Many of the fashion crazed out there are often inspired by the flight attendants of the past. From the crisp brightly colored uniforms to the hats to those perfectly round suitcases, they're often looked to as a source of inspiration from the past. But we owe a lot more than fashion to stewardesses; we also have to credit them as major players in igniting the women's rights movement.


In the sixties, not only were stewardesses who were married banned from working, but stewardesses were forced into early retirement at the age of 32. An airline exec was once quoted "It is the sex thing pure and simple. Put a dog on an airplane and 20 businessmen are mad for a month." This vintage ad makes clear just how the airlines viewed their flight attendants at the time:


In case you can't see it, that tagline on the bottom reads: "Lockheed and PSA will give you a great big lift."

Due to this sort of discrimination, Colleen Boland and sixteen stewardesses testified before the House Labor Committee. The following, excerpted from the book Femininity in flight: a history of flight attendants by Kathleen M. Barry, shows how they were treated:

Boland's carefully prepared statement and legislative proposal were not what most interested the lawmakers, as immediately became clear. Representative James H. Scheuer, Democrat of New York, asked Boland to have her entourage stand, so that he and his colleagues could "visualize the dimensions of the problem.""Would the airlines tell us," Scheuer asked, "that these pretty young ladies are ready for the slag heap?"

Representative James G. Ohara, Democrat of Michigan and the committee chairman, observed that according to his own extensive experiences flying, stewardesses worked at "breakneck" speeds and clearly were not employed merely to "stand or sit around looking beautiful." "The gist of this problem," according to Representative WIlliam D. Hathaway, Democrat of Maine, was "the notion that airlines are flying bunny clubs." "The services in question can be performed by people who are 40, 50, and perhaps 60 years old."

To Representative Scheuer, who questioned Boland next, the more interesting matter was not stewardesses' function in commercial aviation but the age at which women ceased to be attractive: "I for one would oppose to my dying breath the principle that a women is less attractive, less alluring, and less charming after age 29 or 32 or 35. I think my colleagues on this committee will agree." "Especially if we want to be reelected," O'Hara added, drawing laughter again from the lawmakers and observers. In closing, O'Hara thanked Boland "for adding some beauty and grace" to the hearing through her presence, and that of her colleagues.


Stewardesses were also among the first to employ the use of Title VII as a defense against sexual discrimination and, in the spirit of the times, were ridiculed by the media and even by the executive director of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Herman Edelsberg. Edelsburg was quoted as saying to reporters "there are people on this commission that think that no man should be required to have a male secretary and I am one of them." In the 60's it was racial civil rights that was the big issue; the fact that women were having their own battles was yet to be taken seriously.

The press treated the inclusion of sex in Title VII as a laughable diversion from the sober matter of racial discrimination. When journalists bothered to note Title VII's ban on sex discrimination, it was generally to muse about Playboy Clubs being forced to hire male "bunnies," or "matronly vice-presidents" making passes at their male secretaries. The apathy of early EEOC toward women's rights was a major spur for veteran activists to form the National Organization for Women in 1966, in an effort to press for Title VII enforcement and more generally for "a fully equal partnership of the sexes" in American life. To Betty Friedan looking back a decade later, Title VII's prohibition of sex discrimination, a law "never meant to be enforced," "ignited the organization of the women's movement."

flying feminists

all quotes from the book Femininity in flight: a history of flight attendants by Kathleen M. Barry which crossed my desk and stole my attention at work today. I highly highly suggest giving it a read for yourself.

femininity in flight