REVIEW: “Fly Girls” by Keith O’Brien

“Two capital T’s stand in the way of [women’s] progress,” Amelia Earhart said once to a group of young ladies. “One is Training—or lack of it. The other, Tradition.” In “Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History,” Keith O’Brien captures a well-focused portrait of the spirit of women who fought Tradition in the late 1920s to early 1930s by competing alongside men in the most prominent air races of the day. At times, however, this keen focus misleads exactly how these women and events fit into history as a whole.

The Tradition at the time was the idea that women were incapable of flying. Most people, some women included, believed they didn’t have the mechanical skill to handle an airplane, they weren’t strong enough, they were prone to be over-emotional and heaven forbid they fly while menstruating. Anytime a woman crashed a plane, it was her fault. Anytime a man crashed, it was a mechanical problem. O’Brien supplies a well-paced and well-documented series of events that demonstrate how women couldn’t just be good, they had to be perfect. In addition to this pressure, he recounts how they had to fight just to get into a cockpit in the first place, stomach sexist commentary on their clothing, appearance and love life in the media and withstand sabotage from male pilots who treated the women as jokes.

Filled to the brim with tenacious women, “Fly Girls” features extensive research that makes each character feel immediate and present. A testament to O’Brien’s journalistic talent, the book reads like a thorough and captivating long-form article from a sports journal, containing a stunning array of quotes and accounts that enhances his clear-cut descriptions of events from the women’s lives. The clarity and warmth of each character immediately endear her without over-sensationalizing her achievements. The women appear simultaneously strong and smart but also human, a refreshing combination at times absent from other writers of women’s history.

While one of these characters happens to be Amelia Earhart, perhaps the most famous woman in aviation history, O’Brien broadens his focus to include other women whose accomplishments equaled Earhart’s but whose legacies have been forgotten, perhaps simply because their deaths are not shrouded in the same mystery and conspiracy. In addition to refurbishing Earhart’s importance beyond her death, “Fly Girls” features Louise Thaden, Ruth Elder, Ruth Nichols and Florence Klingensmith, each of whom risked their lives to fight for their own place in the skies. O’Brien also touches upon women who worked alongside these five, such as Blanche Noyes, and women who worked in the airplane industry, building planes and drumming up support for each, such as Olive Ann Beech.

Despite this wider focus on friends of women in aviation at the time, the focus remains quite narrow in terms of the history of women in aviation. O’Brien refers to these women as a new generation of women who take on the boys club of flying but fails to make a single reference to the hundreds of women who were competing with men in the dawn of aviation nearly twenty years before, many of whom were known to have influenced and supported the book’s protagonists. Without this context, it would seem Earhart, Thaden, Elder, Nichols and Klingensmith were the very first to try to make their way into this world.

In addition, O’Brien argues that plane racing was a new concept in the mid-1920s, created by aircraft industries to prove that planes were safe. In asserting this, he brushes over a rich two decades filled with radical barnstormers, engineers and instructors, both male and female, who advanced flight from a sport to an industry. Taking this into consideration, the book’s historical perspective warps slightly and may mislead those without a decent understanding of early aviation as a whole. However, for those simply looking for a thrilling and empowering snapshot in time, “Fly Girls” is sure to please.

As always, this is just my opinion. I would love to hear yours! Leave a comment below or on The Folding Chair’s Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest and let me know if there are any books you’d love to see a review of in the future!