Women with wings: Inside the International Women’s Air & Space Museum

The annual Cleveland Air Show reminds us of the rich aviation-related history in our city and the state of Ohio. Locals have heard of the Cleveland Air Races, seen historical aircraft at the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum, and driven past or flown over the famous hangar at NASA’s Glenn Research Center near Cleveland Hopkins Airport. 

Marge Hurlburt and the Lucky Gallon aircraft, which was flown in the 1946 Cleveland National Air RacesYet some Clevelanders may not be aware of the significant role of women in aviation history—and the museum at Burke Lakefront Airport that celebrates them. The International Women’s Air & Space Museum (IWASM) highlights more than 20,000 interesting artifacts and stories about 6,000+ women aviators from all over the world, as well as right here in our own backyard.

Celebrating its 45th anniversary this year, IWASM has been located in the concourse of Burke Lakefront Airport for the past 23 years, after outgrowing its original location at the Asahel Wright house in Centerville, Ohio. And it’s only going up from here: Executive Director Sara Fisher and her team recently completed their five-year strategic plan, which includes improving the cataloging of items in the collection, updating some older displays, and developing more interactive and virtual programming.

As the museum looks to its future, let's revisit fascinating facts about the IWASM:

1. 13 women qualified for the Mercury space program.
Wally Funk, who recently became the oldest woman to fly into space on the Blue Origin spacecraft, was one of the “Mercury 13” women. The museum features an exhibit about this notable group of women, who passed the same physical examinations as the male candidates in NASA's astronaut selection process in 1961 but were excluded from the space program.

Two other members of this famous group included Bernice "B" Steadman (a founding member and long-serving president of the IWASM) and Jean Hixson (an Akron-based teacher who became the second woman to break the sound barrier and did so over Lake Erie).

2. The Wright brothers had a manager - their sister.
Katharine Wright was a teacher, suffragist, and advocate for her older brothers, Orville and Wilbur. Katharine played a significant role in the family business from 1908-1915, assisting with her brothers’ research and speaking on their behalf at events around the world. Her display at the museum includes both official and family photographs, documents, and a dress that she wore when the Wright family visited President Taft in 1909.

3. Bessie Coleman broke barriers with fearless determination.
Bessie Coleman, aka “Brave Bessie,” became the first African American woman to earn her pilot’s license in 1921. Rejected repeatedly by U.S. flight schools because of her race and gender, Bessie ultimately traveled to France to earn her wings. Her exhibit tells the story of her career and how she paved the way for other women of color to pursue aviation and aerospace vocations.

Bessie Coleman exhibit4. Many women in Cleveland have had a connection to aviation. 
You can listen to their stories in the oral histories collection on the IWASM website. These interviews were recorded for the museum by Cleveland State University. Among those featured are Thelma Miller, who served as one of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP); Marianne Dyson, who worked in Mission Control at NASA; and Ruth Reep, who rebuilt her own aircraft and flew to work as a secretary in downtown Cleveland.
5. Clevelanders can continue learning about women in aviation with the IWASM’s virtual book discussions and in-person events.
An Americorps-created virtual exhibit on the museum’s website provides a profile of dozens of different women who are showcased in the museum. In addition, the museum regularly hosts virtual book discussions moderated by IWASM trustees. The quarterly in-person event, “Dinner with a Slice of History” series, features speakers on a variety of women-focused aviation topics.
The IWASM museum is open for self-guided tours seven days a week, except on major holidays and during Cleveland Browns games. The museum office, gift shop, and Fay Gillis Wells Research Center are open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. - 4 p.m.

This article was contributed as part of the "Now That's Fresh" series in partnership with Literary Cleveland. This six-week class helps emerging journalists learn about the reporting process and get published for the first time.

Read more articles by Kelly Quinn Sands.

Kelly Quinn Sands is a freelance writer, digital content professional, lifelong Cleveland resident, and Cleveland State University alumna. When she’s not busy behind her keyboard, you will often find her behind her guitar writing songs or outside tending to her garden.