The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The women who made the skies a lot friendlier for flight attendants

Nancy Wheelock Mayfield, pictured at her Los Angeles home in 1967, was forced to leave her stewardess job with American Airlines when the company learned she was married. She and the Transport Workers Union fought back, winning a decision from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that the practice constituted discrimination against married women. (Wally Fong/AP)
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For young women in the 1960s, taking to the skies and becoming a stewardess was a daring decision. The airlines boasted about how many applicants they turned away who didn’t meet strict beauty and weight requirements. “Presenting The Losers” blared a 1967 ad showcasing an assemblage of 19 good-looking but unsmiling women whom the now-defunct carrier, Eastern, said it had rejected. “If looks were everything, it wouldn’t be so tough,” the ad says. “Sure, we want her to be pretty … don’t you? … But we don’t stop there. … We don’t want a stewardess to be impatient with a question you may have, or careless in serving your dinner, or unconcerned about your needs.”

Some sexist requirements had been shed when the 1964 Civil Rights Act made gender discrimination illegal, but the airlines’ model of a cadre of young, single, beautiful women catering to mostly male business travelers resisted meaningful change until stewardesses took matters into their own hands and organized. (Nowhere does the Eastern Air Lines ad mention safety. It wasn’t until 2003 that Congress agreed that flight attendants should be safety-certified and licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration like pilots and mechanics.)

The travel writer Nell McShane Wulfhart brings a treasure trove of vintage ads and relatable anecdotes to “The Great Stewardess Rebellion: How Women Launched a Workplace Revolution at 30,000 Feet,” her narrative of how the airline industry was transformed from within. The women at the heart of this transformation were meant to stay in their jobs only a few years and were accustomed by the times to accepting blatantly unreasonable demands — such as forced retirement at age 32 — in exchange for an adventure they could not find anywhere else. Though the job promised glamour and independence, there were also demeaning “girdle checks” (girdles were mandatory), draconian weight limits and a minimum height requirement arrived at by an airline executive who brought in women of various sizes and had them reach up to the overhead compartment while he sat and watched. “He decided when he was seeing too much leg, and when he wasn’t, and so the minimum height requirement was born,” Wulfhart writes.

Today, the term “stewardess” has been retired and the once female-only job opened to men. “Flight attendants” have taken their place as beleaguered front-line professionals in an increasingly unruly workplace 30,000 feet in the air.

The process of changing young stewardesses into union activists was a lengthy one, full of setbacks and false starts. An initial attempt, a support organization called Stewardesses for Women’s Rights (SFWR), was short-lived, but it got the public’s attention when Harry Reasoner, an ABC news anchor, applauded SFWR’s goal of safety certification, saying: “I don’t want a sex object in a narrow aisle. But I don’t want a surly union member either. I want someone youthful and illusory who looks like she thought flying was fun even if she knows more about emergency evacuation of airplanes than I’d like to think about.” About stewardesses in general, he added, “They should be there for a few years and then, like the clouds outside windows, be replaced with soft and fluffy new ones.”

The SFWR blasted Reasoner, saying his statement was just as ridiculous as suggesting that he should step aside “to make room for the younger, more attractive and virile looking men in your industry.” Reasoner retracted his statement.

These pioneering women didn’t shy away from their attractiveness. They used it as a weapon. In 1963, eight stewardesses held a news conference in New York’s Commodore Hotel. In uniform, perfectly coifed and showing a lot of leg, they dared the assembled reporters to guess who was older than 32.

“Do I look like an old bag?” exclaimed the oldest of the group, who was 35. The airlines didn’t always fire older stewardesses, instead moving them into other jobs, in effect disappearing them — sometimes at great emotional cost. Wulfhart cites one woman so despondent over being hidden away and made to feel less relevant that she took her life.

After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the airlines hired psychologists to make the case that women possessed qualities of nurturing that men did not, and that the ban on married women was essential to harmony at home; airline executives worried about having to deal with angry husbands. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission roundly rejected these gender-based arguments in 1968.

Wulfhart begins her narrative with the “charm farm,” a college for stewardesses in Dallas run by American Airlines, where Patt Gibbs, the book’s main character, arrived at age 19, having had a troublesome gap between her front teeth closed for her to make the grade.

Gibbs was critiqued from top to bottom, on traits such as hairstyle, nail care and gait. “You walk like a gorilla,” she was told. A starry-eyed Midwesterner eager to escape home without any thoughts of a career, she was an unlikely union activist.

After attending an early organizing meeting out of curiosity, she was quickly drafted to one leadership position after another, and through her eyes, the twists and turns of how the Association of Professional Flight Attendants was born in 1977 come into view.

There were fights over recognition and equal pay and stewardesses having to share hotel rooms as these brave women considered breaking away from the powerful Transport Workers Union and joining the Teamsters union, where the notorious labor boss Jimmy Hoffa reigned.

Hoffa sent Frank Sinatra’s private plane to bring Gibbs and her cohorts to Washington for a meeting. He gave Gibbs a sign in Latin that, translated, said, “Don’t let the bastards get you down,” which she later learned he routinely handed out to visitors. It was heady stuff for women testing their bargaining power in a rapidly changing culture.

There is so much compelling detail in the story of how stewardesses became flight attendants, how the field was opened to men and equalized for all, that the timeline of these inflection points gets lost in the telling. Much societal change that Wulfhart tangentially deals with made the climate more favorable for a breakaway union spearheaded by women. In 1972, Ms. Magazine published its first issue, which sold out in eight days. It called for desexing the English language, replacing “policeman” with “police officer” and “stewardess” with “flight attendant.” In 1973, Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in three straight sets in what was billed as the “Battle of the Sexes.”

With this book, Wulfhart, through her prodigious research, secures a place for the women who endured all manner of indignities to forge a better future for those who put their lives on the line every day in a job once regarded as frivolous.

Eleanor Clift is a columnist with the Daily Beast.

The Great Stewardess Rebellion

How Women Launched a Workplace Revolution at 30,000 Feet

By Nell McShane Wulfhart

Doubleday 309 pp. $30

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