Female flight attendants—or “stewardesses” as they were known until the 1970s—
were long considered ideal women. From the 1930s, when the occupation took
shape, through the 1960s, airlines would only hire women who were white, single,
young, slender, and attractive. Airlines provided their already poised new hires with
expert tutoring in how to be even more gracious and attractive and dressed them in
stylish uniforms. Little wonder that journalists, novelists, and film makers, not to
mention airline marketers, idealized stewardesses as nurturing, alluring hostesses:
women who were fascinatingly cosmopolitan but reassuringly domestic.
Stewardesses’ glamour-girl image made them popular icons of femininity and the job
provided many perks, not least the opportunity to travel widely and meet all sorts of
people. It meant a welcome challenge and escape from the confines of 9-to-5 jobs
and small-town life. And for those who wanted to follow the expected path to
marriage, working as a stewardess was “as sure a path to the altar as any,” as an
admiring female reporter quipped in the Chicago
Tribune in 1955.

The job was never an easy one, however. It involved a range of service and safety
duties, from serving food and beverages, caring for ill or infirm travelers, and simply
chatting with passengers, to enforcing safety rules and remaining ever-watchful for
possible emergencies. As any former or current flight attendant would confirm,
safety has long been the most important component of cabin crew’s work. But it was
work for which they received little official or public recognition until recent years.
Whatever duties stewardesses performed, airlines expected them to be so
perpetually gracious and lovely that they seemed not to be working at all. They were
supposed to spend hours on their feet, but never let their hair, make-up, or uniform
look less than immaculate. They were also meant to fulfill countless requests for
help and attention without ever snapping back at drunk or excessively demanding
passengers. As airlines often reminded, they were to treat passengers as if they
were welcome guests in their own homes. For their efforts stewardesses could look
forward to forced resignation if they married (or turned 32 or 35 years old on many
airlines) and strict discipline if they gained weight or broke any other of the airlines’
many rules.

© Kathleen M. Barry, 2006 -                                                                                                                                    
Table of Contents


1. “Psychological Punch”: Nurse-
Stewardesses in the 1930s

2. “Glamor Girls of the Air”: The
Postwar Stewardess Mystique

3. “Labor’s Loveliest”: Postwar
Union Struggles

4. “Nothing but an Airborne
Waitress”: The Jet Age

5. “Do I Look Like an Old Bag?”:
Glamour and Women’s Rights in
the Mid-1960s

6. “You’re White, You’re Free, and
You’re 21—What Is It?”: Title VII

7. “Fly Me? Go Fly Yourself!”:
Stewardess Liberation in the 1970s

Epilogue: After Title VII and
Stewardesses’ popular image hardly suggested the occupation would be a hotbed of labor or feminist activism. Yet flight attendants began to organize in the
late 1940s and demand that they be respected for their hard work and skills. By the end of the 1950s most flight attendants—both the female majority and
the male pursers and stewards who accounted for about 5% to 15% of the occupation—had unionized. They successfully bargained for better wages and
working conditions and the right to file grievances against company decisions they felt were unfair. Union leaders also lobbied the federal government to
provide them with safety licenses, like those held by pilots, mechanics, and other airline employees deemed vital to passengers’ safety. And when union
activists felt patronized or bullied by male labor leaders, they protested. Flight attendants insisted that they be taken seriously by the labor movement and
allowed to run their own union affairs. They failed to get licenses and union autonomy eluded them. More revealing than their failures, however, is that they
even bothered with these struggles in an era when about 30 to 40% of stewardesses resigned annually (nearly always to get married) and labor unions were
considered blue-collar male turf.

As the sexual revolution and the women’s movement unfolded in the later 1960s and 1970s, flight attendants grew more militant and more inclined to see
their concerns as part of the larger question of women’s rights. Many were fed up with being forced to resign at marriage or reaching their mid-thirties.
When Congress and states began passing laws banning sex discrimination in employment, flight attendants were quick to act. Through lawsuits and union
pressure, they began dismantling airlines’ employment restrictions. They not only brought an end to the discriminatory marriage and age policies but also
forced airlines to revise maternity and weight rules, among others.

But as flight attendants were taking the airlines to court in the late 1960s and early 1970s, they found themselves wearing hot pants and other skimpy
uniforms, uttering slogans like “fly me” in airline ads, and starring in novels and films such as
The Fly Girls and Swinging Stewardesses. Airline marketing had
taken a salacious turn, and pop culture was even more explicit in portraying stewardesses as poster girls of a sexier era. In their unions and a new group
called Stewardesses for Women’s Rights, flight attendants protested the exploitive ways they were being portrayed, most of all by their own employers.
Flight attendants directed their growing anger at other targets as well, especially their lack of union autonomy and inattention to their role in passengers'
safety and their own on-the-job health concerns. By the end of the 1970s, “stewardesses,” long saddled with harsh employment restrictions, unions
beholden to male overseers, and flattery rather than respect, transformed themselves into “flight attendants,” with better career prospects, independent
unions, and growing recognition of their safety work.

Femininity in Flight shows how flight attendants’ image evolved, how it shaped their activism, and how their efforts to be taken seriously as workers created
a distinct legacy of women’s organizing in the service sector. In an era when more and more American workers are female and work in service jobs, flight
attendants have much to tell us about the historic stereotypes surrounding “women’s work” and women’s contributions—and potential for militancy—in the
workplace. And there is no better time than now, when air travel is more common than ever and both passengers and crew face unprecedented security
threats, to recognize and appreciate all that flight attendants have done and continue to do to help ensure that travelers enjoy safe, pleasant flights.