Sarah Lawrence’s Feminist First: Cornelia Fort, ’39, First Female Pilot to Die in Combat

By Christopher Hoffman

A version of this article has appeared in The Huffington Post.

Cornelia Fort, first female pilot to be killed in combat, graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1939.

Cornelia Fort, first female pilot to be killed in combat, graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 1939.

It is in the light of the Pentagon’s lift of the band on women serving in combat that we acknowledge March 21st, 2013 as the seventieth anniversary of the death of Cornelia Fort, the first female pilot to die for the United States military. Besides experiencing the bombing of Pearl Harbor first hand and thwarting the discrimination against female pilots by being one of the first to join the United States’ Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squad (WAFS), Cornelia Fort died for her beliefs and the country she loved.

Cornelia Clark Fort was born on February 5th, 1919. Daughter of Dr. Rufus Fort and Mrs. Louise Clark Fort, Cornelia was born into a large family in Nashville, Tennessee. With her father the founder of a colossal insurance company, Cornelia’s life was planned out for her. The family chauffer, Epperson Bond, would drive her from Fortland Farms, the family’s 356 acre estate, to Ward-Belmont, an exclusive private school for girls. She was expected to assimilate into high Southern society and become a debutant. Ms. Fort was part of the Junior League, the Girl’s Cotillion
Club, and the Query Club (the women’s literary club of Nashville). Flying a plane was
nowhere in her mind at the time she spent in Nashville. In fact, her father had made
her brothers swear that they would never fly an airplane.

Cornelia was sent to Ogontz School for Young Ladies in 1936, the same school that Amelia Earhart attended. Cornelia disliked the “gray walls and oppressive atmosphere” and would often state, “Amelia probably took up flying as a means of escaping the clutch of these gray walls.” Cornelia began to ask her parents if she could transfer.

“Cornelia wanted desperately to go to Sarah Lawrence College. Its teachers
were world-class. It was also, Cornelia knew, a school that valued the individuality of each student, allowing her, in essence, the freedom to design her own curriculum,” writes Rob Simbeck, author of Daughter of the Air, a biography on Ms. Fort. However, her father was against the idea. He did not think that Sarah
Lawrence, “a liberal northern school” was “proper for a southern girl.” In the end,
Cornelia and her mother petitioned Dr. Fort until he finally gave in.

The young southern girl quickly found her place in Sarah Lawrence’s
community. She “had a fondness of music nurtured by William Schuman” and
became highly involved with the student body. Ms. Fort joined the yearbook staff,
music club, studied literature and writing, and wrote for Sarah Lawrence’s
newspaper, The Campus. She even became the Chief Editorial Editor.
In 1939, Cornelia Fort received her two-year college diploma from Sarah
Lawrence. After her father died, Cornelia took up a flying lesson for fun. “How dare
you fly. Father forbade us from flying,” remarked Dudley, Cornelia’s brother. “Daddy
gave that oath to the boys, not to me,” Cornelia answered with a smile.
Ms. Fort took up flying because she “thought it’d be a good thing.” She quickly
fell in love with the sky and went on to get numerous licenses including her
instructor license, private license, transport license, seaplane license, and
commercial license. She became the first female flying instructor in all of Tennessee.

When asked why she flies, Cornelia answered, “It gets under your skin, deep down
inside.” On December 7, 1941, Ms. Fort was giving a flying instruction in Hawaii
when a Japanese plane almost crashed into her. “I saw a plane coming closer. It was
in violation of the air traffic rules. I waited for it to give way for me, and then when it
didn’t, I jerked the stick out of the student’s hand and pulled the plane up. Just in
time, I spotted the insignia on the Japanese plane: a red sun on the fuselage. I could
hardly believe my eyes. Then I saw smoke over Pearl Harbor and realized we had
been attacked.” Cornelia began to take the plane down while her student kept
asking when he would get to fly solo. “Not today, brother, not today!” she answered.
When she landed, there were explosions and gunfire. “My student let out one gasp
and disappeared. He never did pay me for that half hour of instruction,” she pointed
out.

