The 7-foot-tall bronze likeness of the famed Kansas-born aviator, in a flight jacket with flying cap and goggles in hand, represents only the 11th woman in Statuary Hall. (Ten are among the 100 chosen by the 50 states; a statue of Rosa Parks in the hall was commissioned by Congress and does not represent a particular state.) It only hints at Earhart’s various roles: adventurer, wife, nurse, truck driver, fashion designer, social worker, political advocate, writer, lecturer and professor.
“When I look at her, I see inspiration,” said Karen Seaberg, president of the Atchison Amelia Earhart Foundation, which paid for the sculpture and plans to open a museum dedicated to Earhart in the aviator’s hometown of Atchison, Kan. “She stands out as a female icon who stood up for women’s rights and lived in a man’s world and did what women weren’t supposed to do from the time she was a little girl.”
Wednesday’s live-streamed unveiling occurred two months after the nation marked 90 years since Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, and it offered a vivid snapshot of some of the progress made possible by Earhart and other female pioneers in the fight for equality.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) presided over the ceremony, which featured several other women in roles that might have shocked Earhart’s contemporaries, including Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly (D), Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.) and uniformed members of the Kansas Air National Guard’s color guard.
Yet, her great-nephew noted, women’s representation in Congress — either in Statuary Hall or in its legislative chambers — still has far to go to achieve the equality Earhart fought for. Earhart, who wasn’t shy about her thirst for adventure and fame, lobbied President Herbert Hoover for an Equal Rights Amendment that has yet to be ratified.
“If people know of her at all, people know she flew airplanes and she disappeared, and all of the really important work that she did on gender equity is not something people are aware of,” said the great-nephew, Bram Kleppner, 56, who grew up in Silver Spring and lives in Vermont. “And I think the real opportunity is to bring that part of her work and her legacy to a broader group of people. Hopefully, the statue in the Capitol will lead some people to explore that.”
Earhart has been on a long glide path to the Capitol for more than two decades. The Kansas legislature voted in 1999 to replace its two statues in the hall with ones representing her and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. It took no time to raise the funds for Ike, whose statue was installed in 2003, but longer for Earhart.
The Atchison Amelia Earhart Foundation paid for Earhart’s statue, which rests on a three-foot pedestal of Kansas limestone and altogether weighs 1,500 pounds.
Seaberg, who launched the foundation, said the sculpture by Mark and George Lundeen cost $175,000. (A replica, which cost $100,000, was commissioned for the museum, whose construction and funding have also been undertaken by the foundation.)
Earhart’s statue replaced a 12,000-pound marble likeness of former Kansas senator John J. Ingalls, which will be hauled back to his home state on the foundation’s dime, too.
In July 1937, Earhart took off in her Lockheed Electra from New Guinea, heading for tiny Howland Island on perhaps the most difficult leg of what would have been the first around-the-world flight piloted by a woman. Instead, she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, vanished.
Her disappearance has inspired countless theories, ranging from the fanciful to the forensic.
In 1970, a book claimed that Earhart had not only survived the plane crash and Japanese capture but was later rescued by the U.S. military and repatriated to the United States, where she was living as a New Jersey housewife under the assumed name Irene Bolam. (The book was discredited and pulled from the market not long after the actual Bolam appeared and sued, which didn’t stop others from advancing the theory.)
In 2018, a study based on analysis of remains found in 1940 on the uninhabited atoll of Nikumaroro claimed to settle the matter, only to be disputed less than a week later by the appearance of a photograph from the National Archives purporting to show that Earhart and Noonan had been captured by Japanese forces.
To Kleppner and Seaberg, the simplest explanation is also the likeliest: her plane went off course, ran out of gas and plunged into the vast Pacific.
“Those people have all this stuff they found on the island, and they’re 95 percent sure,” Kleppner said. “And others are equally certain that the Japanese captured [her] and she died on Saipan either of cholera or having been executed as a spy, also 95 percent sure. No one’s 100 percent sure. But despite all the things these people have collected, there’s really not a single scrap of evidence. There’s not a single bit of the airplane. There’s not a single bit of human remains. There’s nothing.”