RCC Honors History Project

Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants

Posted by kameron1 on May 6, 2009

Kathleen M. Barry, Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants.

by Phillips, Lisa

Labour/Le Travail • Fall, 2008 •

Kathleen M. Barry, Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants (Durham, NC: Duke University Press 2007)

KATHLEEN BARRY’S fascinating study of the history of flight attendants offers another chapter in the story of women and job-typing, a story that follows in the footsteps laid by Dorothy Sue Cobble, Alice Kessler-Harris, Arlie Hoschild, Ruth Milkman, Barbara Melosh, Nancy Gabin, and other historians who have examined the ways in which women negotiated the prescribed gender roles in which the “manly” goal was earning a reasonable wage. All of these historians argue that women had to transgress what were decidedly “feminine” boundaries to gain economically. Barry’s work on flight attendants demonstrates that this negotiation process was particularly difficult for women whose very jobs were created around “feminine” characteristics like glamour, allure, care, Service, and, by the 1970s, sex appeal, so that stewardesses’ skill, drive, ambition, and sweat had to be hidden in order for them to be considered good at these “feminine” jobs.

When passenger flights first began in the late 1920s, airline executives had to decide who would attend to their new customers. Barry describes the ways in which airline executives’ gendered and raced assumptions played a large part, if not the only part, in determining who would be best qualified for this new job. Black men, Barry argues, were the most obvious choice. Traveling by air was not that much different than traveling by rail. The job of “porter” had been created in the Jim Crow era when luxury meant, for white passengers, being served by black men. Despite the similarities, airline executives decided against hiring porters because they thought black men would not be able to inspire the calm authoritativeness crucial to winning over the first generation of largely white and male air travelers. Instead, airline executives thought young, white, military-esque “stewards” would inspire the confidence black men could not. In the late 1920s, a fleet of young, white men dressed in garb reminiscent of the military staffed the first commercial flights. They failed for several reasons, not the least of which was that they posed too much of a threat to pilots who wanted to make clear who was superior on the aircraft.

If not black men or young, white military-like men, then who? Barry uses industry publications, newspapers, journals, the Literary Digest, the New York Times, and other sources to demonstrate the ways in which the gendered expectations of the 1930s structured the new job “stewardess.” The airlines turned to young, unmarried nurses. Who better, they thought, to instill calm in passengers than women trained to take care of ill patients, serve them, and show the proper deference to doctors? The idea took off! The original position was built around the combination of professionalism inspired by nurses and the nurturing, deferential, care-oriented qualities inspired by ideas about femininity in the 1930s.

The professional status granted the position was fleeting. By the end of World War II, Barry explains, airlines dropped the nursing degree requirement and were subsequently flooded with applications from young women across the country. By the mid-1940s, airline stewardesses had helped define a kind of youthful, adventure-bound femininity that was steeped in daring but still remained within the bounds of acceptable femininity. What the job lacked in pay it was made up for with What Barry calls the “wages of glamour,” a concept she links to David Roediger’s use of the “wages of whiteness” to explain the appeal of low-paid “whites only” jobs. Stewardesses were additionally compensated by the relatively high status associated with the job’s image and by the spill-over effect of serving passengers who were themselves high status businessmen. By the advent of the jet age, however, glamour and status could not make up for longer hours, a strictly enforced age ceiling and weight requirement, and the increased sexualization of the job. Stewardesses no longer felt it glamorous to serve over 100 passengers several rounds of drinks and two meals, walk an average of eight miles per shift, and attend to each businessman’s unique needs, all while maintaining the image of a playboy bunny. In the years after World War II, some stewardesses turned to union organizing to improve their work lives.