In 1942, Cornelia Fort was the second woman to sign up for the newly
created Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squad (or WAFS for short), a civilian
organization of women pilots who transported supplies for the U.S. military. “I knew
I was going to join the WAFS before the organization was a reality, before it had a
name, before it was anything but a radical idea in the minds of a few men who
believed that women could fly airplanes,” stated Ms. Fort. “I felt I could be doing
something more constructive for my country than knitting socks. Better to go to war
than lose the things that make life worth living.”

The WAFS, headed by Mrs. Nancy Harkness Love, made history by proving
that women could fly airplanes for the war effort. Before the WAFS, many did not
believe that women could be trusted to fly military planes. “Because there were and
are so many disbelievers in women pilots, especially in their place in the army,
officials want the best possible qualifications to go with the first experimental
group. We had to deliver the goods or else. Or else there wouldn’t ever be another
chance for women pilots in any part of the service,” said Ms. Fort. Some of the men
were “extremely bitter” and “went to great lengths to discredit them whenever
possible.” One man even tried to “play games in the sky” with a female pilot while
she was giving him a flying lesson. Even though the brave women in the WAFS were
regarded as “different” by their friends and family, they fought against the
discrimination. “The only way to show the disbelievers, the snickering hanger pilots,
is to show them,” laughed Cornelia.

The WAFS were a huge part of Cornelia’s life. “We felt a part of something
larger,” she would often say. “And that we, in a very small way, are being allowed to
help keep that sky free is the most beautiful thing I have ever known.” Even though
the life of a woman pilot was not luxurious, Ms. Fort continued. “It keeps you broke,
but it keeps you happy,” she said. The WAFS lived a barrack lifestyle and Cornelia
recounted, “all of us in the WAFS still think it is the most wonderful thing in the
world even after a month of barrack life, slightly less house-like version of
dormitory life at Sarah Lawrence College.”

In 1943, at age 24, Cornelia Fort died. She was flying across the country with
a group of other pilots. Adela Scharr, Cornelia’s “marching buddy” recounted what
she believed happened, “This young man had sort of cornered Cornelia and was
playing around like he was dog-fighting with her. The problem was that these
fellows were young showoffs.” Lt. Stamme, a recent pilot with under 300 hours of flight was flying close to Cornelia, who held over 1,100 hours of flying. Fort’s plane
and Stamme’s plane collided. Stamme’s landing gear hit Fort’s plane and
investigators said, “the impact of such a mid-air collision could have jammed or
damaged the canopy, making it impossible to open and causing the pilot to lose
consciousness.” At twenty-four years old, Cornelia Fort became the first WAFS to die
for her country, and may be the first female pilot to die on duty for the U.S. military.
“I am grateful that my one talent, flying, was useful to my country,” wrote Ms.
Fort before her tragic death. Fort’s estate and money was given to Sarah Lawrence
to create a scholarship for southern girls. Cornelia wrote in her will of “an
appreciation of the deep and sincere intellectual experience I received while a
student.” Sadly, the scholarship soon dried up. An airpark in Nashville was named
after Cornelia in 1946 and there is also a small, unofficial plaque for Cornelia at her
crash site in Mulberry Canyon, Texas.

Why is Cornelia Fort virtually unknown? “It’s not uncommon to find a
woman who’s remarkable and unappreciated. It’s disrespectful we’re not honoring her in some way,” says Elizabeth Wilson class of ’13 and co-chair of the Feminist Collective at Sarah Lawrence College. Women during that time were not appreciated or recognized. The WAFS did not get recognition or veteran benefits until 1979. “The efforts and sacrifices of a talented and courageous group of women have been
recognized and the pilots accorded status as military veterans…and they continue
to inspire Air force women who now follow in their footsteps,” said Ms. Antonio
Chayes, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force.

An archivist from the U.S. Army Women’s Museum stated that the museum’s
archives did not have any records of her. Because she was given the active duty
status in 1979, the museum does not consider her as part of the military, but only
“contracted.” Many women have died in service for the United States, from women
disguising as men that fought in the Revolutionary War to WWII’s Women’s Army
Corps. With that said, there may have been a few female pilots flying planes in WWI
as part of the Women’s Army Corps. “The WAFS were nothing more than a group of
women with extensive flying experience, who were recruited, to ferrying aircraft to
various bases and locations within the United States and in some cases abroad,” said
the Air Force Historical Studies Office. Not only did Cornelia face discrimination for
being a female pilot, but she was only the first of thirty eight brave women to lose
her life while serving under the WAFS or WASPS (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots, a
group that succeeded the WAFS).

