Edith Lauterbach dies at 91; flight attendants’ union co-founder

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In an era when most stewardesses were forced to resign if they married or had children, Edith Lauterbach and four other female flight attendants organized the first union to fight for equal rights in the sky, in 1945.

Lauterbach, a San Francisco resident who was the last surviving founder of the union, died Monday. She was 91.

Her death was announced by the Washington, D.C.-based Assn. of Flight Attendants-CWA, the successor of that early union. No other details were released.


“The evolution of the flight attendant profession and the legacy of Edith Lauterbach go hand in hand,” the union said in a statement. Her “fearlessness and devotion to advancing rights at work ... paved the way for thousands of flight attendants.”

When Lauterbach joined United in 1944, female flight attendants were called “coeds” and could be dismissed for the sins of marrying, being overweight or reaching their early 30s.

“I had planned to fly one year and quit,” Lauterbach told the Knight-Ridder News Service in 1985. “It was a male-dominated industry and they weren’t anxious to have women hang around.”

Instead she became the first flight attendant union member to mark 40 years at an airline, according to the union. She retired in 1986.

Flight attendants were called “sky girls” when United hired the first one, in 1930. The airline was also the first to have its labor policies regarding women challenged, according to the 2007 book “Femininity in Flight.”

“After we flew for a while, we realized it wasn’t as glamorous as we thought,” Lauterbach said in a 1995 release marking the union’s 50th anniversary.


“We had to crawl on our hands and knees during rough weather and deliver meals in the turbulence, clean up after the passengers when they got sick.... Those little planes were all over the sky in bad weather,” she said.

Motivated by low pay, Lauterbach and three colleagues — Frances Hall, Sally Thometz and Sally Watt — backed chief United stewardess Ada Brown when she began organizing a union in 1944. At the time, Lauterbach made $125 a month, the equivalent of $1,630 today.

By mid-1945, the quintet had founded the Air Line Stewardesses Assn., which grew into the Assn. of Flight Attendants-CWA. The organization, part of the Communications Workers of America, represents almost 60,000 cabin-service personnel.

Over the decades, airlines dropped employment restrictions based on age, marital status and, except in rare circumstances, weight. The word “stewardess” eventually gave way to the gender-neutral “flight attendant” and men joined their ranks.

“Middle-aged men will come up to me and say it’s nice to see somebody their own age up here,” Lauterbach said when she was 63.

Edith Edna Lauterbach was born Oct. 1, 1921, in Oxnard, according to a union biography. She grew up on a farm overseen by her father, a high school chemistry teacher, and her mother, who grew flowers and peanuts.


Lauterbach earned a degree in political science from UC Berkeley in 1942 and later said she joined United as “a lark.”

On one flight in the 1940s, she fielded marriage proposals from each of 21 sailors returning home after World War II. “We were the glamour people, I suppose, with elegant uniforms,” Lauterbach told the Times of London in 1995 and pointed out that she had graciously said “no” 21 times.

Information on survivors was not immediately available.