Union-oriented stewardesses considered the AFL-CIO and its affiliates too blue collar, Barry explains, especially given the wage of glamour that was central to a stewardess’s identity. By 1949, several upstart locals, most chartered by pilots’ unions, merged under the umbrella of the Airline Stewards and Stewardesses’ Association (ALSSA) representing 3500 workers (there were a small number of stewards employed by the airlines, many of whom took on leadership roles within their locals). ALSSA hoped to re-instill the professional status that was granted the first generation of nurse-stewardesses by demanding that the airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) require stewardesses and stewards to obtain the same safety clearance pilots, co-pilots, dispatchers, flight engineers, radio operators, and navigators received under the category “airmen.” The FAA responded that certifying stewardesses would be an unnecessary burden, especially given the job’s high turnover, and the airlines refused to acknowledge stewardesses’ safety role. ALSSA, as Barry deftly describes, by fighting for professionalization, was taking on the inherently discriminatory ways in which the skill, prestige, and high pay associated with “professionals” were gendered male.

By the 1960s, the jet age had resulted in the further degradation of the job. Not only were stewardesses required to serve twice as many passengers, the airlines exploited the glamorous image the job stewardess had attained by adding a new twist in the context of the sexual revolution: stewardess as sex object. As the competition for passengers increased among the major and regional carriers, each airline tried to one up the other in, terms of what its stewardesses had to offer. With slogans like, “Hi, I’m Cheryl, Come Fly Me,” to the fashion shows stewardesses were required to stage in flight, each airline cashed in on sexual liberation by offering businessmen playboy bunnies for their pleasure. The mostly white stewardesses Barry describes challenged discrimination in stages. In the early to mid-1960s, stewardesses employed what Barry calls the “politics of glamour” to challenge the airline industry’s age limits. In a widely publicized “Hey, Look Us Over,” campaign, Colleen Boland, the president of ALSSA, argued that age was irrelevant, that “older” stewardesses could do their jobs well and still look good. Barry argues that the successful campaign allowed men and women to “uphold equality in principle, while not necessarily questioning familiar notions of femininity.”

By the 1970s and in the wake of the passage of Title VII, stewardesses turned to the court system to dismantle systemic gender discrimination. Within the context of the women’s movement, stewardesses organized Stewardesses for Women’s Rights (SFWR) and, working with sympathetic lawyers, proceeded on a case-by-case basis to gradually change the ways in which US courts and the American public defined discrimination. It was their skillful use of the courts, aided in the fight by the National Organization for Women, that finally resulted in the legal recognition of objectification as sex discrimination rather than a simple business tactic designed to improve sales.

Barry tells a fascinating story about the history of flight attendants and their success challenging deeply rooted gendered stereotypes that were largely invented by the airline industry to maximize profit and then exploited by air travelers and the public at large. Due to their success using Title VII to challenge these practices, we use the term “flight attendant” now rather than “stewardess,” flight attendants are various heights and weights, are young and old, work on crews composed of women and men of all colours, and are not objectified for profit. These are not small accomplishments. One wonders, however, if the current conception of “flight attendant” is palatable to the airline industry and the flying public not only because of the valiant efforts of flight attendants to break down those stereotypes but also because of the change in the customer base. The one shortcoming of Barry’s otherwise fascinating and comprehensive study is the lack of a sustained analysis of the concurrent changes within the airline industry that may have moved executives to give up the fight. To be sure, the SFWR constituted a movement within the airline industry that, in conjunction with the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, helped to change our very conception of femininity. By the mid-to-late 1970s, however, white businessmen, while still a large proportion of the flying public, were no longer the airlines’ only customers. Offering businesswomen, fathers, mothers, and grandparents the opportunity to fly with a playboy bunny did not sell tickets; offering them a less sexualized flight attendant did and appealed to an increasingly socially conservative American public.

Femininity in Flight is well written and well researched. Kathleen Barry’s work furthers our understanding of the ways in which gendered assumptions structured the workplace and how counter-assumptions helped, in this case, to restructure the workplace in less sexually exploitive ways. Barry’s analysis of that restructuring helps us better understand the reactions by male trade unionists, pilots, airline executives, and female stewardesses as they worked to remake the very feminine identity around which the job stewardess was created. The book is essential reading for historians and students of the twentieth century in general and especially those interested in labour, gender, and/or women’s history.


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