Cornelia was a woman before her time, rebelling against the norms society placed on her. “Many of our Nashville friends were meadowmousy and we had lived in a very traditional style,” said Cornelia’s sister, Louise. “I think she was a great rebel of her time.” Rob Simbeck calls her a “hero, someone who lived for something bigger than she was, someone who gave of herself in a cause she believed in and a country she loved.”

When attempting to meet with Karen Lawrence to speak about a possible memorial for Cornelia Fort, I was told by her secretary that this project “has nothing to do with Karen.” I was directed to Cheryl Cipro and we spoke briefly of a possible memorial. However, the offer of having “cookies and lemonade on the South Lawn” to honor the life of one of the first female pilots to die for the U.S. military seemed disgraceful. I made another visit to Karen’s secretary, Rosemary Dahill, and she insisted that she had passed along the message about the 70th anniversary of Cornelia’s death to Karen. Sadly, nothing was done on March 21 st to honor this American hero.

Cornelia believed in freedom and readily flew for her country despite the
discrimination and risks. She was expected to take the life of a Southern debutant
but wanted adventure. In the end, let us remember Cornelia Fort in the words she
wrote to her mother before her death: “I was happiest in the sky…Think of me there
and remember me.”

Christopher Hoffman is a student at Sarah Lawrence College.

Chicago Women’s History in Plain Sight: Jane Addams’ Hull-House Museum

by Emma Staffaroni

This article is part of a two-story series that explores Chicago’s rich women’s history artifacts and institutions, found in plain sight around the city.

Emilie walks down the sunlight staircase of the historic Jane Addams Hull-House.

Emilie walks down the sunlight staircase of the historic Jane Addams Hull-House.

Two-thirds of the Re/visionist team pilgrimaged to Women’s History Mecca in the windy city, Chicago, Illinois, this spring break. Instead of a shrine, temple, or wall, we came to lay our gifts at the feet of none other than (Laura) Jane Addams, co-founder of Chicago’s Hull-House. Once called “Public Enemy #1” for her radical social reform efforts and challenges to institutional and underground authority systems in Chicago, Addams, along with her co-founder Ellen Gates Starr, served the mostly immigrant community members, who ate, learned, and worked at the settlement. Transforming what we now know to be social work and public aid to low-income communities, Addams and her team members were visionary, radical feminists who saw their traditional feminine roles, inculcated in a Victorian doctrine of separate spheres, as extending beyond the home into the greater, needy world.

The original settlement house, built by Charles Hull in 1856 and founded as Hull-House in 1889, located in the heart of what is now University of Illinois- Chicago, has been converted into a dual-purposed memorial to the great Addams and her multi-faceted, tireless reform and social work efforts. The first purpose is as an historical museum, complete with artifacts and multimedia displays of various aspects of Hull-House’s missions. Hull-House was one of the few surviving buildings from the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, and Addams and Starr founded it during a massive boom in European immigration to Chicago that lasted from 1880 to 1920.

I explore an interactive map of Chicago during the 1890s that showed nationality, gender, and income-level of residents.

I explore an interactive map of Chicago during the 1890s that showed nationality, gender, and income-level of residents.

The museum’s second purpose is to continue Addams’ efforts into our present day. In addition to recreating Jane Addams’ bedroom and library and providing a “Day in the Life” at Hull-House in 1901, the historic house contains exhibits on contemporary issues in Home Economics. It honors, for instance, the work of the Chicago Coalition for Household Workers, an organization that fights to bring visibility to the struggles and achievements of domestic workers. Their current initiative is called “Unfinished Business.” You can learn more about it here. In their words, the interactive project “investigates themes of invisible labor, conscientious consumption, the home as a site of activism, and municipal housekeeping.” In other words, Hull-House lives on as a site of radical feminist activism, integrating contemporary understandings of capitalism and the environment so as to update the causes to which Hull-House dedicates its resources.

