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Early Flight Attendants Were the Ultimate Feminists

By Liv Greene

Apr 19, 2022

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In the 1960s and 1970s, flight attendants—including Patt Gibbs (left), who worked for American Airlines—transformed the deeply sexist airline industry.

Photograph by Frank Wolfe

In the 1960s and 1970s, flight attendants—including Patt Gibbs (left), who worked for American Airlines—transformed the deeply sexist airline industry.

Weight checks, makeup checks, marriage restrictions—early flight attendants faced extreme gender discrimination. A new book, “The Great Stewardess Rebellion,” reveals how they fought back.

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“Ballsy.” “Brave.” “Rule-breaking.”

Who comes to mind when you hear these adjectives? For author Nell McShane Wulfhart, it’s America’s flight attendants of the 1960s and 1970s, a cohort of labor leaders and feminists who faced multiple tiers of discrimination as they crisscrossed the skies. In her new book, The Great Stewardess Rebellion (Doubleday; April 19, 2022), full of interviews and anecdotes that read like fictional adventures, Wulfhart stitches together the stories of a group of young flight attendants as they transformed not only their workplace but also their lives for the better.

I worked as a flight attendant at a regional airline for 15 years, so I read with great interest and curiosity. What would I learn about the history of my own profession? What would travelers discover about the hidden side of this industry? I recently called Wulfhart to hear more about this rebellion, and the lessons it provides that are still valuable today.

What was the great stewardess rebellion?

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The great stewardess rebellion was a movement born from a gradual piling up of workplace injustices for flight attendants [then known as stewardesses] and the coinciding women’s and civil rights movements. It was more of a slow burn than a single event and led to the transformation of what was arguably the most sexist workplace in America—the airline cabin—from one full of smiling, passive, sky girls into one full of labor leaders and feminists. They turned what was essentially a temporary job—a rest stop between school/college and marriage—into an actual career with all the associated benefits, privileges, and responsibilities.

Why was it important then, and how is it still relevant today?

Stewardesses were among the first to harness the full power of the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s Title VII, which specifically prohibited discrimination in the workplace. Realizing its potential for use against sex discrimination, they flooded the EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, created to enforce Title VII] with complaints about discriminatory firings of stewardesses over marital status, age, weight, and other sexist requirements. You can trace the impact of their actions, which were at the forefront of the women’s movement, leading to the greater workplace equality we see today.

What were some of the challenges they fought?

In addition to airline requirements that they be single, childless, and younger than 32 to 35, there were some rather seamy working conditions behind the luxurious, glamorous image we associate with flying in the 1960s. Stewardesses were subject to random and demoralizing weight checks, girdle checks, makeup checks, and more. [Editor’s note: Congresswoman Martha Griffiths famously asked in an unflinching letter to a major airline executive: “What are you running, an airline or a whorehouse?”]  

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Failing to meet the airline standards could result in immediate dismissal. The weight restrictions were harsh, and eating disorders were rampant because of them. You couldn’t be a stewardess if you wore glasses, or if you had a scar on your hand. Pilots and male flight attendants had private hotel rooms on layovers, but female flight attendants were required to share a room, sometimes with someone on an opposite schedule. And they were paid less than cabin cleaners and mechanics [who were represented by the same Transportation Workers Union]. Their union representatives were men who refused to take their concerns seriously.

What changes were they able to achieve?

Gradually, the marriage ban was struck down, weight and personal appearance guidelines loosened, they got private hotel rooms on layovers, better pay, and men were finally accepted as flight attendants. [In 1977 they left TWU and] formed their own union, [Association of Professional Flight Attendants].

Nell McShane Wulfhart, author of the new book “The Great Stewardess Rebellion.”

In the book, one of the driving forces behind achieving those wins was the Stewardesses for Women’s Rights group, which formed in 1972. Can you explain what that was and who was behind it?

SFWR was a group of stewardesses from many different airlines that started to address the massive inequalities in their own workplace. They picketed the ad agencies who were running campaigns that featured stewardesses as “playmates in the sky.” They supported each other through sexist encounters with their bosses. They got incredible press—angry stewardesses were a great hook!—that really drew tons of attention to the sexist working conditions in the cabin. They held conferences, had chapters all over the country, and provided incredible support for each other as they all tried to push back and establish better working conditions.

There must have been so many people and stories that didn’t make it into the final book. Can you tell us some that you feel are important for travelers to know about?

Two come to mind. One was Patricia Ireland, who was the president of the National Organization for Women for 10 years [1991–2001]. She had been a Pan Am flight attendant from 1967 to 1975, during which time her husband was a student. The airline refused to pay for his insurance when he needed dental work because Patricia was a woman, even though she was the head of household. She pushed back and won. That win meant other married female flight attendants now had health insurance for their husbands.

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The other was Joan Dorsey, the first African American flight attendant hired at American Airlines. She was really interesting, and I had a lot of material on her, but because she wasn’t involved with the unions I had to cut a lot of it, as it wasn’t related to the main point of the book.

Has this changed you as an air traveler and your own perspective of flight attendants?

I didn’t realize how hard flight attendants work before I researched this book, how much time they spend on the job, and how little of that time is paid time. And just the working conditions. Every time I see a flight attendant who is my age or older, or wearing a wedding ring, or is not a size two, I think Oh! That is because of these women that I wrote about, that is because of my stewardesses! It is eye-opening.

What do you want readers and travelers to take from this story?

The ideas associated with stewardesses, now known as flight attendants, are so different from the reality of what these women were doing. They were powerful, militant, feminist unionists. It is important to know that flight attendants have been and continue to be at the forefront of the labor movement. Also, the reminder of how different things were for women, even just 50 years ago, and how the push for equality in the cabin benefited women today.

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>>Next: The Power of Women in Travel

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