Introduction

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“Miss Harriet Quimby, Boston girl,” 1911. Copyright Leslie Jones. CC-BY-NC-ND. Courtesy of Boston Public Library via Digital Commonwealth.

In 1911, Harriet Quimby, a drama critic and editor for the Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly, became the first woman to get her pilot’s license in the US, from the Aero Club of America. Although Quimby only flew for eleven months after receiving her license, she accomplished a lot during her time in the pilot’s seat. In addition to being the first woman to fly a plane at night, she also flew across the English Channel, and at the inauguration festivities for Mexico’s president-elect in 1911. She did it all wearing a custom-made purple satin flight suit—a visible symbol of her femininity in the male-dominated aviation world. Quimby planned to be the first woman to fly mail from Boston to New York, but died in a tragic accident while taking her plane for a test flight in July of 1912.

Shortly after Quimby received her pilot’s license, her friend Matilde Moisant became the second woman to obtain the certification from the Aero Club. Like Quimby, she learned to fly at the Moisant Aviation School, which was run by her brother. She quickly became a skilled pilot. By September 1911, she had won the Rodman-Wanamaker altitude trophy. Shortly thereafter, Moisant stopped flying at the request of her family (and possibly because of Quimby’s untimely death) after her aircraft burst into flames and she herself was set afire. Though not seriously injured in the accident, she retired from flying in 1912.