When flight 1380 from New York made an emergency landing at Philadelphia International Airport on 17 April 2018, instincts took over for the seasoned captain and she executed all of her emergency procedures as practiced and memorized. She was the Captain of the flight, and even though it was a last minute switch she had made with her husband to fly that fateful flight that day, she had been promoted to captain years earlier based on her skills, training, and seniority.
Nine years earlier, a pilot with a much similar background was faced with just as challenging of a situation as Tammie Jo Shults- and his name has become near cult classic- Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger. The similarities of their airline emergency landing situations outweigh their differences – Sully lost both engines on takeoff and was forced to land in the Hudson River, a herculean effort indeed. And Shults’ flight experienced a one in a million anomalies when an engine threw a fan blade midflight- damaging the fuselage and sucking a passenger out of the plane. When catastrophe hit for both pilots, however, their training kicked in and they landed their airplanes safely.
Milieux watched the nation and news cover the story of Tammie Jo Shults with great interest. Of course, we were proud- we knew the courage and tenacity it took to handle that emergency- but we also know implicitly that any pilot with her training would have done the same. We received all the emails, the Facebook shares, and the phone calls about Shults: “Look! I woman just landed the Southwest flight!”, “She was one of the first women fighter pilots!!”, “They said she was calm and cool and a hero” and so on. Our friends, with the best of intentions, wanted us to champion the feminist narrative that was right in front of us: That a woman can do a man’s job, too. But we already know thousands of women flying heroically every day so why make the same big deal of the fact she is a woman- she is a hero like Sully! So we chose not to highlight her gender and instead decided to wait the media out- to analyze her story after the immediate media blitz to see how she was treated comparatively.
But Milieux asks instead- why doesn’t Capt Shults get the same treatment as Capt Sullenberger?
You see, after his heroic Hudson River landing, Chelsey “Sully” Sullenberger became an instant star and expert. He was nationally recognized as an expert on aviation safety, a frontline advocate for flight safety training, touring the United States and becoming a consultant to businesses on flight safety and how to follow his model of safety training. He was touted as “The last great aviator”. He has been publicly recognized and awarded for his valor by the President, Congress, and his hometown. Sully maximized the fame from his talents and we all expected him to. He was a man, of instant credibility, unquestionably above the rest of us mere mortals because of his actions. Just look at the New Yorker’s assessment of him – We don’t make pilots like him anymore. So why is Tammie Jo not given the same fame?
Yes, Tammie Jo Shults was instantly recognized as a heroine above all of the rest of us because of her actions that fateful day in April. But she was not given the instant credibility granted to Sully, however, and I would argue she wasn’t given it because she was a woman. The Navy actually even had to publically confirm Shults’ service as well as her accolades (something that did not have to be done for Sully):
The Navy has confirmed that Tammie Jo Shults, a Southwest pilot who successfully made an emergency landing after her aircraft suffered a massive engine failure and depressurized, was a pioneer for the Navy as one of the first female fighter pilots for the service.
Its as if they thought she lied or exaggerated the truth of her past. It sends a message that she must “prove” that she deserves our respect. She didn’t get the same level of congressional recognition or her hometown as Sully did- Rep McSally from Arizona was able to champion a resolution through the House of Representatives, but nothing similar was done in the Senate as it was for Sully. No pictures were taken of her in her cockpit, or of her alone in her uniform. After her initial fame, Tammie Jo Shults has slowly dissolved back into the buzz of our day to day busy-ness, she might be working on a book or movie deal, but nothing will be given to her on the level that Sully received.
So Milieux asks- why doesn’t Capt Shults get the same treatment as Capt Sullenberger? Maybe Shults is a private person and is worried she will be received differently. Maybe she shares Milieux ideals- that anyone in her place would have done the same thing. Maybe she has other things going on in her life that preclude her from becoming a nationally recognized authority on emergency procedures involving rapid cabin depressurization and catastrophic engine failure. Whatever the reason for her story’s slow wane from current events, it is sort of a tragedy. Its a tragedy because her story will be lost and we will forget about her. She will be conveniently dismissed when the next woman does something heroic just so we can be shocked again that a woman is a hero- supporting the victim-of-inequality platform of feminism that forces all women to reprove they belong in places they have occupied for decades.
The differences in gender roles are insidious but they are significant. Most people don’t even realize we begin assigning gender roles before birth- as soon as we know the gender of our unborn children. I used to play with this gender bias when I was pregnant with my son. I loved to say “and maybe they will let him be a pilot” when people inquired about the gender of my growing belly under my flight suit, I used the word “let” to point out the subtle differences in language I heard from others before the gender reveal- as if anyone could keep a boy from flying like we keep girls from flying. The shock and confusion reaction I received from people was sincere- I’d then have to explain why I framed my response the way I did. These assumptions are so ingrained in our culture that we don’t even realize we do it.
Why we make assumptions about our children’s behavior, abilities and futures based solely on gender are mysterious. Why do we keep some options inevitably available to half of our children while the other half is forced to “prove” they can do something? Why do we expect boys to lead from birth and girls to obey? Why do we look for things that show boys as more assertive and aggressive from birth but don’t from girls? Here are 1000s of examples of women leading, being aggressive and assertive and heroic that have been chronicled by someone who cares. Is it making a difference? We hope so. The pressure on our young girls to perform is unrealistic and unfair and it doesn’t serve us to forget women like Tammie Jo Shults or any of these other women. Its on us to rethink our biases. #bethechange
Do you feel the same? Please comment below. Thank you for reading!