A Quiet Revolution

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It was the simple, declarative tone of the statement that caught me. I'd volunteered to judge applications for the Ninety-Nines' Amelia Earhart Memorial Scholarship Fund, so I was spending a Saturday reading applicant essays. Read 10 or 20 pilot essays over a couple of hours-all from creative, motivated and deserving candidates who have wonderful career ambitions-and both your eyesight and your ability to distinguish between them begin to blur. But then I opened the application of a college sophomore named Patricia, who said she wanted a scholarship to help her get a degree in Aeronautical Technology. Nothing all that unusual there. It was the reason she wanted the degree that stopped me. It was, she said, so she could pursue her dream to "fly fighter jets and serve my country."

If the sentence had been part of a young man's scholarship application, the dream would have sounded almost passé. Untold thousands of young men, over the past 70 years, have pursued a goal of serving their country and flying fighter planes. But for a young woman to list serving her country and being a fighter pilot as her career goal, as if it was a normal and everyday thing for a young woman to want to do? When did that happen?

It's not like I've been in a cave the past 20 years. I know women are now allowed to fly fighter jets. Two are even current members of the Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team. Women also command the space shuttle and do a whole lot of other things that used to be off-limits. It's not the possibility of those things that stunned me. It's the fact that somewhere in the process-at some time I couldn't even put my finger on-young girls entering the world had evidently begun thinking of those accomplishments as normal, everyday things.

How could I even explain to a young woman like Patricia how remarkable her matter-of-fact attitude about her career possibilities is? How just 60 years ago, a woman named Barbara London, who was rated in almost every single airplane the military flew during World War II, was forbidden to fly any of them once the Air Force was formed, simply because she was a woman? That they let her wear her wings but never let her fly, even though she stayed in the service for another 20 years, hoping for the chance?

How 40 years ago, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon had to mask the fact that she was a woman in order to enter? How 35 years ago, newspaper classifieds still listed jobs for men and women in separate sections? That it was just 30 years ago that the Air Force graduated its first 10 women pilots-in any kind of plane? And that even when I learned to fly, women were still forbidden to fly fighter jets on combat missions?

More than likely, she'd respond the same way I did when my mother used to tell me about having a washing machine with a hand-cranked wringer on top, or an operator-directed telephone line. Which is to say, with some level of sideshow curiosity or interest, but no ability to relate.

Of course, that's the goal of anyone who's worked to expand the horizons of their race, gender, class or any other restricted group. That one day, their children-or their children's children-won't even quite believe them, that access was ever an unattainable pipe dream.

But when and how does that change occur? The one sure thing that can be said about change-whether it's on a personal or societal level-is that it's hard. Even when we want to change, resistance from inertia, habit or comfort with known patterns can be surprisingly strong. If it weren't, we'd all quickly and easily dump our bad habits, alter our annoying personality characteristics, straighten out our emotional baggage and be in whatever physical shape we wanted to be.

It's ironic, when you think about it. According to Darwin, adaptability and change are the very traits that allow us to survive. And yet we humans, in our lofty place at the top of the food chain, often resist change until it's inevitable, or the alternatives become even more painful or uncomfortable to contemplate.

But the other thing that can be said about change is that when it does happen, it generally occurs in such small increments that it's almost indiscernible until some big watershed event happens. Then we suddenly become aware of the sea change that was really developing all along. When, exactly, does winter turn to spring, or a baby develop the necessary motor skills to walk? Not in any single moment you can point to, even though there might be a particular moment when you notice the change has occurred.

So it is with societies, as well. Women were officially allowed to fly military aircraft starting in 1974 and fighter jets in combat roles starting in 1993. But that's not when girls began to imagine those career options as normal, everyday events. And even those initial policy shifts didn't just happen.

The entry of women into combat flying was certainly aided by the first Gulf War, where women distinguished themselves in combat arenas, even though they weren't officially in combat units. But women wouldn't have been in a position to prove themselves in those roles if it weren't for the scores of women who came before them and moved the line just a little bit closer to the tipping point. Women like Barbara London. Women like London's daughter Terry, who became the first woman pilot hired by Western Airlines by submitting her résumé repeatedly throughout the early 1970s, even though the airline kept telling her they weren't hiring women. According to her mother, she'd reply that they'd have to eventually, and she wanted her résumé to be on top when they did. Women like Lucy Young, a naval officer who, in 1980, became the first woman to qualify in Naval Air Combat Maneuvering-and who persevered determinedly enough to finally win a slot as an ACM instructor. She never got to fly in a combat unit, but she and women like her moved the front line 10 yards further up the beach.

