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Flight Attendants Through the Years : The Conquering of High-Altitude Sexism

Smithsonian News Service

“Paris tonight . . . Rome tomorrow. . . . Fun and adventure everywhere.”

“Romance! Travel! Fun! Be an air hostess.”

“Half the world awaits you.”

Sound tempting? For years, these exaggerated visions of a stewardess’s life, found in many career manuals, were accepted as truth. Such descriptions only hinted at the sexism that developed in the profession, especially in terms of the airlines’ requirements on age, height, weight and length of hair--not to mention marital status--for all “sky girls.”

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But the turmoil surrounding the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s and ‘70s--along with several lawsuits--helped change these perceptions of flight attendants, as well as some of the more onerous rules of the profession. The come-on associated with buttons that read: “I’m Cheryl, Fly Me” is as outmoded today as a 1930s Ford tri-motor airliner.

Co-Pilot’s Former Duties

Before the first stewardesses were hired in 1930 by Boeing Air Transport (later part of United Airlines), it was often the co-pilot’s job to fetch and distribute meals and to take care of passengers who became airsick. The idea of having women serve as stewardesses began with a young registered nurse, Ellen Church.

“Church actually wanted to become a pilot,” said Claudia Oakes, curator of aeronautics at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington. “But in 1930 that was difficult. So she approached the manager of Boeing Air Transport in San Francisco, Steve Simpson, who suggested that she get together with other nurses to become flight attendants. The idea was that, as nurses, they could take care of any emergencies. And as women, their presence would be soothing to passengers.”

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Simpson drafted a letter to his boss, which said in part: “Imagine the psychology of having young women as regular members of the crew. Imagine the tremendous effect it would have on the traveling public. Also imagine the value they would be to us in the neater and nicer method of serving food and looking out for passengers’ welfare.”

Flight Took 20 Hours

Within three months, eight young women were hired by the airline. All of them were nurses, younger than 25, shorter than 5 feet, 4 inches and all weighed less than 115 pounds. The women were paid $125 a month for 100 hours of flying time. The first flight with a stewardess took place on May 15, 1930, on a tri-motor bound for Chicago from San Francisco. The flight took 20 hours and made 13 stops--in good weather.

Duties for these young women were varied. In addition to serving coffee, tea and milk, they also carried baggage, punched passengers’ tickets, checked the bolts on the wicker seats to make sure they were securely fastened to the floor and watched for gasoline leaks in the cabin.

Other in-flight duties listed in their training manuals included:

- Keep the cabin immaculate. Before flight, sweep the floor and dust off the seats and windowsills.

- Keep the clock wound.

- Keep an eye on passengers when they go to the toilet room to be sure they go through the toilet room door and not through the emergency exit door.

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- Carry a railroad timetable just in case the plane is grounded somewhere.

Boeing’s experiment was so successful that other airlines soon followed suit. Eastern Airlines, for example, began its flight hostess service on the Newark-to-Washington run in 1931. The first Eastern manual described the hostesses’ duties as “of a social nature, to set up a bridge party if a bridge game is desired, or to serve coffee or a cup of tea and some tasty biscuits.”

“By the mid-1930s, there were between 200 and 300 stewardesses in airline service in the United States,” said Oakes, author of two books on women in aviation. “They had become an integral part of the air transport industry.”

The airline industry adopted new nomenclature to describe these jobs. Although “stewardess” was the most commonly used term, some airlines preferred “hostess,” “cabin attendant,” “courier” and even “air-ess.”

“The use of registered nurses remained until World War II, when they were needed for wartime service,” Oakes said. “It was not until after the war that beauty and sex appeal were used as a way to promote the airlines themselves.”

‘No Charm and Beauty School’

Patricia Nagel joined American Airlines as a stewardess in 1950 when she was 23. Despite the glamorous appeal of the job, Nagel quickly pointed out that the six-week training course she took in Chicago was “no charm and beauty school. We learned a lot about the aircraft itself.”

“American at the time was only flying two airplanes--the DC-6 and a Convair,” she said. “We learned emergency procedures, first aid, the routes and city codes, the history of the airline and how to deal with difficult people--the child who was scared or the passenger who had too much to drink.”

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Nagel drew parallels between the rules that flight attendants lived by in the ‘50s and military protocol. “We had to wear our hair short so that it cleared the collar,” she said. “We had uniforms and we tended to use a lot of military terms.”

Nagel’s career as a stewardess lasted 18 months--the industry average at the time. But even if she had wanted to, she would not have been able to stay. “When I joined up,” she said, “stewardesses had to sign a paper saying we’d quit when we reached 31.” Today, Nagel continues her interest in aviation by volunteering at the National Air and Space Museum.

Nightclub-Type Uniforms

Air travel boomed in the 1960s and the airlines put a high premium on appearance and youth, continuing to dismiss women older than 30 and those who married. Uniforms were designed that seemed more appropriate in a nightclub than in a working environment. A special promotion effort at Trans World Airlines in the 1960s, for example, included different “uniforms” for different routes: a French costume consisting of a one-piece gold lame mini-dress; an English “serving wench” outfit, which was a mini-jumper over a sheer white blouse, and a white mini-toga, trimmed in red and green, as part of an Italian theme.

Airline recruitment officers began looking for young women who possessed a pleasing appearance, well-proportioned figure, straight teeth, clear complexion and good posture, as well as intelligence, enthusiasm and an interest in people.

During the 1960s and ‘70s, the Assn. of Flight Attendants, headquartered in Washington, took a strong stand against sex discrimination by the airlines and became the plaintiff in many civil suits. Little by little, barriers toppled.

End to Early Retirement Age

First to fall was the mandatory retirement age, which varied from airline to airline but was usually about 32. Then, as a result of separate suits filed by two United Airlines flight attendants, the airlines were forced to keep attendants who married on the payroll. Finally, women won the right to remain on the job after they became pregnant and to return to it after their babies were born. And the doors were opened for men and minorities to join the profession.

The result of all these changes was reflected most sharply in a significant rise in job longevity. As recently as 1968, the average length of service was still only 18 months. By the mid-'70s, however, flight attendants averaged five years on the job. By 1985, that figure had jumped to 10 years and is still climbing.

Today’s “average” flight attendant is a 35-year-old woman who has a family, is college educated and earns $20,000 to $30,000 a year. Four out of five flight attendants work 70 to 80 hours a month. About 14% of the nation’s 80,000 flight attendants are men who are more likely to be single and younger than their female colleagues. Flight attendants today do not have to retire until they reach age 70.

Few Applicants Chosen

Competition for flight attendant jobs remains stiff. In 1984, for example, American Airlines received 70,000 applications for flight attendant openings with their airline. About 40,000 people were interviewed but only 1,600 were hired.

Although the profession is still viewed as glamorous and carefree, most air travelers recognize the difficult job these men and women perform on a daily basis. Not only do they toil long days under cramped working conditions, having to battle jet lag along with difficult passengers, but in recent years they have also played a critical role in the wake of airline crashes, hijackings, terrorist attacks and bombings. The once-popular “Coffee, Tea or Me” image has been grounded.


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