Event, Politics, Women's History

Up In The Air – Women as Flight Attendants Seeking Equality

With the coming of flight, women made an impact as pilots through the exploits of the United States’ Amelia Earhart, Australia’s Nancy-Bird Walton and their ilk. When aircraft became accessible to civilians for business and tourist travel, a new field of paid employment opened up for women.  Initially, all roles went to men: men were pilots and men were ‘stewards’. As is so often the case, where new fields of employment open, women are rarely first in line. As also happens in service jobs, in particular, women enter the ranks, heralding a change of character in the employment, at least in the way it is perceived.

Internationally, men still held flight attendant posts as’stewards. This was so with the major Australian carrier, Qantas, with British Airways (BOAC as it was) and international airlines out of the United States. Nonetheless women moved in as ‘air hostesses’ – today known as ‘flight attendants’, albeit this renaming came through a vigorous campaign which extended worldwide. 

Since its inception, air travel has been a site for women’s activism. The transformation from ‘airhostess’ to ‘flight attendant’ brought about a sustained change in the way airlines promote their services. This  campaign in the air was grounded in the contention that women should gain and hold posts at the same status level as their male counterparts, and that the job of flight attendant – whether occupied by a woman or a man – should be recognised as professional, an outcome of sustained training of individuals holding qualifications often including a facility in several languages as well as the standard requirement of health and safety certification.

At Brunel University in March 2012, the SHAW (Society for the History of Women of the Americas) conference, organised by Rachel Ritchie and Jay Kleinberg, brought into sharp focus the background to the struggle for women’s entry and recognition as professionals in the field. A keynote address and discussion concluded the conference, with Janet Morgan – a former flight attendant – speaking of her induction and experiences with Pan American or ‘PanAm’ (Pan American World Airways).

Swiftly, women became sought after as employees, with major and smaller airlines seeing women as major drawcards, for from the outset flight attracted male custom. Hence, the notion that women would be ideal to ‘serve’ passengers. This led to the highly publicised equal opportunity/anti-discrimination cases, run by women in the United States against Eastern Airlines, National Airlines and Continental Airlines. At the heart of these cases were rules set down by airline companies requiring flight attendants to conform to weight requirements, (non-married) marital status, dress and grooming standards which blatantly promoted them as sex objects.

Eastern Airlines was taken to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EOC) for its weight restrictions: an ‘air hostess’, Jan Jarrell, claimed sex discrimination for having been dismissed for breaching the weight standards: 5’9″ in height, she exceeded the upward limit of 132 pounds by one or two pounds, despite the ‘limit’ being below that medically-approved for her height.  Claims against Eastern and other airlines (Continental and National) hightlighted the danger women faced in the sky, not through the possibility of airline accidents, but because airline advertising campaigns promoted the notion that they were (as was claimed in one of these discrimination cases) ‘brothels in the sky’.

Slogans objected to included ‘I’m Carol, Fly Me’ and ‘We Really Move Our Tails for You’, which – atop age limitations (women were fired once they reached the age limit) and requirements that ‘hostesses’ should remain single (women were fired, too, if they married – and the employer discovered this ‘breach’) – not so subtly suggested that male passengers should think of the women as there not only to serve, but to service, their (almost) every need. This resulted in flight attendants being propositioned and even assaulted: one of the Eastern Airlines flight attendants resigned after having had her skirt torn off by a drunken passenger.

EEOC claims resulted in an end to marriage restrictions and age limitations (applied to women employees only), as well as an end to pregnancy discrimination.

Women’s airline activism carried over into the 1980s. An EEOC claim filed in the 1960s resulted in an eventual settlement for $ US 33mill. through the Federal Court in Illinois. United Airlines was reported as having agreed, through the settlement, to pay this amount in backpay and to reinstate 475 fight attendants who had been dismissed under the ‘no-marriage’ rule in the mid-1960s. One report noted that once approved by a federal judge, this would ‘end one of the nation’s oldest, most complex and emotional sex-discrimination cases’ which had ‘twice prompted rulings by the US Supreme Court’.

Parallel with this struggle, albeit commencing a decade later, women waged another airline war, this time for the right to be accepted as qualified to fly commercial aircraft. Deborah Wardley, an Australian pilot, made a claim through the then newly constituted Equal Opportunity Board under the Equal Opportunity Act 1977 (Victoria). Her claim on the basis of sex/gender discrimination applied by Ansett Airlines in rejecting her application to become an Ansett pilot, rested upon strong grounds. She held premier academic qualifications, had totted up more than the required number of flying hours, and excelled in sports as well as passing all the Ansett tests (including a psychological evaluation) with flying colours. Amongst other ‘reasons’, Ansett said that training her would be ‘wasted’ as she would have to resign or at least take time out for having children. This ignored the sometimes chequered careers of men trained as pilots by Ansett – who left for myriad reasons, some going to other airlines and some taking alternative employment opportunities in other fields.

Today, it remains relatively unusual to hear a female voice pronouncing ‘This is your captain speaking’, although the notion of women piloting planes is no longer foreign to the industry. Women continue to be prominent as flight attendants – their role enhanced, no doubt, by the fact that passengers no longer comprise mostly men, with a few women dotted here and there. The air is now open to women and men passengers, accessing the services of professionally trained and regarded flight attendants, who are no longer obliged to ‘fit’ a spectacularly limited vision of ‘what a woman is’ – at least in the sky.

Jocelynne A. Scutt (c) January 2013


‘Airline Ends Sex-bias Suit for $33 Million’, http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1986-07-10/news/8602190033_1_flight-attendants-eeoc-discrimination (accessed 11 January 2013)

Jocelynne A. Scutt, Growing Up Feminist – The New Generation of Australian Women, Angus & Robertson, 1986, Sydney, Australia, reprinted Artemis Publishing, 1996, Melbourne, Australia.

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