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Purdue students help Earhart's niece explain aviator's feminist legacy


Fall 2018 | By David Ching. Photo by Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program.


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Jessica Perkins remembers gravitating toward children’s biographies of Amelia Earhart in elementary school.

Rachel Small wanted to learn about the famous aviator when she noticed Earhart was often the only woman featured in her local bookstore’s exhibits on historical figures.

“When I was little, I’d go to Barnes and Noble and they always had those ‘Who was Albert Einstein’ kind of displays,” said Small, a sophomore in anthropology and public relations. “I was always intrigued by Amelia Earhart’s because there were all these old men with white wigs on and I thought, ‘That’s weird. Who are they?’ And then there’s Amelia Earhart with her hat and her goggles, standing in front of a plane. It was very different, and it intrigued me how she was the only female.”

Earhart’s life story conveyed an important message to the two Purdue students at an early age, showing what women are capable of achieving. Now through an Earhart-centered independent study program, Perkins and Small are helping to ensure that future generations of young women will be able to learn similar lessons from Earhart.

As students who hope to someday work in museum curation, Perkins and Small both responded to an invitation from the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program to conduct research in the Amelia Earhart Collection, housed in the Purdue Archives and Special Collections.

What they didn’t know when they responded was that their research would help an author assemble an Earhart biography geared toward young women. Oh, and one other missing detail: The author would be Earhart’s niece, Amy Kleppner, whose mother, Muriel, was the legendary pilot’s sister.

“I didn’t know that the author was Amelia’s niece until a few weeks into the project. They didn’t tell us that,” chuckled Perkins, a junior in psychology and history. “So I felt some pressure to really do my research after that.”

Examining the Earhart Collection
Under the supervision of head archivist Sammie Morris and assistant professor of library science and anthropology Kendall Roark, the two students have combed through the boxes and dense scrapbooks loaded with 1930s-era newspaper clippings, searching for Earhart’s speeches and direct quotes where she discussed feminist issues.

“They’re very conscientious, intelligent, wonderful students who have already done quite a bit of work and I’m sure will provide some very helpful information,” Kleppner said during an October visit to Purdue, shortly after viewing the Earhart Collection for the first time.

Earhart, who advised Purdue’s female students as a career counselor and lecturer from 1935 through her 1937 disappearance, possessed views concerning women’s roles in American society that were decades ahead of their time. Her attitude toward women’s rights will be a central theme in Kleppner’s upcoming book.

“She was interested in targeting that age group because it's an impressionable age, a time of ‘coming of age,’ when young people might really benefit from learning about Amelia Earhart and the feminist issues that were really important to her,” said Jennifer Freeman Marshall, director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program and associate professor of English and Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.

Amy Kleppner at Purdue

Earhart gained international celebrity by becoming the first woman to fly across the Atlantic as a passenger on the Fokker Friendship’s 1928 flight. Four years later, she piloted a Lockheed Vega 5B from Harbour Grace, Newfoundland to Culmore, Northern Ireland, becoming the first woman to complete a solo Trans-Atlantic flight.

Earhart leveraged her fame to promote two primary causes: aviation and women’s rights.

“Because of her achievements in aviation, she gained a celebrity that allowed her to express her ideas more freely than most people could have,” Kleppner said. “So she could promote birth control, which was not terribly popular at the time. In 1935, she said if in case of war and if men were drafted, women should be drafted also, and that was certainly not a popular position at the time.

“And she constantly encouraged greater equality in marriage and said that women should share in earning a living, and at the same time, men should share in the drudgery of housework and learn how tedious it really is to spend lots of hours cooking and cleaning.”

Earhart even proposed a premarital agreement to her husband, G.P. Putnam, stipulating that the spouses did not have to remain faithful to one another and that they could call off their marriage after one year if either was unhappy.

