clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The real reason Amelia Earhart is so famous

A carefully executed publicity campaign turned a pretty average pilot into an aviation legend.

Coleman Lowndes is a lead producer who has covered history, culture, and photography since joining the Vox video team in 2017.

Amelia Earhart is often thought of as the first or greatest female pilot. She was the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the United States and the first woman — and second person, after Charles Lindbergh — to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean. But she wasn’t the only record-breaking female flier of her time, and she certainly wasn't the best.

Earhart’s contemporaries Louise Thaden, Ruth Nichols, and Beryl Markham were arguably more competent pilots and had record-breaking careers of their own. But they didn’t get the same recognition as Earhart, who went on to become an iconic name in aviation. What set her apart from her peers was a carefully executed publicity campaign.

Aviatrix Ruth Elder sitting on her plane engine, 1929.
Getty Images

Earhart’s husband, George Palmer Putnam, was an influential American book publisher who chose Earhart to fly (as a passenger) over the Atlantic Ocean in 1928, making her the first woman to do so. The subsequent fame contributed to her career in flying and speaking tours, which ultimately turned a pretty average pilot into an aviation legend.

President Herbert Hoover presenting the National Geographic Society gold medal to Amelia Earhart as husband G.P. Putnam, center, looks on, 1932.
Getty Images

Earhart used her celebrity status to promote aviation as a viable form of transportation. And she encouraged other women to get into the field, which was still new. And while Earhart wasn’t technically the most skilled pilot of her time, her courage and ambition to pursue a career in flying remain an inspiration more than 80 years after her disappearance.

Amelia Earhart addresses journalists at the Criterion, London, 1932.
Getty Images

Watch the video above to see how Earhart became a legend in her lifetime.

You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on YouTube. Subscribe for more episodes.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.