Jerrie Cobb – a spiritual adventure in the sky

Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb. Not exactly a household name, is she? But she should be. She’s one of the greatest aviators of the twentieth century, and should have been the first woman in space. And she knew what she wanted out of life when she was just six: she fell in love with the sky when camping in the open air. Her father took her on her first flight in 1936, when she was twelve, and flying became her life. Here’s my favourite quote from her:

“I have this feeling that life is a spiritual adventure, and I want to make mine in the sky.”

She certainly lived up to her promise. She was teaching men to fly when she was just nineteen, and during World War II delivered military aircraft all around the world. But, like so many women after the war, she found herself surplus to requirements and had to make a living crop dusting. To her credit, she didn’t lose sight of her dream, setting world records for speed, distance and altitude while still in her twenties. Life Magazine named her one of the nine women of the “100 most important young people in the United States.” In 1959, she was a manager for the Aero Design and Engineering Company, one of the only a handful of female executives in aviation, and was named America’s top pilot.

In 1961, Jerrie was appointed as a consultant to the NASA space program. In fact, she had twice as many flight hours as John Glenn when he was chosen to be the first person to orbit the earth. She passed the same physical and psychological evaluations as the original Mercury seven astronauts, and argued to train alongside them. But NASA changed the rules so that astronauts needed military jet test pilot experience, effectively excluding women, since they weren’t allowed to fly in the military. Cobb campaigned to Congress, but they ignored her over and over again. Finally, the 1963 Congressional hearing made it clear that Jerrie’s dream was over. A year later, a Russian factory worker, Valentina Tereshkova, became the first woman in space.

Jerrie resigned from NASA and became a private pilot. It’s easy to imagine her as unfulfilled and bitter. A three-year romance with another pilot had ended in tragedy when his plane exploded above the Pacific. But she refused to settle for an ordinary life, and that’s why she inspires me. It’s all too easy to give up after so many knockbacks, but Jerrie still pursued her spiritual adventure in the sky. She found happiness flying her own plane to transport medicine and supplies to natives of the Amazon jungle, a role she carried on for thirty-five years. She was honoured by the governments of Ecuador, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and France for her services to primitive tribes. In 1981 she was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for her humanitarian work.

In 1999, a petition was raised to give Jerrie the space flight she deserved, as part of a mission to study weightlessness and aging. John Glenn was included in this program. But once more, NASA ignored her. At eighty-three, it’s unlikely that Jerrie will now realize her dream, but she hasn’t stopped hoping. She was quoted as saying, “it’s what I was born to do, my life won’t be complete until I fly in space.” I’d like to imagine that miracles still happen, but if not, I hope history remembers a truly inspirational woman.

Advertisements

Margaret Fountaine – around the world in search of butterflies

I first became fascinated with Margaret Fountaine when I stumbled upon an amazing collection of 22,000 butterflies in Norwich Castle museum. And each one was collected by an incredible Victorian woman. For over fifty years, her passions took her to sixty countries. She even raised butterflies from caterpillars or eggs so her collecting would cause no harm to the environment. And if that wasn’t enough, she also produced four volumes of sketches of butterfly life cycles that are now housed in the Natural History Museum in London.

Of course Margaret had something that’s a common theme among these intrepid Victorian female travellers that fascinate me so much. Money. An inheritance from an uncle, when she was 27. It was her passport to a world outside the confines of Victorian society, a world she recorded in twelve volumes of diaries that remained sealed, at her instruction, until 1978, a hundred years after she started them. And they revealed that she’d had quite a life – not many Victorian women could boast of hanging out with a gang of bandits in Corsica and speeding along a road in Tenerife crammed into a car with eight young Spaniards. Not bad for a woman who began life as a clergyman’s daughter.

Margaret never married, but she had her fair share of admirers. While collecting butterflies in Syria, she hired a local man fifteen years younger than her, Khalil Neimy, as her guide and translator. This arrangement worked well, so well in fact that they spent the next twenty-seven years together, until Khalil’s death in 1928. He even proposed to her and she accepted. Their adventures took them to North Africa, Australia, Central America, The Far East, India and the USA. But Khalil had forgotten one tiny detail. His wife in Damascus, whom he was going to divorce, of course. Nothing changes, does it? Only after his death did Margaret discover just how many lies he’d told her. After he died, Khalil’s wife bombarded Margaret with begging letters asking for support for his five children.

But maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on Khalil. There was no doubt that he was devoted to Margaret; he offered to work for her for no wages, just to be close to her. Margaret acknowledged him in naming her butterfly collection the Fountaine-Neimy collection. But her heart, it seems, already belonged to an Irish scoundrel, with whom she fell in love in her twenties. Here’s an extract from her diaries.

‘The greatest passion, and perhaps the most noble love of my life, was no doubt for Septimus Hewson, and the blow I received from his heartless conduct left a scar upon my heart, which no length of time ever quite effaced.’

Sadly, history doesn’t record exactly what scurrilous Septimus did to poor Margaret. We know he was slung out of the Norwich choir for drinking and went home to Limerick, where he died.

Altogether more romantic was Margaret’s end. She died in 1940, aged 78, of a heart attack while collecting butterflies in Trinidad. And that’s why I love her story so much. Could there be a more appropriate and happy ending to her story? I’m sure we’d all like to die doing the thing we love, so maybe we should increase the odds and spend more time on things we actually enjoy.

Welcome to Herstory!

Welcome to my blog! I’m a writer whose first novel, Future Perfect, will be published by Elsewhen Press later this year.  For those who are interested, check out the rest of my website at http://katrinamountfort.com

But this blog isn’t a blatant self-publicity vehicle; it’s a chance for me to explore my other interests. My novel is set in a future world where much of the world’s history is suppressed. And it occurred to me that, while history has never been more freely available in today’s society, some stories have been told more than others, and the ones that get pushed aside are usually about women. The word says it all, doesn’t it? History. His story.  So I intend to write herstory.

I started with a long-held passion for intrepid Victorian women travellers. It’s hard not to be impressed by women travelling alone, in an age where a woman’s place wasn’t meant to extend more than a few miles from the home and, even then, usually on the arm of her husband. In fact, when I thought about it, I came up with a long list of women that intrigued me.  Some inspired me, some surprised me, some made me sad. But they all had one thing in common. They dared to be different.

But when I read biographies about these inspirational women, I found it hard to sustain my enthusiasm. We all have short attention spans these days, let’s face it. Why plough through pages and pages about someone’s childhood when all you really want to do it get to the juicy bits? So that’s what I plan to do. Bite-size pieces on some of the women that grabbed my interest, from Mrs Beeton to Lucrezia Borgia.

I’ll start next week with Margaret Fountaine, a woman who refused to conform to the social norms of Victorian England, and whose story has the happiest of happy endings.