VFA sadly reports news of the death of Winnie Wackwitz in Plano, Texas. One of the early Dallas activists Winnie died quietly, according to her daughter, Dina. She was 89 years old and led a very active life until two or three years ago.
While VFA mourns her death, we celebrate her fantastic life . Fighting "the problem that had no name" according to Betty Friedan, Winnie not only built and flew her own airplane all over the country, but she became one of the first feminist activists in the Dallas area. Her bio tells the fabulous story of her life.
Feminist of the Month, March 2010
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since I was born almost 85 years ago in Grosse Tete, Louisiana, a small town in the bayou country. My mother seemed happy in her typical housewife role of cooking, cleaning and keeping my two older sisters and me in line, but I sensed a resentment in her. Maybe it was the scowl on her face whenever she observed my father raising me as the son he never had. I didn’t mind. I learned survival skills from him that have served me well all my life. I grew up believing I could do anything—not just things considered proper for females.
My father took me to an air show in Baton Rouge when I was five years old. The large, beautiful birds that roared over our house had always fascinated me, and now I could actually touch those wonderful creations. I knew then that I would fly someday.
My only childhood playmates were three male cousins. We would roam the bayous in a pirogue, rehashing tales of a mysterious monster that supposedly lived in the bayous and attacked invisibly beneath the surface of the murky water. This monster would shred fishing nets and gobble up the catch of the local fishermen. I used that adventure as my story line in a children’s book I wrote, The Creature of the Lost Bayou.
Having been raised as my father’s son, when I reached high school I became keenly aware of the educational advantages given to the boys in my classes, who were steered toward careers such as engineering, chemistry and medicine. They always got extra help in math and science if needed, while we poor girls had to fend for ourselves. We were expected to choose between home economics and stenography for our careers. In spite of the feminist movement, things hadn’t changed much in some areas. In the late 1970s, my daughter needed tutoring in math. I asked her teacher, who happened to be a man, for help. “She’s a girl and doesn’t need to learn math,” he said. My husband agreed. “She’ll find a man to support her.”
I longed to go to college to study art and industrial design, but my father didn’t place much importance on education for girls. Besides, he simply couldn’t afford to send me. My sisters went to business school, but that wasn’t for me. I found out that Boeing Aircraft was recruiting men and women to build B17s and B29 bombers in Seattle, and that was exciting, never mind getting paid for it. Finally, I could explore the world while pursuing my dream of one day flying an airplane. This child of the Great Depression would have the money she needed to turn this dream into a reality.
B-17 Flying Fortress
Thirty-five hours of logged flight training were required before I could join the Women’s Air Force Pilot Training program -- I had heard about on the radio. By the time I logged the required training time at my own expense, atom bombs were dropped on Japan and WASP was disbanded. I got my private pilot’s license, however, then my commercial license, and added a Flight Instructor’s rating in the years that followed. As GI’s returned from the war, they enrolled in colleges in droves. I took a job as Flight Instructor at Louisiana State University, which helped pay my way through college. Soon I, a 23-year-old freshwoman, was teaching battle-hardened ex-GI’s to fly airplanes!
Wasp Flight Crew
Wartime society had become used to women doing all kinds of work once considered impossible for females. The veterans saw nothing unusual about a female flight instructor. My proudest accomplishment was taking over two problem students from a male instructor, soloing them and giving them their cross-country training.
Jobs became scarce for women in 1952, the year I graduated college. I worked as a camp counselor in upstate New York and afterward on the assembly line at Emerson Electronics in New York City. Managing to save enough to travel a little, I joined a college friend who was returning to her home in Brazil and boarded a small Norwegian freighter in the Port of New Orleans that was bound for Rio de Janeiro. It took 18 days to get to Rio, but the cute Norwegian sailors helped to pass the time.
My friend, Luba, and I got jobs working for the Brazilian Air Force, she as a chemist and I as a draftsperson. My main assignment consisted of drawing three-dimensional pictures from blueprints of a converter plane being developed for the purpose of opening up the interior of Brazil. These drawings are now in the Brazilian Air Force Museum.
