Amelia Earhart (1897-1937): Social Worker, Women’s Advocate, World Famous American Aviation Pioneer
By Dr. Julie Miller-Cribbs and Julianne N. Mains, University of Oklahoma Tulsa Campus
Introduction: In the early 1900s, increasingly more women were obtaining their college degrees. Despite this increase, career choices for these newly educated women were quite limited. Most of these women were not accepted into the professional positions typically dominated by men. Therefore, many women, including Amelia Earhart, first chose careers in service, such as social work, teaching, and nursing.
Amelia Earhart was born on July 24, 1897, in Atchison, Kansas. She was the firstborn, with a sister—Muriel—born three years after her. Amelia’s family moved around quite a few times as Amelia grew up, including moving six times during her four years in high school. As she finished high school, Amelia’s parents chose to get a divorce. Upon graduating, she decided to leave her family and attend college at The Ognotz School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, becoming a part of the second generation of women to attend college. One semester before finishing her degree, Amelia left college to be a nurse’s aid during World War I. This began her desire to help people, which eventually led her to a career in social work.
Amelia Earhart Working at Denison House: Many people are unaware that Amelia Earhart was a social worker before she made her claim as one of the most well known female pilots in history. After working as a nurse’s aid during World War I, Earhart spent the next few years of her life in service to others. Without any previous social work experience, she was hired in 1925 as a social worker at Denison House in Boston, the second oldest settlement house in the nation. Three women—Vida Scudder, Katherine Coman, and Emily Balch—founded Denison House in 1892. Settlement houses offered a new career option for women—social work. Like many ambitious, motivated and educated women of her time, Earhart found herself immersed in the social work field.
At the time Earhart began working at Denison House, settlement houses were designed to serve immigrants and the urban poor. Yet they were also places of exciting social change, new thinking, and they provided new paths for girls and women. Earhart caught this vision and quickly became immersed in her job. She was in charge of adult education soon after coming on staff, and soon also organized other clubs for the women of the neighborhoods, such as the Syrian Mother’s Club. She enjoyed working with children and was the supervisor of the girls’ program. In this respect, she delved into another realm she enjoyed (and was actively discouraged from participation as a girl)—sports. Amelia taught the immigrant young girls how to play basketball, as well as how to fence. As she was entrusted with more programs, her influence spread outside of Denison House. She became the Denison House delegate for the Conference of the National Federations of Settlements, which took place in Boston. Even there, she was in the spotlight as one of the most promising social workers of her generation.
Amelia Earhart as a Pilot Several times, Amelia’s two passions—social work and flying—united. During a benefit for Denison House, she took an
airplane and flew over the benefit, which made headlines. She also had the notion to set up a womens flying organization and help more women become aviators. Many say Amelia would have stayed in social work, had a call not come inviting her to try a new adventure in aviation and volumes have been written documenting her career as one of the most famous female aviators of all time.
Even though she only remained at Denison House three years, she made a lasting impact on the children and families she served, the other staff members, social workers, and on social work as a profession. Her work with immigrants and the activities she established and facilitated carried on even in her absence. Remarkably, although brief, little is known about Earhart’s contribution to the field of social work despite her well documented life and her landmark achievements in aviation.
Settlement houses, obviously well known for their impressive work with poor and oppressed groups, often provided avenues for work for some of history’s remarkable women and Earhart was one of these. It is likely that this forward thinking, women-friendly environment provided the opportunities that women such as Earhart embraced.
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Miller-Cribbs, J. & Mains, J. (2011). Amelia Earhart (1897-1937): Social worker, women’s advocate, world famous American aviation pioneer. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from https://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/people/earhart-amelia/