Harriet Quimby: aviation pioneer and modern woman in a not-so-modern age

by Jess Clackum

Harriet Quimby was born in Michigan in 1875, to William and Ursula Quimby. Her family eventually relocated to California where, during her formative years, she was highly influenced by women who broke traditional stereotypical roles.

Quimby tried acting and authored several screenplays that became silent film shorts but eventually found she was better suited as a writer and so she went to work for the San Francisco Dramatic Review.  Quimby fit right in with the diverse people she met in the entertainment circles and became a well-known journalist.

In 1902, bored with the status quo, Quimby moved to bustling New York City and worked for a number of publications including Leslie's Illustrated Weekly where she worked as staff writer, photographer, and eventually drama critic. An adventurer at heart, Quimby took advantage of the freedom, flexibility and income offered by her job and she explored all of the unique opportunities life had to offer.

Quimby had developed a fascination with the automobile and in 1906, participated in a race in which her car reached speeds of 100 miles per hour, giving way to an amazing news story and a newfound love for speed. As much as she loved the speed of the automobile, she loved the freedom offered by flying and after watching American flyer John Moisant fly across a finish line so effortlessly and gracefully, she was determined that she could do it too.

Quimby had managed to convince her employer that they should pay for her flying lessons, reminding them that she would be sharing the adventures with her readers.  She took to aviation and learned the ropes quite easily.  Because there were barely any women aviators at the time, when the rumor had spread that she was learning to fly, the public was enthralled. She gained her own group of fans who wrote her letters of support.

In 1911, after 33 lessons that spanned four months and four-and-a-half hours of flight time in a 30 hp Blériot-type monoplane, Harriet Quimby took her flight exam and passed, becoming the first American woman to earn a pilot’s license.

From that moment on, when flying, Quimby donned a very stylish plum-colored satin flying suit which consisted of trousers tucked into high-laced boots, a long sleeved blouse, choker collar and hood.  

In April 1912, Harriet Quimby departed Dover, England for Calais, France, making the flight in just under one hour, becoming the first woman to pilot an aircraft across the English Channel.  However, her feat was overshadowed by the sinking of the Titanic a day earlier.

Quimby, a seasoned traveler and adventurer, continued to chronicle her adventures and traveled around the country speaking of her experiences. She quickly became one of the most influential pilots of the time, inspiring women everywhere to dream of experiencing the freedom of flight.

In a 1912 Good Housekeeping article, Quimby spoke about aviation as a “sport for women”. She said, “There is no sport that affords the same amount of excitement and enjoyment, and exacts in return to little muscular strength. It is easier than walking, driving or automobiling; easier than golf or tennis…Flying is a fine, dignified sport for women…and there is no reason to be afraid so long as one is careful.”  Quimby was known by all to be a very cautious and safe aviator.

Harriet Quimby with friend and fellow aviator Matilde Moisant

Harriet Quimby with friend and fellow aviator Matilde Moisant

On July 1, 1912 Quimby's fascinating exploits and her love of adventure came to an end. While participating in the Harvard-Boston Aviation Meet, where she was one of the main attractions, she set out in her brand new Blériot monoplane with the events organizer William Willard, who had won a coin toss to fly with her. They flew for twenty minutes and circled the field, climbing to a height of 6,000 feet when suddenly, as the plane was in a steep glide and starting a turn toward the left to make a final approach to the field, Willard tumbled out of his cockpit seat, followed by Quimby. Both died instantly. The exact cause of the crash was never determined.

Though Harriet Quimby died young, her legacy lives on. Her bold courage and fierce determination influenced some of America's greatest and most famous women aviators. She will never be forgotten.