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Take the Cannoli
Howard Zinn:
People's History of the U.S.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2003

Gratuitous Feminist Championship of Forgotten Heroes

So, in celebration of the centennial of flight, NPR last night and this morning was All Wright Brothers, All the Time. Which is ironic in a way, because NPR was where I first heard about Katharine Wright, sister to the Wright brothers and absolutely instrumental to their success. As is often the case with Feminist Forgotten Heroes, she's been almost entirely left out of today's hoopla, so today, I choose to reflect on her a bit. For, if the Wright brothers were a band, she'd be the bass player. If the Wright brothers were a building, she'd be the foundation. If the Wright brothers were an airplane, she'd be what helped them take off.

According to this essay, European newspapers called her the "third Wright brother" in jest, but the comment showed just how important they thought she was to their efforts. It's impossible to tell how large a role she played in the creation of their invention, but not only did she serve as de facto woman of the house while they were consumed with getting their airplane to work, but she handled publicity, became an officer in their company, and made the French love flight. (The French gave her the Legion of Honor. That's how much the French liked her.)

There are so many people like this throughout history -- the people who touched the lives of geniuses, who supported them throughout their endeavors, who made those successes possible. We make icons of great men and women, we put them on pedestals and worship at the altar of their accomplishments. But in the process of doing that, we forget that these people are human, and that we all get by with a little help from our friends.

When Orville fell to earth, Katharine left her job as a teacher to nurse him back to health. Imagine if she hadn't. How far would he have flown, the next time?

Some informative links:

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