Lt. j.g. Lucy Young in front of her TA-4J at NAS Barbers Point, Hawaii, in 1979.

The point is, change doesn't just happen. It takes work. But looking at the scholarship applications, another point occurred to me, as well. Those of us who were ever denied access, had to fight for basic respect or opportunity, or were the first to break through a barrier, will never have the relaxed attitude about our opportunities or accomplishments that the women who follow us will-or might.

In the late 1980s, a friend of mine became an airline pilot and captain. She regularly endured comments from passengers like, "Oh, look. The pilot has a secretary." Or, "You mean YOU'RE flying us? Do you have a license?" And on the frequency, anonymous taunts of "Another empty kitchen!" when she'd call in to report. And that's not even getting into inappropriate cockpit behavior from some of the men she flew with. Put up with that every day, and you get a bit of an edge that never really goes away.

Oh, we mellow with age, gain confidence in our experience and get comfortable enough in our own skin to stop worrying about it all so much. But the defenses are still there beneath the surface, ready to jump out if challenged, almost as if it's ingrained muscle memory from some of the struggles we went through to get here. But the women who grew up even 10 or 15 years behind us don't have that muscle memory. So they can walk through doors with a quiet and relaxed sense of self and freedom that I both envy and find stunning-and exhilarating-to behold.

When I was in Africa last summer, three out of the five pilots I flew with were women. All of them were 12-15 years younger than me. And to watch them work was like watching Tiger Woods play golf-grace in motion, with amazingly effective results.

They were all strong, capable and confident women. You have to be, to take on flying relief supplies in Africa. But they had nothing to prove and no chip on the shoulder. No edge. They were working not only in a male-dominated field, but in very male-dominated countries. But their strongest weapon was their very confidence. Enough confidence that they didn't have to command through confrontation or an overt show of toughness or authority.

I watched Lauren Stroschin, Air Serv International's chief pilot in Abeche, Chad, disarm male passengers-literally and figuratively-through teasing and humor. "Jeez, you think you're going to be cold? Come on, it's 100 degrees out here," she joked with one man who was reluctant to open up his double layer of jackets for her. "Hey, maybe you've got something in there for me," she said to another man in asking him to open his hand luggage. The men laughed and complied, their egos intact and the situation under control.

In the Congo, I watched Cindy Silong-five feet tall at best-get the compliance of even armed soldiers through a similar mix of smiles and ease. "Hey, Jamba, man," she'd grin, giving the accompanying waggle of the thumb and pinky. The locals would grin and their defensiveness would drop 10 notches. You could see it happen.

Now, granted, some of that could have been the particular personalities of the women involved. Or the result of having lived in and learned how to cope with African cultures, where swaggering or confrontation with officials is rarely the most effective approach. And, granted, a pilot's uniform in Africa is such an intimidating status symbol that it immediately confers a certain amount of authority and respect on any person who wears it.

But even in private conversations with these women, I didn't get edgy tales of battles fought to get where they were. They'd worked hard and endured a few jerks along the way, as any working person has. They also were aware that there weren't all that many women doing what they were, even now. But the bottom line was, they expected to be hired and respected, because that had been their experience. And that expectation gave them an ability to employ a disarming and effective approach that I'm not sure I could or would have had at their age.

That doesn't mean I think it's all a big happy ending, and we can now stop working on advancing opportunities or attitudes. But clearly, there has been progress. Not just the big progress we've consciously fought for, but a consequent, if quiet, sea change that's every bit as revolutionary as the first woman getting her fighter wings. As an editor friend of mine with a 22-year-old daughter told me with a shrug, "Race and gender just aren't as big an issue for her generation as they are for ours."

How did a shift that big happen? Like any change. Slowly. Painfully. Imperceptibly. Not without setbacks, and not without effort or cost. If young women don't see the barriers so sharply today, it's not because they magically disappeared. It's because women who came before them worked so hard to chip away at those barriers-each new wave making a little more progress than the last.

I look at Patricia's application, and her simple description of her aspirations … as well as the seemingly boundless ambitions of all the other scholarship applicants … and I feel a wonderful combination of hope and joy in my heart. Maybe you can change the world, after all. Just not easily, and not in one generation.

I wish this new generation of amazing women abundant luck and joy in their travels and careers. I rejoice in their expanded visions and horizons. But I also hope that when all those 19-year-olds eventually step into their first fighter jet, race plane, airline cockpit or spaceship … they take just a moment to remember, and thank, all the other talented and courageous women in history and the world who made that achievement possible.