The First Women’s Records The 1926 General Conference in Rome was the backdrop for the very first discussion within the FAI on the position of women.
The debate centred on women’s records, and Lieutenant- Colonel Mervyn O’Gorman, Vice-President of the FAI and a representative of Royal Aero- Club of the United Kingdom, spoke on behalf of a famous aviatrix, Lady Heath, who, from her home in England had asked “if it would be possible for women’s aviation to have some kind of organisation”. As access to an aero-club had been denied her, she turned to the FAI to see what it could do. Lieutenant-Colonel O’Gorman advocated the women’s cause: “You will remember that before the war one rarely saw a lady driving a motor car. But today, half of all motor cars are driven by ladies and the automobile movement is expanding rapidly. Similarly, we have rather neglected the cause of women’s aviation, and I should like to ask the assembly if it would not be a significant advantage – for publicity and for the development of the sport and aeronautical techniques – to do something to provide a basic organisation for women’s aviation. For example the aviatrix who has written to the FAI has suggested having a record capable of being established by women, that is to say a specific women’s record.”
There followed a long debate on the relevance of setting up such a category of records. Some argued that there was “no point considering that women should have separate record categories” and that they could “compete just like men to break established records”, while others thought that women were “less able than men to break records” because “their physical constitution does not allow them to reach the high levels of men’s records”. Whatever the particular circumstances, the wounding reality was that, at that time, many clubs refused to accept any record whatsoever set by a woman.
At the initiative of Prince Bibesco, the decision is made that “when a woman wishes to set any record whatsoever, the aero-club to which she applies shall not refuse her”. A pious hope, since nothing was really to change. But Lady Heath was strong-willed and was not the sort of woman to be put off. Three years later, she wrote once again to the FAI to inform them she intended to found an international association of female flyers. She was quick to point out that “the association in no respect intends to free women from the control of the FAI’s representatives; it is rather an organisation for women’s solidarity and mutual assistance for women aviators all over the world”. The result was to be the Women’s International Association of Aeronautics (WIAA), with which Lady Heath was to fight tooth and nail against all forms of chauvinism, despite a serious flying accident that same year.
The result of this missive was that the FAI immediately resumed discussion of the issue of women’s records. Were they afraid of their thunder being stolen by these independent women, as had happened in France with La Stella? Be that as it may, the FAI Sports Commission soon examined the case and very quickly proposed that “when women flyers surpass, in their class, an FAI world record, their performance shall be registered on a list of women’s records and on the global list of world records”. The proposal was approved unanimously by the General Conference. Finally recognised by the FAI, but snubbed by aviation professionals despite their great qualities, in 1930 women launch a mad-cap assault on the record books. That year, FAI bulletin No. 40 published for the first time a woman’s record in its overall list of records. It was an endurance record in an aeroplane (light single- seater category) set on July 28 1929 at Le Bourget by Madame Maryse Bastié. The record was 26 hours, 47 minutes and 30 seconds, and was set in a Caudron monoplane with a Salmson 40 hp engine. The previous year, the same Maryse Bastié had set a distance record using the same craft, but accompanied by a man, Maurice Drouhin.
The next year, three records featured under the “women’s records” heading on the official list. Maryse Bastié improved her previous record, bringing it up to 37 hours and 55 minutes, September 2-4 1930. Mademoiselle Lena Bernstein set a new straight-line distance record of 2,268 kilometres (August 19-20 1929) and American Ruth B. Alexander set an altitude record of 6,583 metres on July 11 1930. On August 8 1934, Hélène Boucher shattered the record in all categories by flying 1,000 kilometres in 2 hours, 26 minutes and 38 seconds, at an average speed of 409.184 km/h, beating Maurice Arnoux’s 404.4 km/h. For the first time, a woman had done better than a man. Hélène Boucher was to die while indulging in her passion for aviation in November the same year. In 1937, Englishwoman Jean Batten was the first woman to receive the FAI Gold Medal. Her claim to fame at that time was to have been the first woman to cross the South Atlantic (in 1935) and to fly from England to Australia in 5 days, 21 hours and 3 minutes, followed by the leg to New Zealand in nine and a half hours (again, in 1935). She was to break her own records over the same route in 1937. “This young woman, gifted with the finest of qualities, has made a great contribution, both through her daring and her patience, to the progress of aviation in the world.
This year, she is worthy of receiving the Gold Medal, very few holders of which are still alive,” declared President Bibesco when awarding Jean Batten her honour. The women’s cause was moving onwards, although women’s achievements mostly remained very far below men’s. On the FAI list of officially approved records of October 1 1938 are no fewer than 31 women’s records, not counting distance records. They relate to class C motorised aircraft, class C(ii) seaplanes, class D gliders and class G helicopters (women’s ballooning records, which for a long time were to remain the reserve of the Russians, only appeared on the official list in 1939). In addition to the French, who had always been experts in “traditional” aviation, the Russians excelled with seaplanes. Also on this list – alongside the great Hélène Boucher, the holder since 1934 of two prestigious speed records for 100 and 1,000 km – was a woman who was soon to become an aviation legend, American Jacqueline Cochran. On September 21 1937 in Detroit, she broke the closed circuit speed record with 470.365 km/h, the beginning of a string of major achievements.