December 7th marks two anniversaries: that of the Japanese bombing on Pearl Harbor that jettisoned the United States into World Word II officially, and International Civil Aviation Day. With our eyes to the skies and our minds on military and flight history, it’s time to talk about the FlyGirls.
If you didn’t realize that over 1,000 American female pilots participated in the military landscape of World War II, then you’d be in the company of millions. Oscar-nominated Director Matia Karrell and Producer Hilary Prentice are out to tackle that invisibility with the poetic true story of the Women AirForce Service Pilots (WASP), their predecessors, and their contemporaries. Far from myth, the miniseries will take us intimately into the lives and battlegrounds of these unsung heroes, who stories were silenced shortly after armistice. Those WASP and ATA women still alive today, most in their 90’s, flew dangerous missions in Europe, ferried supplies in the US, towed targets for shooting practice with live ammunition, and fought and died for a military that didn’t recognize their commitment at war’s end.
I sat down with Karrell and Prentice to discuss the inspiration behind the miniseries, what aviation and sisterhood both meant to these brave fighters, and why now is finally the right time to break the silence.
When I asked Karrell what encouraged her research, she begins by describing to me a black and white photograph she found of her mother in military costume, and another, of a group of women in men’s overalls. These were “images of women occupying positions [she’d] never seen before”, back in a time where she says, “women could only think about becoming a school teacher, a hairdresser, or a nurse. At a time when society thought so little of them, I found out they offered so much.”
‘Finding out’ was more harrowing than she’d expected. When she took to the Internet to research what place in history those photos occupied, she was met with a brick wall. There was little to no information on female fighters from before the advent of instant color film. She began searching for the dairies of female soldiers, and reaching out to conduct interviews—eventually discovering the deep web of narratives. Karrell calls it “part of the frustration”, how little information there was— and how few people, even military and veterans, know about the WASP.
Eventually, after 20 years of dedicated investigation and a promise to her friend, WASP pilot Violet Thurn Cowden (1916-2011), FlyGirls was born.
The miniseries focuses on two groups of women: The WASP, and their pre-cursors, the 25 American women who left for Britain to join the Air Transport Auxiliary. Because it was initially illegal for women to fly in the US military, they flew for England, where they were exposed to bombing and air raids. Pauline Gower, of the ATA, survived the war only to die in childbirth at age 27.
Also vital to the narrative, the miniseries will address barring of black female Ferrying pilots to WASP divisions. Not to be deterred by segregation and discrimination, women of color flew alongside the Tuskegee Airmen, known for their over seventy-seven missions during the war. Mildred Carter was the first black woman to get an aviation license in the state of Alabama (yet is only a stub compared to her husband on Wikipedia, also a TA), while Janet Harmon Bragg, who bought her first plane for $600, didn’t take no for an answer when she was denied the right to fly hospital planes because the “colored quota” had been filled. (Neither were included in the 1995 film, The Tuskegee Airmen.)
Theirs are two of a number of compelling narratives. The ranks of the WASP included women like Helen Richey—a Pennsylvania socialite who became the first woman legally allowed to fly as a commercial pilot and was Amelia Earhart’s co-pilot, and Jacqueline Cochran, the first woman break the sound barrier and to compete in the Bendix Race, after a lengthy fight for the opportunity.
So, why do these stories matter? Other than their erasure from a national collective military knowledge, they mattered to these women personally, as advocates for change on the cusp of revolutionary transformations in the understanding of women’s roles. “Imagine your whole world is opened up. The idea that a girl can be anything, and that women around the world identify with your desire to be more. Then imagine that they say that you have to go back to the farm: you can’t have the world anymore.”
Unfortunately, that is how the romance with the sky ended for many of these women. The seeds of adventure of another kind of life were quashed by the end of the war, by the government they’d fought for. Women were not given veteran status, nor allowed to continue in active military duty. It was illegal for women to pilot commercial vehicles, so even outside of a military role, the former WASPs and TAs could not forge a livelihood doing what they loved. They were not even given military benefits, such as war honors or health care.
Most shocking of all, the US Government determined their involvement in the war was “Classified” for years, and refused female military dead; the women who had died in burning planes wearing the uniform of stars and stripes; a flag for their funeral, a military burial, or even funerary funds—as their male counterparts could expect.
Of the more than 1,000 women who fought as AirForce pilots, 38 were killed. “For women who died… [their sisters] made collections so they could afford to bring the coffin home, because the military wouldn’t pay for it…” It’s a powerful image, one that hits home and evokes a guilty national conscience. “Here’s this woman, 28, standing beside a coffin and knocking on a family’s door, saying ‘sorry, your daughter’s gone’. …We haven’t seen women this way before.”
Forbidden from doing the one thing they loved most in even a commercial capacity post-war, some women fell into addiction, while others went on to champion their causes across the United States. One thing these ladies all had in common, if not the ultimate destination of paths, was why they started out on them: “The way the women all described flying: freedom, even playing field. Imagine being given that opportunity in the 1940s.”
