Both the inherent significance of being an American and my perception of what it means to be an American have changed dramatically for me as I’ve grown older. I was born in 1946. As a child, I completely bought into the ideal of the American Dream, as did most Americans. My siblings and I were told that anything was possible in this country, that nothing would be outside of our grasp if only we worked hard enough. Unfortunately, when I entered the adult world, I discovered that this wasn’t really true—not for me at any rate, or any of the women or people of color I knew. Even with a college degree, the only positions open to me were as a secretary or receptionist. Raised on the notion of equal opportunity, this reality left me disillusioned and angry.
However, in 1975, I became the 10th female airline pilot hired in the United States. At first glance, this seems a perfect example of the American Dream in action, but the reality was a lot more complicated than that. My path to the cockpit was significantly more difficult than it would have been if I’d been a man. Even as I was obtaining my pilot ratings and qualifications and accruing flight time, I had no reason to believe there would be a future for me in aviation. Every day, I struggled with the idea that I was wasting my time by attempting to break into an industry that had no place for me.
But here comes the silver lining: when all was said and done, the United States was still on the leading edge when it came to opening up careers in aviation to women and people of color. The first black pilot was hired in 1965, and the first female pilot was hired eight years after that. To put this in context, Singapore Airlines recently announced it would be hiring its first female pilots this year. Though it is far from perfect, America has been more open to change and new ideas than any other place in the world.
When I was asked to answer the question, “What does being an American mean to you?” my first thought was that I wouldn’t be able to participate, as my views do not coincide with the rosy picture typically painted by those speaking of the American Dream. But in the end, I realize my experience of being an American, however complicated and even exasperating as it may have been at times, is probably representative of many Americans’ experience. Our country is not a perfect one—far from it—but it is a country that is constantly striving to become closer to perfect. After all, it was an American who said, “The arc of history is long…but it bends towards justice.”