Amelia Earhart–the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean–was in no hurry to marry, despite the pressures of the time, especially if there was any chance that becoming a wife would interfere with her flying.
After breaking off a long-time engagement to someone else in his late 20s, Earhart did not marry publisher and promoter George P. Putnam until she was the then relatively ancient age of 33–and only after the poor (and persistent) guy proposed to her six times.
“I am still unsold on marriage,” she wrote to a friend during their courtship. “I may never be able to see [it] except as a cage until I am unfit to work or fly or be active.”
Even after she agreed, Earhart called the wedding off at least once. She never did say yes to the dress–nor flowers, guests, or music–for the five-minute civil ceremony in Putnam’s hometown of Noank, Connecticut on February 7, 1931. Like the aviation pioneer, her marriage was also way ahead of its time, from beginning to end:
1. She demanded to be treated equally.
Probate Judge Arthur Anderson administered the vows without the word “obey” in them at Earhart’s request, and she firmly informed him she would not be taking Putnam’s name.
“That marriage was short but effective,” the judge reportedly replied, before turning and taking his leave.
2. She asked her fiance to sign a prenup.
Earhart also presented Putnam with a prenuptial agreement. On their wedding day, she gave a typed letter to her beloved that was anything but romantic.
“There are some things which should be writ before we are married–things we have talked over before–most of them,” she wrote.
3. She suggested an open marriage.
She proceeded to outline her conditions: There would be no “medieval code of faithfulness” to bind either of them; Earhart wanted an open marriage – a request that might make even the most modern of 2019 bride blush.
“If we can be honest I think the difficulties which arise may be avoided should you or I become interested deeply (or in passing) in anyone else,” she wrote.
Earhart didn’t just want emotional space. She required physical space as well, “to be myself, now and then, for I cannot guarantee to endure at all times the confinement of even an attractive cage.”
4. She requested an exit strategy.
Finally, in her apparent begrudging agreement to marry Putnam and give him “that part of me you know and seem to want,” Earhart demanded one last “cruel promise.”
“You will let me go in a year if we find no happiness together,” she asserted.
Apparently, Earhart and Putnam did find that happiness, because they stayed together, and he didn’t seem fazed by her requests. Earhart’s letter was “brutal in its frankness,” he would write later, “but beautiful in its honesty.”
5. She made her career a top priority.
A year later, she made her famous flight across the Atlantic, and she went on not to settle down and have babies, but to set records for altitude and to be the first person to fly solo across the Pacific from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Oakland, California.
Earhart disappeared with her navigator, Fred Noonan, somewhere over the Pacific Ocean on July 2,1937 during her second attempt to be the first woman to fly around the world solo. She was 39 years old. After he personally funded an extensive search for the two, Putnam finally requested she be legally declared dead in 1939.
When writer and presidential historian Michael Beschloss posted the text of Earhart’s “highly unsentimental prenuptial letter” on his Twitter feed a few years ago, his followers were split over why Earhart would be so averse to the traditional conventions of marriage. Some believed she was struggling with her sexuality. Others took her words at face value and thought she was just ahead of her time.
“That’s stunningly frank and quite modern in its message,” wrote Twitter user Richard Lionheart. “If only couples could be so honest today, there’d be a lot less heartbreak.”
“I find the letter touching,” wrote Twitter user Odette Roulette. “She’s trying to hold onto her independence as a separate human in a time when marriage consumed women’s rights.”
In the end, Earhart and Putnam seemed a good match for each other. Though she prioritized her work and her passion for flying above everything else, by her own admission, that same passion might have allowed her to appreciate Putnam and their relationship even more.
“The more one does and sees and feels, the more one is able to do, and the more genuine may be one’s appreciation of fundamental things like home, and love, and understanding companionship,” Earhart said.