This museum is feminist in content and form. Curated with multimedia and interactivity, it invites visitors to engage with Jane Addams’ world and put it in dialogue with their own. There is a room at the front of the house where visitors may experience the aural world of 1900s Chicago–the clack of typewriters, the shrieks of playing children, the cacophony of languages and voices from numerous immigrant backgrounds, and even the sounds of a phonograph playing. Hull-House’s curatorial team clearly understands the historian’s art of time travel, transporting the museum visitor to Addams’s world.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, anti-lynching activist and feminist, collaborated closely with Jane Addams during their lifetimes.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett, anti-lynching activist and feminist, collaborated closely with Jane Addams during their lifetimes.

My co-editor Emilie’s favorite part of the museum was the display honoring the relationship between Jane Addams and Ida B. Wells-Barnett. “I was moved to tears,” she shared. “The friendship and professional partnership between two such strong and dynamic women is inspiring.” Indeed, Wells and Addams combined forces to battle issues like lynching and segregation. In 1909 they both signed “The Call,” a proposal that led to the establishment of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Knowledge of such partnerships challenges the historical myth that settlement house workers were racist, narrow-minded, and conservative. Addams, the museum argues, navigated many social spheres, and as an upper-middle-class woman who strategically framed her womanhood as a site of moral authority, she channeled resources and political energies into social issues that benefitted women, children, immigrants, and other marginalized groups.

My favorite parts were the vivid details included in the re-creation of early 20th century Chicago. Every aspect of the house is curated with clear, concise, and rich information, contextualizing everything from the house’s interior molding (“carved by convict hands,” because Charles Hull, concerned with the well-being of prison inmates, put them to work on his architecture), to the neighborhood around the house, to the books on Addams’ shelves. And, may I say, in a time when sequestration means giant budget cuts for public assistance organizations akin to Hull, I felt spiritually reassured by the presence and history of this institution. Though I cringe to think what Addams would say about our modern-day non-profit industrial complex, I’m sure she’d have lots of brilliant plans for social justice projects in Chicago and across the United States in 2013.

Learn more about Hull-House at its website, http://www.uic.edu/jaddams/hull/.

First Millionaire: Madam C. J. Walker

by Katy Gehred

There seems to be a split between people who describe Madam C.J. Walker as America’s Madam C.J. Walkerfirst self-made female millionaire or as the first self-made African American female millionaire. As somebody with a background in feminist theory, I’m tempted to chalk this up to identity politics, which so frequently asks women of color to choose between race and gender as their primary identity. Madam C.J. Walker never felt the need to separate her racial activism with her womanhood. She made her million dollars not in spite of but because of her identity, creating hair products for African American women and taking advantage of a completely untapped market in late 19th century US. She’s both an inspiring and problematic figure in American history and she’s worthy of discussion.

Madam CJ Walker was born with the name Sarah Breedlove in 1867 in Delta, Louisiana. Both of her parents were recently freed slaves, and they passed away when she was just 7 years old. She was extremely poor, picking cotton with her sister and her sister’s “cruel” husband to get by. She married Moses McWilliams when she was 14 years old as a way to escape that life, and she had her daughter Lelia (later changed to A’Lelia) when she was 18. She was a widow at 20, and began work as a washerwoman.

Around 1890 in St. Louis she began to look for a more profitable way to live her life than washing “white folks’ dirty clothes”.  Her inspiration came from an unusual place, whilst looking for a cure for her hair loss due to alopecia she began to work for African American entrepreneur Annie Malone, selling Malone’s “Wonderful Hair Grower.” But after moving to Colorado and marrying Charles Joseph Walker, a promoter, she concocted her own hair product and began advertising it in the newspapers. She adopted the name “Madam CJ Walker” and began to tour with the “Walker Method” of hair growing, which was soon wildly successful.

