Aircraft pioneer, journalist and mother Fay Gillis Wells has an answer for you.
This weekend, I hauled out the toolbox my father gave my husband for his bachelor party, crawled under the bed, and painstakingly fastened a headboard to our bed frame. Skipping lunch, I vacuumed and dusted for several hours, coerced my two kids to fold laundry, and fielded a few high intensity emails from my boss, who is traveling overseas. I did all of this with a sinus infection and a heavy sense of self-pity.
My husband was unwell, too, so I did not look to him to pitch in. Instead, I brooded on the impossible burden I had strapped on when I decided to have children, a career, and be the household handyman. My husband, when not ill, is the cook, chauffeur, and stay-at-home dad. In fact, speaking in terms of Fifties-style marriages, he is the wife. He lunches with friends, gardens, feels unfulfilled, and gets more manicures than I do.
How unfair, I thought, on hands and knees to scrub behind the toilet bowl, that in addition to many of the duties normally associated with wives, I must also be the man of the house. When women got the opportunity to take on activities usually associated with men, they became frenetic, juggling both roles while running an impossible race that ends, maybe, in retirement, illness, or psychotic breakdown.
Right about that time, my mind wandered, landed on Fay Gillis Wells, and brought my rollicking pity party to a hard stop.
When women got the opportunity to take on activities usually associated with men, they became frenetic, juggling both roles while running an impossible race that ends, maybe, in retirement, illness, or psychotic breakdown.
Fay learns to fly - the hard way
Fay Gillis Wells became famous a month after she began flying lessons, when she and her instructor parachuted to safety as the biplane her instructor was piloting broke up 1000 feet over Long Island. Undaunted by the terrifying fall from the sky, Fay collected her federal pilot’s license a month later.
That same month, while America was reeling from the October 1929 Stock Market crash, Fay got a job as America’s first aircraft saleswoman and demonstrator.
There were 117 women licensed to fly at that time, and Fay wrote to all of them, suggesting they start a club. Ninety-nine women pilots showed up, including Amelia Earhart, who became president of the club. Fay was the secretary.
Below is a picture of a few of the members of “The Ninety-Nine Club” as they named it. Faye is the one on the right, in the helmet, goggles and grease-spattered oilskins. Had I not known of her exploits, I still would have loved her sense of style, amongst the furs and stockings, she sat for this famous photo in her business attire.
A sense of fashion - on and off the page
Fay knew about clothes, mind you. She designed and modeled female pilot clothing, and when the Ninety-Nines put out a magazine, she was the fashion editor.
Did I mention she could write? In case this is leading you to believe Fay was simply a female pilot with courage, she wasn’t. She was also a foreign correspondent, and at the age of 26 covered the 1934 coronation of the Manchurian Emperor for the New York Times. About the same time, while working in Moscow for the New York Herald Tribune and the Associated Press, she heard about Wiley Post’s first round-the-world flight and helped him set up fueling stops across Russia.
Wiley was grateful, and a year later, when he was planning another round-the-world flight, he invited Fay to accompany him. Although she was delighted with the offer, at the last minute, romance intervened. She had fallen in love with Linton Wells, another foreign correspondent 15 years her senior. They eloped, and of course, spent their honeymoon covering the Italian invasion of Ethiopia.
Meanwhile, Wiley offered the empty seat on the plane to Will Rogers. Sadly, Wiley and the famous comedian perished when the plane hit bad weather in Alaska.
A starry relationship and a leopard
Linton and Fay covered the war in Africa independently. Sometimes both their bylines appeared on the front pages of major papers.
When they finally returned to New York, they filled their apartment with exotic animals, a lioness, a cheetah, and a leopard named Snooks that Fay took with her on interviews when they moved to California and she began to cover Hollywood.
When I think about the housewives of my grandmother’s generation, I don’t think about jet-setting foreign correspondents. But Fay did eventually have a child and take on mundane duties. She was 38, the age I was when I had my daughter almost 60 years later. They classified my pregnancy as “elderly.” I can only imagine the terms they used for Fay.
In 1946, when her son was born, Fay would not have had most of the appliances that I curse today, although they make my life easier.
Even if she had one of the washing machines unavailable to the working class, she would have had to hang the wet clothes by hand. They lived on a houseboat in Florida, and I picture her spending hours on laundry day hanging up cloth diapers and ironing shirts in a little galley downstairs.
Her stint with housework lasted until the 60s when she returned to journalism for the 'minor' task of covering the white house, including Nixon’s trip to China.
Stressed out? Fay to the rescue.
When I start to spin out of control and worry that I am overdoing it, I find it helpful to think about Fay. She is too far out of my sphere of normality to be intimidating. I won’t likely ever learn to fly. My dogs would not handle a cheetah well. But it helps to think of her when I worry too much about gender roles and whether I’m losing out by trying to do it all. I couldn’t get close to her at half my pace.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go change the oil in my car.
Lara Bujold Clouden is a part-time fiction writer and full-time business analyst. She lives with her husband, two children, two dogs, and a lot of moles in Newtown CT.