By Emily Clark
In the early 20th century—a generation after the world watched in awe as the Wright Brothers took flight—a young woman from Wethersfield, Connecticut, was garnering her own fame as the first woman in the state to earn a pilot’s license.
A Dual Passion for News and Flight
Though she is well-known for her early accomplishments in aviation, Mary Goodrich (Jenson)—born in Hartford in 1907—loved the field of journalism from the time she was a little girl. Listening to her grandfather read fairy tales interspersed with details of current events and news stories, she developed a love for language and learning. Jenson attended prestigious institutions such as the Collegio Gazzola in Italy, the Katharine Gibbs School in New York, and Columbia University. After completing her formal education, Jenson, who always had an interest in flying as well as journalism, began lessons at Brainard Field in Hartford. At the same time, she applied for a job at the Hartford Courant—choices which led her two passions to collide.
A Young Woman in a “Man’s Province”
Journalism in 1927 was a male-dominated field, and Jenson recalled how those at the Courant laughed at her when she arrived looking for work. “They thought it was very funny that a girl should come into the city room and ask for a job. It was definitely a man’s province,” she said. Upon learning that the 20-year-old was studying to be a pilot, the editor agreed to hire Jenson to write about aviation after she obtained her license. In 1928, she became the first woman in Connecticut to hold a private pilot’s license.
Once employed by the Hartford Courant, Jenson secured her own column with the affectionate name of “Girl Pilot” and became the newspaper’s first aviation editor, writing stories about the thrill of flying and the visits that Amelia Earhart made to Connecticut. A series of articles entitled, “A Woman Learns to Fly,” detailed her flight lessons, including the first time she manned the pilot’s seat. Jenson wrote, “The first rush of wind in my face as the throttle was opened full warned me that this experience would be in no way comparable to my first airplane ride in a closed ship. Suddenly came the realization that we were actually flying.”
Contemporary of Amelia Earhart
Jenson’s interest in aviation only grew stronger as her writing and her piloting continued. She joined Amelia Earhart’s Ninety-Nines—an international organization of licensed women flyers—in 1929. Through this group, Jenson made history again when she purchased her own biplane and, in 1933, became the first woman to fly solo to Cuba. Flying in local shows and competitions and leading the Betsy Ross Corps of female pilots who supported defense efforts illustrate Jenson’s early involvement in Connecticut aviation history.
Vision loss and declining depth perception halted Jenson’s own flying expeditions in the late 1930s, though they did not ground her completely. In 1936, when the Hindenburg flew over Hartford, Jenson was the only woman on board. She also served in the Women Flyers of America in the years prior to World War II.
Jenson’s adventurous spirit persisted through her positions in advertising and promotion. She moved to Los Angeles and worked for a time at Walt Disney Productions in Hollywood, eventually starting their story research department. Despite her travels, she longed for the East Coast and returned to Connecticut in 1941, settling in Wethersfield with her husband, Carl Jenson.
A Comfortable Life in Wethersfield
Despite Jenson’s fame as a young pilot and journalist, her later years were spent in the town where she grew up and where she and her husband raised their two children, William and Ann. Jenson found joy in serving on the Wethersfield Board of Education and Wethersfield Republican Town Committee. She also founded the Women’s Association and was a longtime member of the First Church of Christ Congregational. In 1999, at age 91, she received induction to the Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame for her many firsts in state history.
Mary Goodrich Jenson died at Hartford Hospital on January 4, 2004, at the age of 96. Blending her aviation and journalism careers, Jenson pushed the boundaries of both fields. Well into her 90s, Jenson retained a sense of humor, realism, and humility surrounding her early accomplishments. “To me, it’s all related with a great deal of luck all the way through,” she said in an interview. “So many people are at the right spot at the wrong time. And it seems to me I was at the right spot at the right time very often.”
Emily Clark is a freelance writer and an English and Journalism teacher at Amity Regional High School in Woodbridge.