Madam CJ WalkerFrom her hair product profits, Walker began to open factories and beauty schools. She trained teams of sales beauticians to travel around the country promoting Walker’s philosophy of “cleanliness and loveliness.” She pushed her way into the National Negro Business League convention in 1912 by writing letter after letter to Booker T. Washington and finally showing up uninvited. She interrupted Washington during a morning session to announce “I feel that I am in a business that is a credit to the womanhood of our race.”

The politics surrounding black hair spur on debate even today. While Walker’s beauty regimen involved hot combs for hair straightening she denied that her system was purely to straighten hair, rather, she argued, it was for growth. She told a reporter “Right here let me correct the erroneous impression held by some that I claim to straighten hair, I want the great masses of my people to take greater pride in their personal appearance and to give their hair proper attention.” However, as Walker’s legacy remains associated with hair straightening and the politics of respectability. Nandi Comer’s 2010 poem “Our Hair” includes a section entitled “What we learn from Madam CJ Walker” about young women using a heated comb, “the smoke sizzling out their greased curls/ until they could smooth and flatten the manes into ponytails.”

Walker used her money and influence to improve the lives of African Americans. She donated money to black universities, the “Colored Branch of the YMCA”, and historically black churches. She toured the country speaking out against lynchings, which were terrifyingly commonplace in the USA of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. She and other prominent black entrepreneurs and activists actually traveled to Washington to meet Woodrow Wilson and present him with a petition to make lynching a federal crime. He sent his secretary to meet them.

Walker was a black woman who created a product that met the needs of black women of her time. Her company was large and successful, and she actively sought out black women to hire. She was a smart businesswoman, using strategies of competition and rewards to motivate her “Walker Agents” into creating more sales, and thus making profits and giving her the means to employ more black women. Madam C.J. Walker succeeded in what was most definitely a “white man’s world,” not by choosing any one aspect of her “identity” over any other, but by ingeniously embracing her experiences as a black woman in a way that translated to financial success.

Chicago Women’s History in Plain Sight: Clara Driscoll (1861-1944)

Clara Driscoll (far left in white blouse) and other Tiffany glass cutters, circa 1904.

by Emma Staffaroni

This article is part of a three-story series exploring Chicago women’s history.

Back in 2007 the New-York Historical Society featured an exhibit called “A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls.” Louis Comfort Tiffany, the 19th century decorative arts genius who pioneered the use of stained glass and mosaic, was not a woman, but his glass workers were, and recent research out of the Queens Historical Society reveals that these women had a crucial role to play beyond manufacturing. Clara Driscoll of the exhibition’s title was the Director of the Women’s Glass Cutting Department at Tiffany Studios in New York. As the Director, she designed and crafted some of the most famous lamps attributed to Tiffany himself, including the Daffodil lamp, pictured below right.

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A selection of Tiffany lamps designed by Clara Driscoll are on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Driscoll worked for Tiffany for twenty years, during which time she designed countless lamps, windows, and mosaics. She left her mark on Chicago history when she assisted with the Tiffany Dome in Marshall Field’s department store on State Street in Chicago in 1907. Using Tiffany’s 1894-patented “favrile iridescent glass,” she and her co-workers took the work they did on smaller windows and lamps to the next level with this massive project that would endure as a gem of Chicago architecture and Art Nouveau.

As women’s historians know, women’s history is more often than not “hidden in plain sight,” frequently over-shadowed by the name of a man or a male-controlled enterprise. Yet what is spectacular about Driscoll’s contributions to glass work is that her works are not hidden, but rather quite plainly and splendidly visible for Chicagoans to behold–both at the old Marshall Field’s, now Macy’s, and at the Chicago Cultural Center, once meant to be the public library. Now protected historic landmarks, Driscoll’s masterpieces will not be marginalized by the hegemonic male bias in curation practices. Rather than being stuffed away in a dusty Art Institute storage space, Driscoll’s architectural works–though doomed to be attributed to her boss, Tiffany–will not be forgotten.

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The dome of Marshall Field’s Department Store in Chicago

Chicago History: Elizabeth Catlett in They Seek a City

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Elizabeth Catlett’s Sharecropper (1952) on display as part of They Seek a City

by Emilie Egger

“Art is only important to the extent that it aids in the liberation of our people.”–Elizabeth Catlett

The Art Institute of Chicago’s They Seek a City: Chicago and the Art of Migration, 1910–1950 exhibit, currently on display, includes art created during and inspired by the era of the Great Migration in Chicago in the first half of the twentieth century. The exhibit prominently displays the lithographies of Mexican artist Elizabeth Catlett, known for her artistic work for social justice among issues of race, class, and sexism.

