Monday, April 25, 2011

102: The Self-Empowered Woman: Violet Cowden

Dear Followers,

Two weeks ago, Violet Cowden (who was a member of WWIIs Women's Flying Training Detachment - later known as the WASPs) died at the age of 94. I found her story inspiring, and I hope you will, too.

Born in 1916, in a sod house in Bowdle, South Dakota, Violet was fascinated by the hawks that flew over her family's small farm. At the age of seven, she decided that she wanted to find a way to fly with them (2: An Early Sense of Direction).

Even before she got her driver's license, she enrolled at an airfield for her first flying lesson even though she had to ride her bicycle six miles each way. As she later told an interviewer, "I feel so in oneness with life and with the world and everything when I'm in the air" (7: Magnificent Obsession).

In 1936, She received her teaching credential and taught first grade; she also received her pilot's license. When Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, she tried - unsuccessfully - to join the Civil Air Patrol. Her next choice was the Navy, and she became one of 25,000 women who applied for the WASPs; Violet was one of 1,830 who were accepted (only 1,074 completed training). She only weighted 92 pounds, and for a week stuffed herself with bananas and malted milk to reach the minimum weight requirement of 100 pounds.

She flew hundreds of thousands of miles in a variety of airplanes, worked seven days a week, and slept on commercial flights that took her to and from assignments. She was fearless when it came to flying untested planes, flying in bad weather, and landing on runways that had no lights (11: Risk Addiction). Thirty-eight WASPs died in the course of delivering planes.

The purpose of the WASPs was to free male pilots for combat duty. At the time, they were not considered military personnel - they were civil service employees and had to pay for their own food, lodging and clothes.

By December of 1944, the Army felt that male pilots could again be used to transport aircraft and the WASPs were dissolved. Violet later said that it was one of the worst days of her life (12: Hard Times).

Rejected as a pilot for the commercial airlines because women were not accepted at the time, Violet recalled "It was a kick in the face. It was just horrible." Cowden worked briefly behind the ticket counter at TWA, said it was painful being so close to airplanes and so far from the cockpit so she quit. She later moved to California, married, and had a daughter.

Thirty-three years after the WASPs were shut down, President Carter passed a bill that made them eligible for Veterans Benefits (8: Turning No Into Yes). For decades, Violet spoke at colleges, schools and civic meetings about how women took airplanes from factories to training fields and points of debarkation. In her words "I feel the story is an inspiration to young people that if we could break down the barrier only men could fly for the military, they would have a chance to do anything they can work with people to reach a life goal."

At age 76, Violet skydived in tandem with an instructor, and at 89 she dived with the Army's Elite Parachute Team, the Golden Knights. She is survived by her daughter, two sisters and three grandchildren.

Looking forward to your comments...

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