As my flight taxied toward takeoff at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, the Captain announced over the loudspeaker that we’d gotten lucky and had been cleared to go sooner than expected after a weather delay. For a nervous flier like me, it was reassuring to hear that conditions in Boston weren’t bad. It was just that when heavy storms were forecast for the East Coast, Air Traffic Control closely monitored flights to all destinations in the region.
The voice, too, was comforting, with just the right mix of self-confidence and authority. In a conversational, upbeat tone, it promised a “straight shot,” a two-hour flight, and a smooth landing.
And, it was a woman’s.
I snickered to myself, wondering how my father, an airplane mechanic during WWII, would have reacted to a female pilot. I picked up my knitting and started to think about this mini-nation in the air with a population of 200 or so, whose age and ethnic mix closely resembled that of the U.S as a whole, now ruled by someone named Captain Susan.
Waiting to board I’d watched families with young children disassembling strollers, middle-aged business travelers working on laptops, college students stashing food in backpacks, and senior couples like my husband and me checking the departure board every five minutes. I’d chatted with a Hispanic entrepreneur and an Asian engineer, and had nodded to a couple of Muslim women sitting across from me in gate F35’s waiting area. And now here we all were, under the absolute power of a woman.
All of which made me think about the 2016 Presidential election. For the first time in history, a woman is running for the highest office in the land. Or as some would say, a man will be defending the king-of-the-hill tradition that has been around since George Washington from a revolutionary challenge.
Unlike the Battle of the Sexes between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs back in 1973, where Bobby entered the Houston Astrodome in a rickshaw pulled by bikinied models and Billie Jean arrived like Cleopatra, in a chair carried aloft by bare-chested Chippendale dancers dressed as Roman slaves, this one isn’t going to be light entertainment.
That’s how it looked to me then as a mother of four children under six living in a small town in Connecticut. Like many in my generation, I was oblivious to the importance of this highly publicized competition, broadcast to 90 million people. Just three months before, the Title IX Amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965, which prohibited discrimination against female athletes, had passed, and the match was a milestone for young women fighting for equal opportunities and recognition on the playing field. It proved that a woman could compete on a professional level against a man and win.
But it did not overcome fixed notions that a woman lacks the skills, savvy, strength and stamina to deal with the perilous issues in our country and its place in the world. And my conversation with Captain Susan, the pilot of my flight, confirmed my belief that we had better brace ourselves for a real slugfest of an election.
She was standing near the door when I stepped out of the plane (my favorite part of the flight). I gave her a wholehearted smile, which she returned, and then I heard the man behind me ask her, “How many women pilots are there?”
I didn’t hear the answer, but later, chatting with her in the Ground Transportation area as we waited for the same Plymouth-Brockton Bus, I said that the man should have asked, “How many women would you like to be pilots of the 9,000 Boeing 737s that routinely take passengers from point A to point B?” She observed that questions of that nature usually come from older men who still doubt the competence of women who have broken the sound barrier, leaped all the hurdles to become commercial pilots, and turned the coffee-tea-or-milk stereotypes upside down by moving from serving beverages in the cabin to sitting at the controls in the cockpit.
She told me about a flight with a co-pilot who was also female. Afterward, a male passenger came up to both of them and asked (in what I imagined was an LBJ Texas drawl), “Were you two little ladies up there all alone?” He seemed to imply that without a man they could have gotten in over their “pretty little heads.”
But here’s the best part of the story. The co-pilot had just the right response. “Yes,” she said. “We were all on our own.”
“And we can vote, too!” she added.