Barrier-breaking women and the lessons learned

Allworth Co-CEO Scott Hanson shares how he stumbled upon widely forgotten - yet undeniably remarkable - parts of history.


Ever find yourself scanning the news on a computer or smartphone, when you notice something interesting, and you suddenly pivot and become immersed in a topic you weren’t even considering a moment before?

Such a pivot happened to me this week as I was reading about a milestone in history.

One hundred years ago on August 18th, 1920, Congress passed the 19th amendment, granting women the right to vote.

Incredibly, in 2020, there are still people around who remember that day.

In reading about this topic, one thing led to another, and I came across some information about the Spanish flu and Amelia Earhart. (Which I’ll get to in a moment.)

Now, first, almost everyone has heard of Earhart. As the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic, she’s well known for a host of great reasons.

All that, and, after disappearing over the Pacific on July 2nd, 1937, she’s at the center of one of the most notorious unsolved mysteries of all time.

Reading about the obstacles Earhart faced, I became curious about her female contemporaries in flight.

And that led me to the incredible history of black women in aviation.

Leaning heavily on a piece written by Demress Stockman for a blog called The Refresh, I was introduced to one Bessie Coleman, who went by the nickname, “Queen Bess.”

What’s so interesting about Coleman?

Born in 1892 (11 full years before the Wright brothers’ first flight), one of 13 children, Queen Bess became the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license.

And, almost as incredible, this all happened by coincidence, after her brother, who’d served in France during World War I, returned home in 1918 to tell Bessie that women were flying planes in Europe.

A spark of inspiration was lit that changed history.

After her applications to every flight school in the United States were rejected, Coleman took a second job managing a coffee shop so she could save money, began studying French, and soon got herself accepted to the best flight school in France.

After earning her pilot’s license, Queen Bess returned to the U.S., where she became a stunt flyer who would only perform for desegregated audiences.

Before her tragic death in a test crash in 1926, Queen Bess had opened her own flight school and become a sought-after public speaker (among other milestones).

This led me to read about Willa Brown.

In 1938, Brown became the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license inside the United States. A teacher and social worker in Chicago, she became a flyer while earning her MBA at Northwestern.

Later, Brown and her husband co-founded the Coffey School of Aeronautics, which was the first black-owned flight academy in the country. She’s credited with training hundreds of men and women to fly, with many of her male students going on to become the Tuskegee Airmen who fought so valiantly in World War II.

Some of Brown’s other notable achievements include her earning a mechanic’s license (she was the first woman to hold both a pilot’s license and a mechanic’s license) and becoming the first black woman in American history to run for Congress, which she did in 1946.

Brown died at the age of 86 in 1992.

Reading about Willa Brown brought me to Janet Harmon Waterford Bragg.

Bragg, who was trained as a nurse, was the first black woman in our nation’s history to earn a commercial pilot’s license. Passionate about all things flying, her list of accomplishments include writing an aviation column for the ground-breaking Chicago Defender, an African American newspaper founded in 1905 (still around today), and, because black pilots weren’t allowed to use white airports, in 1931, she helped build an airfield in the all-black town of Robbins, Illinois.

Coincidentally, how did Bragg become inspired to become a pilot?

She noticed a billboard along a highway that said: “Birds do it, and so can you. Learn to fly.”

Pioneers like these were the inspiration for the likes of Mae C. Jemison, a crewmember on the space shuttle Endeavor, who, on September 12th, 1992, became the first African American woman in space. (She and her crewmates orbited Earth 126 times.)

After a mere five minutes reading about Jemison, I came to realize that there is virtually nothing she couldn’t do.

Jemison left home at the age of 16 to study at Stanford, where, as a senior, she had to choose between going to medical school or pursuing a career in dance. She eventually graduated from medical school, served a stint in the Peace Corps in Liberia, worked for the Center for Disease Control researching vaccines, and then, in 1985, applied and was accepted to NASA’s astronaut training program.

In the years since leaving NASA, Jemison has written books, lectured, practiced medicine and advised presidents. She even made a guest appearance on her favorite television program: Star Trek: The Next Generation.

All that, and in 2017, LEGO created a special action figure to honor her.

Finally, in July of this year, Lieutenant Madeline Swegle of Virginia became the first black female tactile fighter jet pilot in United States’ Naval history.

Due to all the skill, talent and qualifications you need to possess to fly such advanced machinery, becoming a fighter pilot is one of the most difficult things a person can do. Not only must you be in optimum health, you have to be a certain height, you can’t have everyday maladies like asthma or hay fever, you have to have perfect spatial perception, and you have to be adept at physics, algebra, calculus, geography, and nautical aviation, just to name a few of the advanced fields of study you’re required to know.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, a recession, and myriad social issues front and center on most peoples’ minds, I find it affirming to read stories about people who overcame whatever was in their way to achieve their dreams.

It’s not easy, of course. And everyone has a unique path that can’t be precisely duplicated by another.

For me, the lessons learned from these incredible women are multi-tiered and lasting: First, they refused to let other people dictate what they could and could not be. Second, they remained open to learning and new opportunities. And, third, they showed that when it comes to the vision we have for ourselves, it’s the day-by-day march forward that gets us to where we want to be.

This of course can be applied to our goals related to money, savings and retirement.

So, what initially led me to pivot from reading about the news of the day to reading about women of color and aviation? I suppose it was an oddly contemporary detail in the mention of Amelia Earhart.

In 1917, unsure of what she wanted to do, a teenage Earhart was living in her home state of Kansas. In a time two full years before white women were legally allowed to vote, she went to visit her younger sister in Toronto, and soon began working as a nurse’s aide for servicemen returning from World War I.

There, she not only spent two years tending to soldiers afflicted with the Spanish flu, she herself was infected, contracted pneumonia, and nearly died.

On the mend, one afternoon, Earhart felt strong enough to venture out and around Toronto.

By chance, she ended up attending her first air show.

A mere four years later, Earhart set her first world record when she piloted her plane to an elevation of 14,000 feet.