THE WOMEN WITH SILVER WINGS by Katherine Sharp Landdeck (Crown, 450 pp., $28)
Historian Katherine Sharp Landdeck’s highflying debut "The Women With Silver Wings" chronicles a cadre of fearless women whose wartime sacrifices were nearly forgotten.
The origin story of the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASP, is lovingly and meticulously wrought by Landdeck who, as a pilot herself, powerfully illustrates the freedom and independence the cockpit gave these women in both the sky and their lives on the ground. Set against the backdrop of World War II and the Golden Age of Aviation, Landdeck traces the innovative beginnings of the WASP through a rich combination of photos, archives, diaries, interviews, newspapers and reportage.
In the wake of Pearl Harbor, hundreds of thousands of new planes required “ferrying,” or flying from the factories to the Army bases where they were needed. Enter the WASP, a coalition of female pilots who “had to meet a higher bar for admission with more experience and education than was asked of men — and initially received lower pay.” Still, the women were thrilled.
Nancy Love and Jackie Cochran were the de facto den mothers of the WASP movement, and the story of their contributions is rivaled only by the competition between them. In the 1930s and '40s, both women were members of the tony Long Island Aviation Country Club in Hicksville, “the epicenter of social activities for a moneyed class who loved to fly.” At the time, the skies were reserved primarily for the country club set, and Love was a society maven. In 1930, at age 16, Love gave a barnstormer $5 for her first flight in a Fleet, an open cockpit two-seater biplane. The “powerful thrill” was enough to hook her and she had her pilot’s license within a year.
Cochran, meanwhile, was born into poverty in the Florida Panhandle, pregnant at 14 and divorced by 20. She moved to New York in the spirit of reinvention and took her first flying lesson at age 26 at Roosevelt Field on Long Island. Before it was a mall, Roosevelt Field was one of the most prominent airfields of the day; record-setting flights took off from and ended there, making it a favorite destination for the most famous aviators of the day. Cochran was a self-made debutante whose future husband funded her cosmetics business, including a “Wings to Beauty” line. She married her entrepreneurism with her piloting skills, for which she won a coveted Harmon Trophy for “outstanding woman flyer of the world for 1938.” “By winning the award, she had reached the pinnacle of aviation achievement,” and also became friends with Eleanor Roosevelt, whose support helped birth the WASP.
Landdeck contextualizes the fierce intelligence and ambition of these women with the reality of their time, including issues related to class, race, and sex. The majority of the women were white, heirs to fortunes and privilege unattainable to most Americans. WASP leader Cochran also believed women should take “supportive, traditionally feminine and submissive roles to their male counterparts”[p60], and that her “lady birds” should release male pilots from the drudgery of ferrying planes, but not replace them in any way. “While she wanted women to fly in case of national need, she didn’t want it to be at the risk of upsetting the gender hierarchy.” Along with these inherent classist and sexist overtones, Landdeck details examples of homophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism, often within the ranks of the WASPs themselves.
Nearly 35 years after their disbandment, the WASP veterans were still fighting together in a different kind of war: a battle for recognition — and retirement and health benefits. The WASPs did not qualify for active duty service because women were not considered "persons" during World War II. By the 1970s, the Veterans Administration, American Legion and other veterans’ groups still opposed treating the WASP’s service as active duty, and testified against the idea, even though most of the World War II GI benefits were already exhausted.
In a 1977 hearing before the House of Representatives, Antonia Handler Chayes, one of the highest ranking women in the Air Force, “insinuated that to deny the WASP their recognition would risk losing the trust of all potential volunteer military personnel, particularly the greatest untapped pool for the new all-volunteer force: women.”
At one point, pilot Teresa James reflects on finding herself isolated from her family at the holidays, observing in her journal: “The whole world is an abnormal place right now.”
"The Women With Silver Wings" charts a powerful story of reinvention, community and ingenuity born out of global upheaval; that we can remember and read about them during our current global crisis makes the story and sacrifice of the WASP a timely blueprint of female innovation.