Luba and I met our Dutch husbands in Brazil. In 1956 my husband and I returned to Baton Rouge where I supported him and our son while he studied engineering. After he graduated from LSU he worked for Texas Instruments in Plano, Texas, where our daughter was born in 1961. Now I was a full time suburban homemaker, wife and mother of two. My husband made it clear that he wanted a “stay at home wife,” which was fine with me. I imagined unconventional projects where I could use my talents at carpentry to keep me interested. Was I ever naive! My husband considered that sort of work unsuitable for a mother and homemaker. Perhaps that explains why the first stirrings of rage against the patriarchal world entered my consciousness.
I had never heard the term “feminist,” let alone knew what it meant. I was ironing when I heard the news about a new organization in Dallas called Women for Change. As I ironed and folded my 2,560th starched white shirt for my husband and planned my 3,160th evening meal—numbers based on ten years as a housewife—I wondered if there was anything I could do to alleviate my situation. And then one day my husband told me that every day was a holiday for me, that I was getting a “free ride through life.” I didn’t walk, but ran to the first meeting of Women for Change. Hundreds of women just like me were in the audience. It felt good to know that I was not alone.
This problem without a name was a taboo subject until Betty Friedan burst upon the scene with her earth-shaking The Feminine Mystique. As that book took off, so did a rush of others aimed to keeping women in their homes. Fascinating Womanhood, published by the Mormon Church, was designed as a course to teach women to use feminine wiles and make themselves sexually exciting to entice their husbands to grant their wishes. The classes were taught in public school facilities. Nothing I knew of was produced by anyone in the feminist movement to counteract these sexist books, so I decided to. I researched the influence of religious teachings and its oppressive effects upon secular laws affecting women. Using the same Mormon teaching methods to educate women about feminism—and to work out my own frustrations—I compiled and published a counter course entitled Fantastic Womanhood. The course was offered primarily to women’s social and church groups.
By this time the Plano NOW chapter I had helped organize was involved in many issues, such as working on ratification of the ERA in Texas. We also campaigned to get radio and TV networks, which considered female voices “too high pitched,” to hire female announcers. Perhaps our greatest contribution was helping organize the critiquing of 400 textbooks and testifying before the state Textbook Commission. Changes were made in textbooks that improved the status of females as a result of our findings.
With the realization that more work was necessary if women expected real changes in their lives, in 1970 I collaborated with a friend in the production of a small newspaper, The Feminist Echo, which gave the news and activities of the Women’s Movement in the Dallas area. Our newspaper also reviewed feminist books .
Winnie and Daughter Dina
I found out that there was a Texas law requiring husbands to support their wives, but district attorneys never enforced it. To secure my future I filed for divorce. The law at the time required wives to be married to their husbands 25 years before qualifying for social security. (Thankfully, that law has changed!) I stayed married until my 25 years were served. Meanwhile, I drove a school bus and began to build houses on our four-acre property with the aim of renting them out for additional income. This proved to be a successful enterprise, especially since I did the upkeep myself.
Family responsibilities and lack of resources had grounded me from the air for over 20 years. I itched to get back to flying. I saved enough from bus driving to buy a vintage 35 years old two place Cessna 140. A friend from the National Flying Club and I left for the experience of a lifetime, each in our own Cessna 140. Two vintage grandmas flying side by side flew our puddle jumpers to Alaska, a 4000 mile trip over gorgeous rivers, valleys and mountains. I sold my Cessna in Alaska and returned to Texas to fly the little open cockpit Bower’s Fly Baby I had devoted seven years to building, and I flew it until arthritis made it impossible to climb out of the cockpit.
Memories of my flying years are precious, but my fondest memories are of the years spent in the feminist movement. Many young women have no clue what we made possible for them and future generations, though much remains to be done. I feel gratified that I’ve contributed to the greatest movement of all time.
NOTE: Winnie Wackwitz has been an active member of VFA since1994 and a board member for the past few years. Her books, The Creature of the Lost Bayou and The Mystery of the Swamp Lights can be purchased from VFA for $8.00, which includes mailing.
She will be honored at the March 19th VFA event in Dallas. For information on Dallas event: contact Bonnie Wheeler firstname.lastname@example.org
Comments to Jacqui Ceballos: email@example.com
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