Review of “The Great Stewardess Rebellion: How Women Launched a Workplace Revolution at 30,000 Feet” by Nell McShane Wulfhart
Some sexist requirements had been dropped when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made sex discrimination illegal, but the airline model of a cadre of single, beautiful young women catering primarily to travelers from Male affairs resisted significant change until hostesses took matters into their own hands and organized. (Nowhere does Eastern Air Lines’ announcement mention safety. It wasn’t until 2003 that Congress agreed that flight attendants should be safety certified and licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration, as pilots and mechanics.)
Travel writer Nell McShane Wulfhart brings a treasure trove of vintage advertisements and relatable anecdotes to “The Great Flight Attendant Rebellion: How Women Started a Workplace Revolution from 30,000 Feethis account of how the airline industry has been transformed from within. The women at the heart of this transformation were only supposed to stay in their jobs for a few years and were accustomed by the time to agreeing to patently unreasonable demands – such as forced retirement at 32 – in exchange for an adventure they never wanted. could find anywhere else. . Although the job promised glamor and independence, there were also demeaning “belt checks” (belts were mandatory), draconian weight limits and a minimum height requirement set by an airline executive who brought women of different sizes and made them reach up to the overhead compartment while he sat and watched. “He decided when he saw too much leg, and when he didn’t, and so the minimum height requirement was born,” Wulfhart writes.
Today, the term “air hostess” has been retired and the job once reserved for women has been opened up to men. “Flight attendants” have taken their place as beleaguered frontline professionals in an increasingly unruly workplace 30,000 feet in the air.
The process of transforming young hostesses into union activists was long, full of pitfalls and false starts. A first attempt, a support organization called Stewardesses for Women’s Rights (SFWR), was short-lived, but it caught the public’s attention when Harry Reasoner, an ABC news anchor, applauded the goal of security certification from SFWR, saying, “I don’t want a sex object in a narrow aisle. But neither do I want a surly union man. I want someone young and delusional who looks to think flying was fun even though she knows more about airplane emergency evacuation than I think. Of flight attendants in general, he added, “They should be around for a few years , then, like the clouds outside the windows, be replaced by new, soft and fluffy ones.
The SFWR blasted Reasoner, saying his statement was every bit as ludicrous as suggesting he should step down “to make room for the younger, more attractive, more manly men in your industry.” Reasoner backtracked on his statement.
These pioneering women were not afraid of their lure. They used it as a weapon. In 1963, eight hostesses held a press conference at the Commodore Hotel in New York. In uniform, perfectly groomed and showing plenty of legs, they challenged the assembled reporters to guess who was over 32.
“Do I look like an old bag?” exclaimed the oldest of the group, who was 35 years old. Airlines haven’t always fired older stewardesses, but instead transferred them to other jobs, effectively wiping them out – sometimes at great emotional cost. Wulfhart cites a woman so discouraged at being hidden and feeling less relevant that she took her own life.
After the passage of the Civil Rights Act, airlines hired psychologists to argue that women had nurturing qualities that men did not, and that banning married women was essential to the home harmony; airline executives worried about having to deal with angry husbands. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission flatly rejected these sex-based arguments in 1968.
Wulfhart begins her tale with the “Charm Farm,” a college for flight attendants in Dallas run by American Airlines, where Patt Gibbs, the book’s title character, arrived at age 19, after having an awkward gap between her front teeth closed for her to make the note.
Gibbs was criticized from top to bottom, on traits such as hairstyle, nail care and gait. “You walk like a gorilla,” he was told. A starry-eyed Midwesterner eager to escape home with no thought of a career, she was an unlikely labor activist.
After attending an initial organizational meeting out of curiosity, she was quickly drafted into one leadership position after another, and through her eyes, the twists and turns of the birth of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants in 1977 appear.
There were fights for recognition and equal pay and flight attendants had to share hotel rooms as these brave women considered breaking away from the powerful transport workers union and joining the union of the Teamsters, where famous labor boss Jimmy Hoffa reigned.
Hoffa sent Frank Sinatra’s private plane to fly Gibbs and his cronies to Washington for a meeting. He gave Gibbs a sign in Latin which, translated, read, “Don’t let the bastards put you down”, which she later learned he regularly handed out to visitors. It was exhilarating for the women testing their bargaining power in a rapidly changing culture.
There are so many compelling details in the story of how stewardesses became stewardesses, how the field was opened up to men and equalized for all, that the timeline of these inflection points gets lost in the story. Many societal changes that Wulfhart indirectly deals with have made the climate more favorable for a separatist union led by women. In 1972, Ms. Magazine published its first issue, which sold out within eight days. He called for de-exorting the English language, replacing ‘policeman’ with ‘police officer’ and ‘air hostess’ with ‘air hostess’. 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 women who have endured all sorts of indignities to forge a better future for those who put their lives on the line every day in work once considered frivolous.
Eleanor Clift is a columnist for the Daily Beast.
The Great Hostess Rebellion
How Women Started a Workplace Revolution at 30,000 Feet