Because well-behaved women rarely make history.
When was the last time you were brave? Was it when you tried a new dish for dinner or when you jumped off that waterfall last weekend? If you’re on the downside of courage these days, let these six fearless females inspire you. Without the benefit of fancy high-tech gear and environment-tested apparel we have today, these women earned their immortality by walking on the wings of planes as they flew through the sky and crossing teetering tightropes. They defined bravery and showed the boys that girls have grit too, and here they are — the lion-hearted women who changed our perspective female power with death-defying stunts and unheard-of acts of strength.
Gladys Ingle, the only female member of Hollywood’s 13 Black Cats aerial daredevil stunt troop
Gladys could fly with the guys, all 13 of them. In 1924, at just 26, she was initiated into Hollywood’s aerial daredevil men-only stunt group The 13 Black Cats. She proved her worth when she walked blindfolded on the wings of a Curtis JN-4 biplane as it flew over Los Angeles, and mastered midair archery from these planes! And no parachute for Gladys either, not until several deadly accidents resulted in a new 1927 law requiring these fate-tempters to wear them. Picture her the next time you’re on a plane snapping a traditional photo of the wing.
Maria Spelterini, the only woman to cross the Niagara River Gorge on a tightrope
Maria “Spelterina” Spelterini had perfect balance. To prove it, she donned an elaborate costume and showed up at the lower suspension bridge on the Niagara River Gorge on July 8th, 1876. Stepping onto a two-and-a-quarter-inch wire, the 23-year-old Italian “Signorina of the Niagara” made the trip look easy. She completed the walk a second time with her feet strapped to peach baskets. Her third walk, five days later, was done blindfolded, and three days after that she walked the wire with her ankles and wrists tied.
Zazel, the first human cannonball
Rossa Matila Richter, aka Zazel, literally flew into the room with a big boom. At just 14, she became the first human cannonball when, in 1877, she was shot from a spring-loaded cannon created by The Great Farini at London’s Royal Aquarium. The big bang and cloud of smoke produced by a perfectly timed firecracker awed audiences and fooled them into thinking she really had been shot from an actual cannon. Zazel later toured with and became a star attraction of the PT Barnum Circus, entertaining crowds of thousands as she shot across the sky.
May Wirth, circus Hall of Famer and equestrian daredevil
Tiny but mighty comes to mind when we think of May. Standing a mere five feet tall, she was strong enough to balance herself on the backs of cantering horses while doing forward and backward somersaults, and performing backward flips from one horse to the next in the Australian circus. She once even danced the Charleston on top of a trotting white horse! At the early age of 10, she was scouted by Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey and Hagenbeck’s Circuses with whom she toured for 15 years. Her craft and passion earned her an induction into the Circus Hall of Fame in 1963 where she is forever enshrined as the greatest bareback rider who ever lived. You can understand Mike’s excitement when he picked one of her touring trunks on an episode of American Pickers.
Helen Gibson, the first Hollywood stuntwoman
This woman had a 50-year love affair with danger. After years of riding in rodeos, Helen Gibson, born Rose August Wenger, had developed the agility and strength she needed to succeed as Hollywood’s first stuntwoman. She made her name as the stunt double in the adventure series The Hazards of Helen, and that led to a career in the movies. Poorly paid and socially stigmatized for her decision to become a stuntwoman, Helen persisted, often creating her own routines, many involving speeding trains. One of her most dangerous stunts required her to jump from a building roof onto the top of a moving train. The momentum sent her rolling to the end of the train car, only to be saved by catching herself on an air vent. Another stunt involved chasing a runaway train on horseback, grabbing a dangling rope to swing herself from her horse onto the train just before it went under a bridge. All hail Helen.
Ethel Dare, the first woman to switch planes in the air
Revered as the “Queen of the Air” in the 1920s, Margi Hobbs, aka Ethel Dare, took the audience’s eyes to the sky. This former Barnum and Bailey Circus flying trapeze performer was known for her wing walker talents and for being the first woman to successfully walk from the wing of one plane to another in mid-air. Did we mention she was just a teenager when she did that? Her two signature moves included falling backward off the wing of the plane with nothing but a rope tied to her to save her life, and a move called the “Iron Jaw Spin” where she was suspended in midair by a special harness placed between her teeth.
How many daring darlings do you know? Share what makes them brave with us in the comments below.