Meet 5 Female Daredevils From Bay Area History

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Aviatrix Ruth Elder poses in a convertible, still wearing her flying gear. (Bettmann / Getty Images Contributor)

Dames! Broads! Dolls! Who’d put up with ’em, eh?

No sooner did Californian women get the right to vote in 1911, all that power just up and went to their pretty little heads. Before men could shuffle them back into the kitchen, they were out in the world, doing the Charleston, wearing trousers on Sunday and—*checks notes*—doing death-defying stunts. And no, I’m not making that last one up.

A handful of these fearless women happened to live (or regularly do crazy crap) in the Bay Area. Let’s meet the ones who spent no time dilly-dallying on the way to the airfield/motorcycle shop/other thing that could immediately kill them.

Maxine Dunlap, Glider Pilot

Maxine Dunlap, as seen in 1930 newspapers. (Newspapers.com)

In 1929, a 19-year-old named Maxine Dunlap climbed into a small plane, took to the skies over Mills Field (today’s SFO) and performed a series of stunts—including multiple barrel rolls—entirely unassisted. It earned the teen a pilot’s license—the first woman to earn one in San Francisco. Dunlap promptly threw herself at the sky with gusto.

First, Dunlap joined the Ninety-Nines, a newly established flying club for women. She also competed that April in a race against two other talented female pilots—Marvel Crosson and Bobbi Trout—at Oakland Airport. After clocking up scores of hours in the air, however, Dunlap decided that flying with the support of engines was simply—pish-posh!—not enough of a challenge. She turned her attention to glider planes—moderately terrifying contraptions that left pilots out on a limb, exposed to the elements and looking, for the most part, like a Wright Brothers prototype that was about to nosedive into the dirt.

A glider plane flying over Roosevelt Field in New York, Feb. 1930. (Keystone-FranceGamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

As soon as she hopped into one, it was clear that Dunlap had a knack for gliding. To give you some idea of how good she was, within weeks of attempting to fly one for the first time, Dunlap earned the first glider plane license ever awarded to a woman in America. Even Amelia Earhart failed to acquire her glider certification after struggling to stay in the air. (During her test, Earhart managed to stay aloft for just 17 seconds. Dunlap managed 50.)

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Dunlap soon joined forces with the California Glider Club in San Francisco, a group that regularly practiced on the sand dunes at Taraval and 35th Ave. In 1930, with a solid record of winning most of her races, the club elected Dunlap president—the first woman to garner such a position in U.S. history. In case that wasn’t impressive enough, she went on to set the women’s world record for light airplane speed in 1935.

Dunlap still enjoyed flying airplanes (the ones with engines) with her friends. During her second marriage, she flew herself and her Coca-Cola executive hubby around in a 260-horsepower Gull Wing Stinson Reliant. Presumably, he supplied the refreshments...

Nell Schmidt, Endurance Swimmer

For some reason, a century ago, people weren’t such whiny babies about putting their almost naked bodies into the San Francisco Bay for prolonged periods. Take Nell Schmidt, for example. In 1911, while the rest of the country was at the movie theater watching Dante’s Inferno (it was the hit of the year, people), Schmidt was throwing herself into unfeasibly cold water to break records. At 19, Schmidt swam from the Presidio’s Fort Point to Sausalito’s Lime Point in just 42 minutes, setting a record for female swimmers.

The following year, she swam to the Oakland Mole from San Francisco’s Pier 9. It took her just over three hours and she was the first woman to do it. Naturally, the San Francisco Examiner responded to this feat by calling her “the glory of radiant young womanhood.” In 1913, Schmidt’s hometown also crowned her Queen of the Moose Fete. Way to show your appreciation, Alameda!

Bernadine King, Stunt Pilot

Bernadine King, as seen in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1940.

The year is 1937. The place is San Francisco. And thousands upon thousands of people have flocked to the city to witness the grand opening of the Golden Gate Bridge. Amidst the chaos of military displays, endless parties, sporting competitions and too many parades to mention is a gatecrasher. Her name is Bernadine King, she is 26, and she’s already an accomplished pilot known for her stunts, skywriting and what she called “precision acrobatics.”

By the time of the bridge opening, King had earned the women’s world record for flying upside down—for a full 25-and-a-half minutes. But the young pilot was also a pro when it came to grabbing headlines. On the Golden Gate’s opening day, the Los Angeles resident, flying in her yellow and black biplane, swept down from a high altitude, flew under the bridge and stunned hundreds of bystanders.

The San Francisco Examiner described King’s spectacular display thusly:

Downward [the plane] roared, almost skirting the waves of the Golden Gate as under the span it zoomed. Then it shot upward as Miss King gave it the gun. There were few watchers who knew what was to happen. There were several wing-overs and finally a complete roll, the plane’s belly glistening to the sun.

The following year, King made headlines again after crash-landing a plane near Burbank while completely in the nude. She told rescuers she was just working on her tan. Papers subsequently dubbed her the “Flying Godiva.”

Dorothy Smith, Motorcycle Trick Rider

On Feb. 12, 1939, Dorothy Smith donned her best leathers, jumped onto her customized Harley Davidson motorcycle and competed in a grueling 300-mile competition. The 1939 Lost Mines race started just after midnight in downtown Oakland and ran deep into what the San Francisco Examiner called “East Bay back country” overnight. Smith would have been the only woman competing if not for the fact that her mother—known only as “Ma” to the papers of the day—also took part in the race. (Because the sprocket doesn’t fall far from the foot peg, presumably.)

The younger Smith was known for her stunts on two wheels and for thrilling crowds and fellow bikers throughout the 1930s and ’40s. Smith was a world champion trick rider, a member of the San Francisco Motorcycle Club, and one of the earliest members of the Motor Maids, an all-women motorcycle club founded by fellow biker badasses Linda Dugeau and Dot Robinson. The club still exists to this day. Lock up your sons and daughters!

Ruth Elder, Aviatrix

Ruth Elder and George Haldeman pose in front of their 'American Girl' plane. Before they had to crash it into the Atlantic, obviously. (Getty Images, Bettmann)

In 1927, 2,623 miles into an attempt to become the world’s first female transatlantic pilot, Ruth Elder’s plane ran into trouble. She and Captain George Haldeman were just 360 miles from Portugal when their “American Girl” aircraft suffered an oil leak. The duo was forced to crash into the Atlantic, but were strategic enough to do so near a Dutch ship that subsequently rescued them.

Here’s footage of a perfectly accessorized Elder, getting ready for takeoff:

Regardless of Elder and Haldeman’s failure to reach France from New York, the trip immediately turned Elder into a media sensation. It was still, after all, the longest flight ever made by a woman and the longest flight ever made over water. She was almost immediately cast in a couple of silent movies—Moran of the Marines and The Winged Horseman. She also dabbled in modeling.

Skip to 2:57 below to see Elder in a sporty red-and-white ensemble, in 1928:

Elder’s true passion, however, remained in the skies. Like Maxine Dunlap, Elder was a member of the Ninety-Nines and enjoyed flying competitively. Notably, she took part in the first ever Women’s Air Derby in 1929, flying a Swallow NC8730. The race was nicknamed “The Powder Puff Derby” because: patriarchy. And the nickname stuck despite Marvel Crosson dying tragically during the race. Elder came in a respectable fifth place, out of 19 competitors.

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Elder wound up getting married six times (you go, girl!) and, later in life, finding work in the aviation industry as an executive secretary—to Howard goddamn Hughes. Despite her daredevil tendencies, Elder lived to 75, dying in San Francisco in 1977. The campaign to get something in or around SFO named after her begins now!