Women Soar in Jessen’s Sky Girls

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November 18, 2019

At the dawn of the Great Depression in a little-known historical event, 20 female pilots soared past society’s expectations and took part in the 1929 Powder Puff Derby, the world’s first all-female airplane race. 

Author, aviator, and Mercury 13 test pilot Gene Nora Jessen highlights the significance of this event in her engaging part-biography, part-narrative Sky Girls. The Powder Puff Derby’s bold, adventurous competitors, which included the legendary Amelia Earhart and the fascinating aviator, heiress, entrepreneur, pirate (yes, PIRATE!), and native Pasadenan Pancho Barnes, made groundbreaking aviation—and feminist—history.

Jessen traces the race day by day, taking readers from Santa Monica to Cleveland, Ohio with the help of the humorous first-person commentary of journalist Will Rogers. Readers learn about each of the competitors, their backgrounds, and their individual journeys through the Powder Puff Derby, as well as how the controversy over the results of the race continues to surface today. Illness, sabotage, and even death plagued some of the competitors, while others breezed through the competition with enough spare time for an impromptu vacation in Mexico, where prohibition wasn’t a concern. Jessen even takes the reader beyond the event itself, examining the competitors’ later contributions to the WWII Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and the Ninety-Nines, an all-female aviation society still running today. 

At its core, Sky Girls is a powerful tale of teamwork and sisterhood. It examines the bond between its 20 contestants, all of whom are women of different nationalities, backgrounds, and walks of life.  These women came together to break boundaries. They supported one another through the highs and lows, and they understood that their victories as individual competitors were insignificant by comparison to the impact they were making together as innovators and changemakers in an era where neither airplanes nor the women that flew them were seen as trustworthy or capable.  Though the 1929 Powder Puff Derby may be long forgotten today, Jessen successfully delivers a timeless story of collaboration, innovation, and the importance of chasing one’s dreams.