Book Review of “The Great Stewardess Rebellion: How Women Launched a Workplace Revolution at 30,000 Feet” by Nell McShane Wulfhart

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For young women in the 1960s, it was a daring decision to go to heaven and become a flight attendant. The airlines boasted about how many applicants they rejected who did not meet strict requirements for beauty and weight. “Presenting The Losers” blasted an ad from 1967 showing a collection of 19 beautiful but non-smiling women, which the now defunct carrier, Eastern, said it had rejected. “If the look was everything, it would not be so harsh,” the ad says. “Of course we want her to be beautiful… do not you? … But we do not stop there. “We do not want a flight attendant to be impatient with any questions you may have, or careless in serving your dinner or indifferent to your needs.”

Some sexist demands had been left out when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made gender discrimination illegal, but the airline model with a cadre of young, single, beautiful women serving mostly male business travelers resisted meaningful change until flight attendants took matters into their own hands and organized . (Nowhere does Eastern Air Lines mention the safety ad. It was not 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 commercials and related anecdotes to “The Great Stewardess Rebellion: How Women Launched a Workplace Revolution at 30,000 Feet,” her tale of how the aviation industry was transformed from within. The women at the heart of this transformation were supposed to only stay in their jobs for a few years and over time were accustomed to accepting manifestly unreasonable demands – such as forced retirement at the age of 32 – in exchange for an adventure they did not could find elsewhere. Although the job promised glamor and independence, there were also degrading “belt checks” (belts were mandatory), draconian weight limits and a minimum height requirement, which was reached by an airline chief who picked up women of various sizes and made them reach the upper room. , while sitting and watching. “He decided when he saw too much leg and when he did not see, and then the minimum height requirement was born,” Wulfhart writes.

Today, the term “stewardess” has been retired, and the once only female job opened for men. “Flywarder” has taken their place as besieged frontline professionals in an increasingly unruly workplace 30,000 feet in the air.

The process of turning young stewardesses into union activists was lengthy, full of setbacks and false starts. A first attempt, a support organization called the Stewardesses for Women’s Rights (SFWR), was short-lived, but it caught the attention of the public when Harry Reasoner, an ABC news anchor, welcomed the SFWR’s goal of security certification and said: “I do not want a sex object in a narrow aisle.But I also do not want a sour union member.I want a youthful and illusory who looks like she thought flying was fun, even though she knows more about emergency evacuation of planes than I would like to think on.” About stewardesses in general, he added: “They should be there for a few years and then, like the clouds outside the windows, be replaced with soft and soft new ones.”

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

These pioneering women did not shy away from their appeal. They used it as a weapon. In 1963, eight flight attendants held a press conference at the New York Commodore Hotel. In uniform, perfectly coiffed and with many legs, they dared the assembled journalists to guess who was older than 32.

“Do I look like an old bag?” exclaimed the eldest in the group, who was 35. The airlines did not always fire older flight attendants, but instead moved them to other jobs and disappeared them in reality – sometimes at great emotional cost. Wulfhart quotes a woman who is so discouraged about being hidden away and feeling less relevant that she took her life.

Following the adoption of the Civil Rights Act, airlines hired psychologists to argue that women possessed qualities of care that men did not have and that the ban on married women was essential to harmony in the home; airline executives worried about having to deal with angry husbands. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission vehemently rejected these gender-based arguments in 1968.

Wulfhart begins her story with “charm farm”, a college for flight attendants in Dallas, run by American Airlines, where Patt Gibbs, the book’s main character, arrived at the age of 19, after closing a troublesome gap between her front teeth so she could make it. the character.

Gibbs was criticized from top to bottom on features like hairstyle, nail care and gait. “You walk like a gorilla,” she was told. A star-eyed Midwestern who was eager to flee home with no thoughts of a career, she was an unlikely union activist.

After attending an early organizing meeting out of curiosity, she was quickly appointed to one leadership position after another, and through her eyes, the twists and turns of how the Association of Professional Stewardesses was born appear.

There were battles for recognition and equal pay, and stewardesses had to share hotel rooms as these brave women considered breaking out of the powerful Transport Workers Union and joining the Teamsters union, where the infamous workers’ boss Jimmy Hoffa ruled.

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 those bastards get you down,” which she later learned he routinely handed out to visitors. It was intoxicating stuff for women who were 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 to men and equalized for all, that the timeline of these inflection points is lost in the narrative. Much societal change that Wulfhart tangentially deals with made the climate more favorable for a breakaway union with women at the helm. In 1972, Ms. Magazine’s first issue, which sold out in eight days. It called for desexe the English language, and replacing “policeman” with “police officer” and “stewardess” with “stewardess.” In 1973, Billie Jean King defeated Bobby Riggs in three sets in a row in what was called the “Battle of the Sexes”.

With this book, Wulfhart, through his wonderful research, secures a place for the women who have endured all sorts of insults, to create a better future for those who put their lives at stake every day in a job that was once considered not serious.

Eleanor Clift is a columnist for Daily Beast.

The great stewardess revolt

How women launched a 30,000-foot workplace revolution

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