"Women must pay for everything. They do get more glory than men for comparable feats, but they also get more notoriety when they crash." — Amelia Earhart
You could argue that Amelia Earhart was the Oprah Winfrey of her time. She was independent, successful and a media star in her own right. Yet when her plane disappeared in a 1937 attempt to fly around the world, many of her accomplishments seemed to be lost with it. Instead of talking about how she lived, the world became fascinated with how she died. To this day, her plane has never been found and theories on her disappearance abound. They range from the practical (her plane ran out of fuel and crashed somewhere around Howland Island in the central Pacific Ocean) to the bizarre (she survived the flight, moved to New Jersey and assumed a new identity).
You may know Earhart as the first female pilot to attempt to fly around the world or you may only know her from the mysterious way that she disappeared, but she was so much more than a great unsolved mystery—she was a true pioneer for women.
"[Earhart left behind] that sense that women should be all that they can be," says Susan Butler, author of East to Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart. "She told them they should bring more to marriage than their bodies…they had minds they could develop, they could graduate from college. What she wanted to do was raise women's expectations. She wasn't a doctrinaire person—she just wanted women to be accepted for their talents on an individual basis."
Meet the modern-day Amelia Earhart
Decades later, that message is still heard loud and clear—by one woman in particular. Amelia Earhart (a distant relative of the famous aviator) is 26 years old, lives in Los Angeles and makes her living as a helicopter reporter. And yes, she really was born with that name.
"My parents decided they wanted to give me a strong female role model, somebody who could show you that you could do whatever you want," says Earhart. "Having the same name, there's a connection that I've developed over the years. It's nothing factual, just a gut instinct that I have the same spirit she did. That is bred so deep in me."
Earhart's life has paralleled her famous namesake's in many ways. Present-day Earhart was born in California and moved to Kansas with her family when she was in middle school. Completely by chance, the family ended up in a town near Atchison, Kansas, the birthplace of the Amelia Earhart.
As a child growing up in Kansas, bearing the name of its most renowned native didn't provide Earhart with much more than some light teasing and a lot of questions about aviation. However, as she grew older and learned more about Amelia Earhart's extraordinary life and accomplishments, her perspective on what it could mean for her own life began to shift.
"Around 15, I started to get more interested in Amelia," Earhart says. "People started comparing her to me: 'You're adventurous; you're tall; you love being outside.' I started to learn that she was a really cool lady. And I thought, 'This is something that I can choose to accept, or I can give into the teasing and all the silly things that go on with a famous name like this.' So I chose to accept it."
How she lived up to her famous name
It didn't take long for Earhart to live up to her name. While majoring in English at the University of Colorado at Boulder, she began taking flying lessons. "My whole life I'd been getting questions about Amelia Earhart and aviation, so one day I just decided I should take flying lessons," she says. Somehow, word got out that a young Amelia Earhart was learning how to fly, and a local radio station took an interest in her story. The next thing she knew, she was being offered a job as traffic reporter on the ground. One thing led to another, a position opened up for a helicopter reporter, and it seems only natural that Earhart was the one chosen for the position.
She was just 25 years old and already had a résumé most young journalists would envy. This past May, her life took another impressive turn when she landed a job as a helicopter reporter for CBS News in Los Angeles. Now she doesn't just fly over traffic, but wildfires and crime scenes, reporting news to the second largest market in the country. She's also making history: Earhart and her pilot, Chris Kelly, are currently the only all-female helicopter news team in the world.
Eventually, Earhart hopes to not just report from a helicopter but to be licensed in flying one. She's close to completing those flight lessons she began as a young reporter in Colorado, and getting her helicopter license is the next big step. But Earhart's even greater goal is to retrace her namesake's infamous flight around the world, an idea she's been mulling over since high school. "Retracing Amelia's flight will be a huge endeavor and will take years of planning," she says. "The risks are around us all the time, but with proper planning and a safe aircraft, it would be something that I could go into with confidence."
Earhart says she'd like to complete the trip by the time she's 39—the age her aviator inspiration was when she disappeared.
Why Amelia Earhart could soon inspire women everywhere
Soon enough, it's likely that women everywhere will find inspiration from the legendary Amelia Earhart—no matter their name. Not only is Hilary Swank starring in a new movie based on her life, but many historians believe her lost plane could soon be found. "I don't think there's any question that the plane is somewhere around Howland Island," Butler says. "The problem is that the island is in a part of the pacific where the ocean floor is 1,700 feet deep. But technology is catching up, and I think the plane will probably be found within the next five years."
Butler hopes that once Earhart's plane is finally discovered, the public's concentration can shift from how she died to how she lived. And Amelia Earhart's modern-day namesake couldn't agree more.
"She was such a compelling person. I want kids to see her up there with other major historical figures," Earhart says. "There are so many legacies from her because she had so many sides, but really she left this idea that no matter what your goal is, you just have to set your mind to it and get it done. I wanted to be a reporter, and now I'm in Los Angeles and I'm on television every single day in this beautiful helicopter. Just this little girl from Kansas…just like she was."
Printed from Oprah.com on Wednesday, March 12, 2014
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