The works focus on African-American migration from the United-States South, the waves of immigration out of several European countries, as well as the thousands of immigrants who traveled from Mexico to the northern United States. The exhibit highlights the common experiences of these immigrants in urban Chicago. Reasons behind the migrations are varied; for some, religious persecution prompted their move, while for others, it was the hope of better working and living conditions in the industrial North.  Chicago became a community for all these immigrants, coming from different backgrounds with the common goal of overcoming the hardships of immigrant life.

The art of Elizabeth Catlett encompasses several of these themes. Catlett is best known for her painting, sculpture, and lithography that focused on the political issues of her time. Born in Washington D.C. Catlett was a graduate of Howard University and the University of Iowa’s fine-arts program, where she studied under renowned American Gothic painter Grant Wood. Her first connections to Chicago came when her sculpture, Mother and Child won first prize at the American Negro Exposition in Chicago in 1940. She later began a ceramics residency at the Art Institute of Chicago, where much of her work remains.

Mother and Child 1939

Elizabeth Catlett’s Mother and Child (1939) won the American Negro Exposition first prize for sculpture in Chicago in 1940.

Themes of migration, color, and class permeate Catlett’s work. Catlett was the granddaughter of American slaves and was known to portray famous black activists, such as Harriet Tubman, Ralph Ellison, and Malcolm X in her work. However, the majority of her oeuvre focuses on the lives of more-ordinary working people, especially women. It is these works that currently make up a large part of the current Great Migration exhibit, highlighting both her artistic prowess and her political consciousness.

Some of Catlett’s most-famous works include Sharecropper (1952), which features an anonymous black woman worker from the 1950s American South and her 1946 series of prints titled “The Negro Woman.” She did not shy away from the most-controversial issues of race, including lynchings and police beatings of blacks. Her award-winning Mother and Child became the inspiration for several other sculptures revolving around themes of motherhood.

Catlett spent much of her later life in Mexico, eventually becoming a professor of sculpture at Mexico City’s University of Mexico’s School of Fine Art, before retiring in Cuernavaca. Soon after relocating, Catlett began work with the People’s Graphic Arts workshop in Mexico that called themselves a political/social art group.Together, they created pamphlets, posters, and textbook illustrations that highlighted various working-class causes in Mexico.

Catlett soon became a well-known activist for Mexican working women. She left the United States for good and became a Mexican citizen after being labeled an ‘undesirable’ US citizen following her arrest during a railroad-strike in Mexico City in 1949. She would remain in Mexico until her death.

Until the end of her life, Catlett remained concerned with the social aspects of her work, once saying, “I have always wanted my art to service my people — to reflect us, to relate to us, to stimulate us, to make us aware of our potential.” In many ways, her art is an extension of her activist identity. Catlett was a regular striker, picketer, who remained politically active well into her 90s.

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One of Catlett’s works on display as part of the Chicago Art Institute’s ‘They Seek a City’ exhibit

They Seek a City will remain on display at the Art Institute of Chicago until June 2, 2013.

You can see more of Catlett’s work here.

Welcome to the FEMINIST FIRSTS Issue!

Dear Readers,

We are pleased to introduce our Feminist Firsts Issue of Re/visionist, which celebrates women and feminists who were firsts, pioneers, visionaries, and all-around badasses. Of course there are zillions of such individuals, but we have chosen a few that excite us with the hope that you will continue the project of bringing to light these stories as inspiration to all feminists.

From millionaires to artists, social workers to fighter pilots, this issue covers a wide range of feminists who broke through barriers to achieve their full potential for the greater good. Two of our editors also traveled to Chicago to explore the second city’s women’s history–a rich tapestry, represented in this issue in three different portraits.

Feel free to leave posts about other feminist firsts that inspire you!

Happy Spring,

Emma, Emilie, and Katy