The Wright Brothers made aviation history on December 17, 1903, when their powered aircraft was the first to successfully take flight with a pilot on board. Over the course of the next decades, the aviation industry continued to develop and many other men would earn the title of pilot. Women would also begin to involve themselves in aviation matters by building their own planes and even flying solo. By 1910, a handful of American women had earned pilot’s licenses. In 1927, at the age of 20, Mary Goodrich Jenson joined their ranks, becoming the first woman in Connecticut to earn a pilot’s license.
The daughter of James Goodrich and Ella Reed, Mary Goodrich was born in Hartford in 1907. She was educated at the Collegio Gazzola in Verona, Italy, the Katherine Gibbs School, and Columbia University. From a young age, she had cultivated a love of words. Raised on fairytales, as she grew up she developed a strong taste for journalism. Even while pursuing her pilot’s license, she decided she wanted to be a writer. The Hartford Courant, impressed by the young woman’s perseverance, hired her as its first aviation editor and the “Girl Pilot,” as she was affectionately dubbed, later became the first woman to have a bylined column. She wrote a variety of pieces on notable air stories, including pieces highlighting visits from Amelia Earhart.
The “Girl Pilot” also had a career in advertising and promotion. For a short while, in the late 1930s, she even took a position with Walt Disney Productions in Hollywood, California. It was here that she met her husband, Carl Jenson, with whom she had two children. However, the couple did not stay in California for long. In 1941, they returned to Wethersfield where Jenson served on the Board of Education, the Republican Town Committee, the Council of Social Agencies of Greater Hartford, and as President of the Women’s Association, an organization she also founded.
Throughout her life, Jenson remained a large piece of aviation history. In 1929, a group of women pilots gathered at Curtiss Airport in Vally Stream, N.Y. with the intention of forming an organization that would fight and provide support for women in aviation. This group was named the Ninety-Nines because of its ninety-nine charter members, of which Jenson was one. In 1936, when the Hindenburg flew low over Hartford, Jenson was the only female passenger. She also piloted her own Fairchild KR-21 bi-plane around Connecticut and made history as the first woman to fly solo to Cuba. She was director of the Betsy Ross Corps, a group of female pilots organized to assist in national defense during emergencies. In 1940, she promoted the Women Flyers of America (WFA), a unit of female pilots trained to relieve male pilots for wartime service by ferrying planes from the factories to the airfields and transporting supplies. The WFA motto was, “Airmindedness—for Sport, Profession and Emergency!”
Mary Goodrich Jenson died in Hartford in 2004 at the age of 96.
During This Time
1921 - 1945: Prosperity, Depression, & War
Industrial growth, economic expansion, and plenty of consumer goods gave women more purchasing power and pleasure in the 1920s. Women gained political office, but after achieving the right to vote the Women’s Movement fractured over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The percentage of married women in the workforce doubled, though in menial jobs, while women of color had few opportunities. The media’s message about the home was ambivalent. For daughters, the young flapper was glamorized in movies starring Clara Bow who had It (sex appeal). But the modern mother, equipped with widely-advertised appliances, was expected to keep house and raise children with new efficiency.
The prosperity of the twenties contrasted with the hardships of the 1930s following the 1929 stock market crash. Farm families in the Dust Bowl, suffering from drought and crop failures, fled to California where they worked as migratory laborers. As impoverished families across America struggled, desertion rose (but not divorce, which was expensive), and family size grew smaller. Women’s jobs were largely confined to low-paying domestic labor, garment factories, and food-processing plants, all further segregated by race and ethnicity.
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt, helped by wife Eleanor, brought strong leadership toward recovery with the New Deal. Professional women were included in federal projects, and work relief programs gave help to poor women. The Social Security Act of 1935 owed much to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. African-American Mary McLeod Bethune, using her executive position in the National Youth Administration, pressured the administration to provide equal pay for blacks in all programs.
World War II deeply influenced women’s lives. Sex-segregated labor diminished, as symbolized in the poster of “Rosie the Riveter.” Women were accepted into the military, though the public was concerned about the loss of femininity. Defense industries were reluctant to admit women, but as men were drafted, the resistance eroded. Older, married women provided the largest number of new workers. Black, Mexican, and Chinese women had new opportunities, but Japanese women suffered internment in camps. With demobilization, women were laid off, but many were soon back on the job. Their role still was defined in the home, but the war had increased women’s activities in the workplace.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.