In a stirring musical opening to her one-woman show, Kate Campbell Stevenson belted out this inspirational line: “Your life is a story; it is scripted by you.”
Then she promptly followed her rousing overture with a virtuoso portrayal of aviator Bessie Coleman and explorer Louise Arner Boyd—complete with insightful monologues and period costume—that transported her audience back to the early days of the 20th century to witness the barriers these two exceptional women overcame to write their own scripts and achieve success in career fields related to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).
Women, who had just earned the right to vote in 1920, were still unwelcome in many, if not all, STEM fields at the time Coleman and Boyd were trying to establish themselves.
In 1921, Coleman, who had grown up poor in Texas, became not only the first woman of African American descent to earn an aviation pilot’s license but also the first African American woman to earn an international aviation license—and the first American aviator of any gender to do so.
Boyd was born into wealth and used her tremendous financial means to eventually become one of the most celebrated polar explorers of the century. Her scientific expeditions to Greenland and the Arctic rivaled those of the renowned Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen.
Stevenson, who serves as a cultural ambassador for the Maryland Women’s Heritage Center, is a national delegate to Vision 2020, a coalition committed to achieving women’s economic and social equality.
Her dramatic presentation, Forging Frontiers: Women Leaders in STEM, part of University of Maryland University College’s celebration of Women’s History Month at the Academic Center in Largo, was inspired by her desire to encourage and motivate women nationwide to pursue STEM careers.
During her performance, Stevenson highlighted the qualities that drove her subjects to succeed. “These women were problem solvers,” she said. “One had very little money, one had plenty of money, but both had obstacles they overcame. They broke down barriers, wanting to know what’s around the next corner.”
In 1910, an 18-year-old Coleman, the 10th of 13 children, enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University but completed only one term before her money ran out. She moved to Chicago, where—captivated by the stories she heard from pilots returning from World War I—she developed her keen interest in flying. But because of her race and gender, no one would train her, not even black aviators.
Encouraged to go abroad to earn her license, Coleman took a French language class to prepare for her journey. She learned to fly in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane, and upon her return to the United States as a licensed pilot in 1921, she became a media sensation.
In contrast, wealthy young socialite Boyd was accustomed to taking grand tours of Europe. Her passion for polar exploring was ignited in 1924 when she visited Norway and the polar ice pack for the first time.
Boyd wrote extensively of her seven arctic expeditions, including the book The Fiord Region of East Greenland, which told the tale of her 1933 expedition to that area. In fact, her knowledge of the east coast of Greenland was very helpful to the U.S. government during World War II.
Boyd was the first American woman to receive Norway’s Chevalier Cross of the Order of Saint Olav after she postponed an expedition to search for Roald Amundsen, who had disappeared in 1928 during his own search for the missing Italian explorer Umberto Nobile. Amundsen was never found.
In 1955, Boyd chartered a plane and became the first woman to fly over the North Pole.
These amazing women “show us to look deep down inside ourselves to overcome our barriers and fears and dare to dream,” Stevenson concluded. “You have the power within you to make it happen.”
Indeed, it is a lesson not just for women but for everyone.