily closing her amazing career in 1995. She passed away in 2014 at the age of 99.
Mandy Hickson – RAF Tornado Pilot
Mandy Hickson was the RAF’s second Tornado pilot and was one of the women who led the change of attitude to allowing women into front line combat roles. Today this is a normal thing, however when Mandy Hickson joined the RAF, it was unheard of in wartime.
She spent nearly 17 years in the RAF, then seven years as a volunteer reservist, logged almost 2,000 flying hours, flew 50 combat missions across three tours in the Gulf in the Tornado.
Who was she? The first black woman to hold a pilot’s licence Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas, as one of 13 siblings to a Native American/African-American father, who eventually left her mother, an African-American maid, to raise her family alone.
Despite many challenges, she made it to university, but dropped out to move to Chicago to work as a manicurist. She became interested in aviation through the stories told by her brothers, who served in the army during WWI, but could not get lessons locally. Instead, she taught herself French and moved to France to earn her pilot’s licence, also taking up parachuting. Coleman specialised in stunt flying and earned a living through exhibition flying and performing aerial tricks.
The air is the only place free from prejudices. I knew we had no aviators, neither men nor women, and I knew the Race needed to be represented along this most important line, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation…Bessie Coleman
Did you know? There were 1,436 Polish women in the WAAFs during the war. Find our more about the amazing career of ATA pilot Barbara Wojtulanis-Karpinska. A pilot with the Polish Air Force at the outbreak of war, she flew across Poland Romania and finally France, before evacuating from Bordeaux to the UK as France fell to Germany.
Throughout the war, she was an ATA pilot, flying the wide variety of aircraft needed across the UK. You can read more about her amazing career here.
Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm
Elsie Knocker and Mairi Chisholm saved the lives of countless soldiers during World War One. They first met before the war:
“When they met at a motorcycle club in 1912, Elsie Knocker was a thirty year-old motorcycling divorcee dressed in bottle-green Dunhill leathers, and Mairi Chisholm was a brilliant eighteen-year old mechanic, living at home and borrowing tools from her brother. Little did they know, theirs was to become one of the most extraordinary stories of the First World War.”(extract from the book ‘Elsie and Mairi go to war’ Diane Atkinson).
At the outbreak of war, they volunteered for duty and were based in Belgium. Knocker and Chisholm soon came to the conclusion that they could save more lives by treating the wounded directly on the front lines.
The two decided to leave the corps and set up their own dressing station five miles east in a town named Pervyse, north of Ypres, just one hundred yards from the trenches. Here, in a vacant cellar which they named the “Poste de Secours Anglais” (“British First Aid Post”), the two would spend the next three and a half years aiding the wounded in the Belgian sector. Knocker gave most of the medical attention, while Chisholm transported the injured, often in terrible conditions and under fire, to a base hospital 15 miles away.
Another famous and important female who actually visited here at RAF Elvington in 1945 was Josephine Baker. Josephine had the most amazing career as an entertainer, spy and activist and in 1945, she visited the French Squadrons based at Elvington You can read more about her visit on our blog post here.
Did You Know?
The motivation for International Womens Day came from two sources: the struggle of working class women to form trade unions and the fight for women’s franchise. These two issues united European women with their sisters in the USA.
In 1908 hundreds of women workers in the New York needle trades demonstrated in Rutgers Square in Manhattan’s Lower East Side to form their own union and to demand the right to vote. This historic demonstration took place on March 8th. It led, in the following year, to the ‘uprising’ of 30,000 women shirtwaist makers which resulted in the first permanent trade unions for women workers in the USA.
March 8th was favoured, although at this stage no formal date was set. Nonetheless International Womens Day was marked by rallies and demonstrations in the US and many European countries in the years leading to World War One, albeit on different days each year.
In 1917 in Russia, International Women’s Day acquired great significance – it was the flashpoint for the Russian Revolution.
On March 8th (Western calendar) women workers in Petrograd held a mass strike and demonstration demanding Peace and Bread. The strike movement spread from factory to factory and effectively became an insurrection.
In 1922, in honour of the women’s role on IWD in 1917, Lenin declared that March 8th should be designated officially as women’s day. Much later it was a national holiday in the Soviet Union and most of the former socialist countries.
The Cold War period may explain why it was that a public holiday celebrated by communists, was largely ignored in the West, despite the fact that in 1975 (International Women’s Year), the United Nations recognised March 8th as International Women’s Day.
Who is your most inspirational female aviator? Let us know in the comments below.