Review of “The Great Rebellion of the Air Hostesses”: Revolution in the Sky

In the 1960s, air hostesses were, for one thing, young, thin, single women. But did they have to be to do the job? When flight attendants, as they were then known, began appealing to the newly created Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to challenge airlines’ discriminatory hiring practices, airlines fought back, using what was called the BFOQ loophole in Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. They defended their right to hire only women and fire them if they gained weight, married, became pregnant or entered their thirties, arguing that being a thin, single young woman was, in fact, a “bona fide professional qualification”. for location.

“It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that in the 1960s the airplane cabin was the most sexist workplace in America,” writes Nell McShane Wulfhart in “The Great Stewardess Rebellion.” Most mid-century passengers were male business travellers; airlines believed that having young, attractive flight attendants gave them a competitive advantage. Ms Wulfhart’s inspiring account describes how a number of flight attendants, galvanized by the women’s movement, took on the airlines and won.

Air hostesses demonstrate in 1965.


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Ms. Wulfhart, a journalist and author of the “Off Menu” audiobook, centers her story on Patt Gibbs and Tommie Hutto, American Airlines flight attendants who became union leaders. Ms. Gibbs entered the American Airlines Stewardess College in Dallas in 1962 at the age of 19, beginning the six-week training program after signing a contract acknowledging that her job depended on keeping her attractive, pleasant and single – and accepting that she would quit the job at the age of 32.

At Stewardess College, dubbed “the Charm Farm,” women learned food service and emergency procedures, but also learned to standardize their hairstyles, makeup, and nails. Slowly, the trainees began to resemble each other. (The fact that they were all white was not stated as the other requirements, but was implied; American did not hire its first black flight attendant until 1963.) “There was a saying among the stewardesses,” notes Ms. Wulfhart, a pilot acquired his identity when he put on his uniform, and a stewardess lost hers.

The Great Flight Attendant Rebellion: How Women Started a Workplace Revolution from 30,000 Feet

By Nell McShane Wulfhart

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The intense Mrs. Gibbs was quickly drawn into the union. The flight attendants were represented by the airline division of the massive transport workers’ union. Unlike Mrs. Gibbs and Mrs. Hutto, most flight attendants weren’t interested in the organization: age and marriage rules meant they wouldn’t stay long at work, so why bother? worry? Meanwhile, the men of the union – bus drivers, subway conductors, baggage handlers and maintenance workers – never failed to remind the women that they had families to support. Ms. Gibbs came to feel that at every turn, in Ms. Wulfhart’s words, “flight attendants were dominated by men, both American management and TWU management.”

The passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 opened up legal avenues for flight attendants. Their main grievances centered on marriage and age rules, as well as humiliating weight checks. “The scale was militarized,” writes Ms Wulfhart, with management planning frequent public weigh-ins for hostesses perceived as troublemakers.

When the women’s liberation movement exploded in the late 1960s, some flight attendants began to protest. Airline marketing frequently sexualized flight attendants. (Several blatant advertisements are reproduced in the book.) In 1971, flight attendants joined members of the National Organization for Women to picket outside the offices of the advertising agency at the origin of National Airlines’ infamous “Fly Me” campaign, which featured real-life flight attendant Cheryl Fioravante. provocatively into the camera under the caption “I am Cheryl. Fly me. Picket signs read “Go Fly Yourself.” The following year hundreds, including Ms Hutto, joined Stewardesses for Women’s Rights, an activist group that found a staunch supporter in Gloria Steinem.

Over the course of contract negotiations and lawsuits, the hostesses gradually progressed. The eventual elimination of age and marriage rules offered the possibility of a career instead of a brief stint between school and marriage. In 1971, after Celio Diaz, a man who had been denied a job as a steward, sued Pan Am for sex discrimination and won, men began to enter the ranks. Women used men as leverage to negotiate changes to their contracts. If men could do the job in flats, for example, why should women wear three-inch heels? When their new male counterparts got single rooms – the stewardesses always had to double – American’s wives angered the airline and the union by twice rejecting the contract, insisting it fix the problem of bedroom. The American finally gave in.

Mrs. Wulfhart is not the only author in recent years to rehabilitate the reputation of the air hostess unfairly decried in the cultural imagination. Ms. Steinem’s 2015 memoir, “My Life on the Road,” credits flight attendants with fighting sexism and workplace harassment; Julia Cooke’s “Come Fly the World,” released last year, highlights the pivotal role of Pan Am flight attendants in Operation Babylift, the mass evacuation of orphans from Saigon at the end of the Vietnam War. Much of the ground in “The Great Stewardess Rebellion” has already been covered, most notably in Kathleen Barry’s 2007 “Femininity in Flight.” But Ms. Wulfhart is a lively storyteller who writes with energy and style, and the experiences of Patt and Tommie, passionately pushing both the airline and the union to catch up with changing times, gives his story a poignant character.

One million applicants competed for 10,000 air hostess positions in 1965, Ms Wulfhart reports. Of course, commercial air travel no longer projects the glamor that attracted young women to these jobs in droves. The 21st century travel experience means long security lines, delays, shrinking legroom and the occasional unruly passenger. Flight attendants surely still suffer their share of indignities at 30,000 feet, but these days we all do.

Ms. Spindel’s book reviews appear in the Christian Science Monitor, the San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere.

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