“I think it was certainly unusual for someone to say, ‘Look I’ve got to keep my own freedom. I’ve got to have my own life. And if this doesn’t work out, then let’s just agree that that’s it,’” Kleppner said. “After all that was certainly not common because it took a long time for that no-fault divorce, and it was certainly difficult for women in the ’30s. If they wanted a divorce, there were lots of reasons why it was really, really hard – mainly economic, but social, as well.”

Although Earhart famously refused to call herself a feminist, her ideals mirrored the assertive message that the women’s rights movement would project several decades later. The encouragement that Earhart provided to Purdue’s female students in the 1930s – advising them to work in whatever field they chose and to refuse to settle for being a housewife – still resonates more than 80 years after her disappearance.

“She was directly addressing the politics of housework, and that concept was not fully developed and debated until the so-called second wave of the feminist movement in the 1970s,” Freeman Marshall said. “That’s when feminist activists began to define the ‘double burden’ or ‘second shift’ as a source of women's inequality.

“Most women are expected to do the bulk of household labor and work outside of the home and, therefore, they have less leisure time to pursue other interests. It sounds to me like Earhart was very careful in protecting that time for herself so that she could pursue her passion for flight. Dr. Kleppner is making sure that we all know that was part of AE's feminist commitment: to create equity.”

Focus on Earhart's legacy, not her disappearance
Indeed, Kleppner is far more interested in focusing on that aspect of Earhart’s legacy than on the many failed attempts to determine where she crashed in 1937 while attempting to fly around the world.

“(Solving the mystery) never seemed that important to me,” said Kleppner, who only met her famous aunt a couple of times as a small child before Earhart’s disappearance. “I know that lots of people are much more intrigued by it. I have good friends who are really intrigued by it and really want to get to the end of it. It hasn’t bothered me because, as I say, I think her legacy was her life and what she accomplished. She was very lucky, but she seized the moment. She had the opportunity and she did something with it, which had nothing to do with making money or being famous. It had to do with promoting the causes that she thought were important.”

Freeman Marshall collaborated with Kleppner and her son, Bram, to design the Earhart independent study research program, and she later coordinated the Kleppners’ campus visit in October. Over four days, they toured Earhart Hall and the aviation building that once housed Earhart’s plane and attended several events, including a reception hosted by TJ Boisseau, associate professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Amelia Earhart Faculty-in-Residence.

Of course, the Kleppners also met with Small and Perkins in the archives, taking a first-hand look at the collection and the materials the students gathered through their considerable research.

“It was a lot to look through, but it’s never been boring,” Perkins said of the student research opportunity, which Freeman Marshall is working to offer again in future semesters. “I’ve never been like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go to the archives.’ It’s always been like, ‘Wow, I can’t wait to go back again and learn more.’”

Earhart’s Purdue ties are a footnote in her life story, although she was actually on leave from the university during her 1937 voyage – the flight where Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan disappeared and were never found.

While the Purdue-Earhart connection is not widely known, it is significant. Not only did she make final preparations for the 1937 flight at Purdue, the Purdue Research Foundation also created the Amelia Earhart Fund for Aeronautical Research in 1936, providing the funds to purchase the $80,000 Lockheed Electra she piloted on the around-the-world flight attempt.

“She cared a lot about these two things: women’s rights and aviation,” Morris said. “She was able to do both of those things at Purdue, which I think appealed to her because we had established the first university-owned airport in the nation, and it was very new when she came. We had just built the women’s residence hall, which is where she stayed while on campus. She had direct contact with the women students as a careers counselor for them. She took meals with them sometimes in the residence halls.

“She could interact with the aviation department. She could come into classes and talk about flight, and because the Research Foundation at Purdue provided the funds for her plane, she used the airport for her flight planning and preparation,” Morris continued. “So there are all these things that, even though it was only two years, it was a significant relationship between the university and Earhart. And I think anyone who is interested in Earhart needs to know about that.”

Perhaps they soon will, with help from Amy Kleppner and her two student research assistants at Purdue.