Manitoba History: Review: Shirley Render, No Place for a Lady: The Story of Canadian Women Pilots, 1928-1992
by K. Street
In discussing approaches to the history of women, Joan Burstyn argued that “(t)heoretical analyses are most useful when they are used in conjunction with strong narrative skills, because unless readers have in mind some knowledge of the story involved, they will be unable to grasp the significance of any theory to the particular events of the time.”  With No Place for a Lady: The Story of Canadian Women Pilots, Shirley Render has gone a long way towards fulfilling the first part of Burstyn’s mandate. Render documents the history of Canadian women pilots from 1928, the year the first woman in Canada received her pilot’s licence, to 1992. The author’s narrative skill takes the reader on an historical flight that includes stopovers in all areas of Canada. Along the way, we are introduced to the pioneering women who “opened the cockpit door.” The foundation of No Place for a Lady rests solidly on extensive interviews Render conducted with the ladies themselves. Biographies of many of the pilots shared not only their memories with the author but their memorabilia as well. The photographs from these collections are included, and like the biographies, enrich the text immeasurably. The result is a fascinating, entertaining and sometimes poignant narrative.
The strength of this book is found in the story. The reader becomes familiar with pioneers such as the Flying Seven (64-65), and Rolle Moore Barrett Pierce who was Canada’s first woman acrobatic pilot (39). As important as the story is, it is incomplete without some sort of theoretical analysis. Admittedly, Render does offer some commentary alongside the narrative, but it lacks a certain rigour that would have improved the book significantly. The deficiency is surprising given that the author has the evidence necessary to not only illuminate but to analyze women”s experience as pilots. Perhaps this is an unfair criticism, as Render states at the outset that her goal is to tell the inside story of women pilots. Regardless, the fundamental weakness of No Place for a Lady is that it fails to analyze the story it presents.
Many historians of women have turned to the use of gender as an analytical tool to explain women’s experience more fully. Those historians examining issues of women in the workforce and women in the military have found gender an important tool.  No Place for a Lady could have been significantly improved by following their lead. In the preface, Render identifies two themes which the reader will find throughout the narrative: harassment and discrimination, and the psychology of “the type of woman who became a pilot” (xi-xii). By employing gender as an analytical framework, both of these themes could have been developed more clearly to increase our understanding of women’s experience as pilots in Canada.
Although she admits that it is a theme throughout the book, Render writes that she “had no desire to write a book that moaned about discrimination.” The stories of the pilots recounted in the text are replete with examples of harassment and discrimination both subtle and striking. But she only gives voice, a muted one, to examples of discrimination. In doing so she overlooks, if not obscures, several important themes. What is the nature of the discrimination or harassment? What strategies do the women employ to overcome it and most significantly, why do the pilots themselves still steadfastly minimize the issue? That women were required of men for a four-engine check-out (85) can be interpreted as a reaction to a clear challenge to existing gender roles, as was Helen Harrison’s experience with BC Airlines. Harrison could train their pilots but could not be hired herself (137). It is necessary to do more than simply state that women, like Helen Harrison, were hired to demonstrate planes because companies were “fully aware of the publicity value of a good-looking woman” (135). Some women, such as Marjorie Chauvin, emphasized their sex, playing into men’s expectations of gender in order to get enough flying time or jobs in airports (56). These women challenged societal norms regarding masculinity and at the same time accepted or embraced a construction of femininity that would deny them what they most wantto fly. Render, to a certain extent, is complicit in this and participates in a subtle form of discrimination herself by commenting on the female pilots’ appearance (59,155). Render does, to her credit, discuss the importance of male sponsorship (158-160). Unfortunately, she does not examine it as an instance of retrenching gender boundaries. Focusing on women as opposed to gender relations can also explain Render’s problematic belief that women’s participation in the Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) and Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) challenged male exclusivity in military flying. Quite the contrary. As women flew in the ATA and WASP, military flying was redefined to maintain existing gender construction. That is to say, the women remained excluded from combat flying and as a result, maintained male exclusivity. Discrimination against women pilots persists in the Canadian military today. The fighter pilots who still react with hostility are simply attempting to salvage traditional gender roles. It is the protection of the final vestige of militarized masculinity that makes the fighter cockpit such a difficult door for women to open.
It is these interviews that are the strength of the book. Through a combination of effort and publicity, Shirley Render was able to trace and interview some 370 individuals. Included among the interviews were pilots, friends or family members of pilots, owners, military officials and other commentators. That in itself makes No Place for a Lady an important work. Where Render falls short is in critiquing her sources. All oral historians are aware of the problems related to working with memories. While Render certainly allows the women to tell their story, she rarely contextualizes or interprets the recollections. For instance, nowhere does she acknowledge that the women who responded to the national publicity efforts most likely would have been women who had largely positive experiences. The book has few references to women who did not push on in the fact of adversity, who gave up their dreams. Similarly, for women actively serving in the Armed Forces, negative comments about their training or service would not be acceptable to their superiors or peers. Where are the stories of the women who failed aircrew training, or who never made it in because of discriminatory practices, or who simply gave up because of the level of harassment that they were subjected to? These stories are as important as those contained in the book. It is possible that Render was too entranced and intrigued by her subjects.
Despite these weaknesses, No Place for a Lady remains an important work. Clearly, recounting the story of women pilots is an important addition to the history of aviation in Canada, but, as important as it is to tell the stories of women and include them in history, we must do more. Render has provided the reader with an often thoughtful discussion about the obstacles facing women wanting to fly. In doing so, she has opened a topic which other historians must pursue. That these women were able to overcome substantial obstacles is a tribute to their spirit and desire. Shirley Render has completed an important first step in women’s aviation history.
2. See for example, Cynthia Enloe, Does Khaki Become You: The Militarization of Women’s Lives (London: Pandora Press, 1988; originally published in 1983); Ruth Roach Pierson, “They’re Still Women After All:” The Second World War and Canadian Womanhood (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986) and, Miriam Cooke and Angela Woollacott, eds., Gendering War Talk (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993).
Page revised: 11 April 2010Back to top of page