Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants
Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants
By Kathleen M. Barry (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007, 328 pp. Cloth, $79.95, ISBN 9780822339342; Paper, $22.95, ISBN: 9780822339465).
Reviewed By John Olszowka, Mercyhurst College
Kathleen Barry's Femininity in Flight offers a fascinating look into the history of flight attendants in the United States. Barry's study begins with the earliest days of the profession when "sky girls" first graced the airlines in 1930, and concludes with an epilogue discussing the impact of 9/11 on the profession. She argues that while public perceptions of "glamour" often obscured their labor, flight attendants worked in an exacting industry. Moreover, contrary to their docile public image, flight attendants unionized and at times fought fiercely to gain recognition as workers, professionals, and women. According to Barry, "flight attendants emerged as among the most outspoken and successful workplace feminists" (1).
Barry's study begins with an examination of the early history of flight attendants. Conceived by Effie Church, a nurse and trained pilot, who sought to gain employment in the male-dominated airline industry, the first "sky girls" took to the air on May 15, 1930 for Boeing Air Transport. Initially, the female attendants represented a "secretive corps" of nurses who could dispense their practical knowledge to ease the often rough in-flight experiences that accompanied early commercial aviation. Publicly, however, the airlines de-emphasized the nursing background of its attendants, fearing it would raise safety concerns among a public already leery about flying. Instead, the company emphasized the female attendants' youth and physical appearance. What quickly emerged was a lasting image of female flight attendants who were white, young, single, slender, attractive, and personable.
Boeing's marketing success with its sky girls quickly produced imitators, and soon other carriers began employing female nurses as well. By World War II, the nursing requirement disappeared and employment ranks opened up. In the process, public attention shifted to the women and the purported lifestyle that accompanied their profession. Media attention and cultural fascination with the women, along with corporate advertising, soon crafted an increasingly "glamorized" ideal of flight attendants that ultimately minimized their contributions as workers and professionals. Instead, according to Barry, public focus centered on their "cosmopolitan lifestyle," which enabled flight attendants to travel, work on luxurious airplanes, and meet male travelers, securing "upwardly mobile marriages." Yet, as Barry shows, while women found their work personally appealing, the "wages of glamour" required arduous work. Women crafted their bodies and personalities to comply with an industry that demanded physical perfection from its stewardesses. In addition, with growing economic competition among airlines, companies placed emphasis on luxury and service as a means of recruiting prospective fliers. Thus for flight attendants, the 1940s translated into "beauty makeovers," compulsorily weigh-ins, and a more physically taxing work environment.
Yet, as Barry convincingly shows, attendants insisted that they be treated as professional employees who possessed skills and knowledge, especially when it came to air safety. They sought acknowledgement that their jobs entailed "more than good grooming and womanly concern for others" (63). This quest for respectability led flight attendants to collective action, culminating in the formation of the Air Line Stewards and Stewardesses Association (ALSSA) in 1945, an independent organization chartered by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). Attendants, through the ALSSA, fought to secure better wages, improve work conditions, end the rule prohibiting marriage, and attain the union shop. By the 1950s, the ALSSA's efforts concentrated on securing safety certification for flight attendants from the Federal Aviation Administration. Flight attendants hoped that certification would lead to greater job security and professional recognition.
Barry argues that while union organization received strong support from attendants, it was not without its problems. The ALSSA's subordinate status to the male-controlled ALPA created dissatisfaction and led to a dissident movement that split the ALSSA membership, prompting a legal struggle between the two organizations. Adding to the flight attendants' problems, the internal union struggle coincided with a period in which working conditions deteriorated. As Barry shows, the industry's shift to jet aircraft in the 1960s led to the speed-up. Attendants found themselves working on shorter flights, in larger airplanes, with the same size crew. The situation meant a more grueling work environment that emphasized speed, while continuing to maintain high expectations of quality service. In fact, in the early 1960s companies actually increased the passengers' expectations when it came to service. Flight attendants not only found themselves working faster and harder, but also dealing with increasing numbers of dissatisfied and abusive customers.
The turning point for fight attendants, according to Barry, came in the mid-1960s with the growing struggle for women's rights. Through Title VII, attendants secured dramatic changes in their work lives including an end to restrictions limiting employment to age thirty five, elimination of the no-marriage clause, and an end to the policy of refusing to hire divorced workers. The achievements under Title VII gradually empowered women and contributed to a "stewardess rebellion" in the 1970s. According to Barry, the catalyst for the rebellion came from the hyper-sexualized advertising campaigns to lure in passengers amidst a struggling market. With sexually suggestive slogans such as "Fly Me," and "We Really Move Our Tails for You," the industry's image of flight attendants shifted from cosmopolitan, brides-in-training to swinging sex-kittens. This new public image led to increased sexual harassment, setting the stage for the rebellion. When it was over, flight attendants initiated "autonomy drives" to gain control over their unions, which opened the door to greater control over their work lives. Still, it would take the disaster of 9/11 for flight attendants to finally attain the federal safety certification that they sought for nearly half a century. Unfortunately, as Barry concludes, the victory was "bittersweet," coming at a time when working in the struggling airline industry is becoming increasingly more tenuous.
Femininity in Flight is an interesting study that adds to the history of aviation, labor, feminism, and the women's movement. Barry does a particularly strong job of showing how cultural
[pp. [NA]]history, such as notions of "glamour," not only shaped the flight attendants' experiences but also informed their feminism. If there is one criticism, it would be that Barry does not do enough to explore the dynamic on the "shop floor." For example, beginning in the 1960s black women, with the help of civil rights activists, began to overturn the industry's racially discriminatory employment policies. Interestingly, white female flight attendants and their labor unions resisted the change. According to Barry, the resistance had little to do with racism and instead centered on the fear that black stewardesses would detract from the "glamour" of their jobs. While Barry offers a plausible explanation, the racial dimensions of flight attendants' labor and public image demand further exploration. Similarly, Barry does not adequately explore the ramifications of the constant labor turnover in the industry, which prior to the 1970s, limited employment to 2-3 years. One cannot help but wonder how much the activism of the late-1960s was simply the product of a new generation of flight attendants that were more politically informed and perhaps possessed different economic or social backgrounds. Still, these flaws are relatively minor, and do not take away from what is a strong and worthwhile study.
John Olszowka is an Assistant Professor of History at Mercyhurst College. He is currently working on a study examining work and labor at the Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor Company, 1908-1946.