It’s vital to recognize that the United States wasn’t a superpower until after the war, and aviation contributed to that—these women helped to test planes that hadn’t been flown yet, which often came with no directions or assurances. They were rebels, they were adventurers, and they flew 78 models in total. They were the sort of pioneers on which documentaries are built—but Karrell was adamant about not making it a documentary.
“It’s an overwhelming feeling to see that these women are real. That’s something you maybe don’t get out of a documentary… [putting] a human face on these events, not just statistics.”
She has also decided to forgo Hollywood’s deep pocket for the production, instead opting to keep the miniseries independent through crowdfunding.
“We’re keeping it independent because we know what it needs to be.” A true telling, based on evidence, diaries, and interviews; not a grandiose flirtation that panders to naïve writing or ratings-fueled decisions. “I would think FlyGirls has to [change minds]… we all saw Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin, but the character of women is more complex, deep… women are not these simple creatures.”
Most of the characters in FlyGirls will be a compilation of the real women’s characters and tales: it would be impossible to focus on all 1,000 narrative threads, but some of the most emotive and vital have been included.
Moreover, she remarks that brilliant male directors had been suggested to her in the past: but just as American Sniper had Clint Eastwood, Saving Private Ryan had Steven Spielberg, Platoon had Oliver Stone, and Band of Brothers had the nine all-male directors, a woman needs to direct this intimate look at sisterhood. It isn’t that men are incapable of digesting and empathizing with it: it’s that no women weren’t even in the vocabulary, and that that is in and of itself is a statement when the likes of Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) are blowing up the silver screen.
Vocabulary contributes to why FlyGirls needs to be produced right now.
At first, because these pilots were women, they want to be seen as “clean”, non-combative outside their military roles. To not make a fuss, and “just happy to help the country”. But, Karrell says, “We cant Sepia Tone American history anymore.” Some of these stories are harrowing, some are damaged, all are flawed—but all equally courageous, cutting-edge, and intrepid.
“They didn’t have ‘harassment’, or ‘chauvinist’ in the language then… These women didn’t have a political language to describe their situation. They couldn’t be at all sensitive, and they had to be better than men to be seen as equal, and in some cases, were.” She notes, even today, “We have these ‘equal opportunity’ phrases that describe our democracy… but they’re a constant contradiction, they aren’t really there.”
“They did not have the words. That silence of women wasn’t surprising, but poignant. During [my research], I found many poignant human moments.”
Less than 120 of these women remain alive today. FlyGirls will serves as a tribute to them. One WASP, still alive, stated: “It is painful… they have forgotten us.”
Violet even once told her friend that it took her until she was in her 80s to come to terms with her own contribution, and to realize that military history was a part of her history, too. She never spoke about aviation after the war, settling down with her veteran husband, because she believed her sacrifices weren’t enough; that her husband had done more.
FlyGirls also comes at an important juncture for women’s equality in Hollywood history, and in US military history, with the recent decision to allow women into frontline military positions—where they have been fighting for decades in an “unofficial” capacity—and where will receive better pay and rank. Still, there is opposition to this inclusion, with the Marine Corps whinging the loudest: "Female Marines who want to stir the pot by joining the infantry ranks are more interested in their careers than the needs of the Corps — they are selfish," says Marine Captain Lauren Serrano.
It only further proves how vital this project is.
“Today, people are always saying we [women] need to come to the table, we need to lean in… if we knew history, we’d see that women are already at the table, they have been leaning in.”
Hundreds of women in uniform arrived to the dedication of a statue to WASP servicewomen Sweetwater Pond, Texas—Karrell joined them. The feeling of pride was “visceral”. “I’m a writer, producer, director… fields that are so often mostly men… to be in that room that was all women, to feel that camaraderie, it felt great.”
And maybe that’s what’s missing, in our lineup of shows about catfights and love triangles. The very real feeling of sisterhood and kinship that is only heightened by being together in battle, entrusting your life to the people beside you—capable, valiant people.
“Women don’t have a Band of Brothers; something that shows the horror and difficulty of war through women’s eyes. These girls grew into women through war.”
These are the women who should be role models for our generation, who were trailblazers in their own, and who left the fight of WWII to come home to a fight for equal standing, and who built the foundation for a better America.
#WomenInFront will keep up with FlyGirls as it completes its flight path towards completion. Stay tuned to hear more about its release date and channel.
Editor's Note: The title refers to the WASP as 'fighter pilots', and while it is true that the WASP flew and ferried military fighter planes, please note that the US did not allow females in active combat roles, nor train them for combat, due to public opinion being against women on the front lines at that time. The term 'fighter pilot' refers to their contribution to the war effort and handling of military aviation, rather than as a group specialised in aerial dogfighting.
This article is part of TheToolbox.org's #WomenInFront series, powered by Humanise. Learn more about the initiative at WomenInFront.net, or join the conversation on social media: Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.