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Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants

Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants

by Kathleen Barry, Daniel J. Walkowitz (Editor), Daniel J. Walkowitz (Editor)

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“In her new chic outfit, she looks like anything but a stewardess working. But work she does. Hard, too. And you hardly know it.” So read the text of a 1969 newspaper advertisement for Delta Airlines featuring a picture of a brightly smiling blond stewardess striding confidently down the aisle of an airplane cabin to deliver a meal.

From the


“In her new chic outfit, she looks like anything but a stewardess working. But work she does. Hard, too. And you hardly know it.” So read the text of a 1969 newspaper advertisement for Delta Airlines featuring a picture of a brightly smiling blond stewardess striding confidently down the aisle of an airplane cabin to deliver a meal.

From the moment the first stewardesses took flight in 1930, flight attendants became glamorous icons of femininity. For decades, airlines hired only young, attractive, unmarried white women. They marketed passenger service aloft as an essentially feminine exercise in exuding charm, looking fabulous, and providing comfort. The actual work that flight attendants did—ensuring passenger safety, assuaging fears, serving food and drinks, all while conforming to airlines’ strict rules about appearance—was supposed to appear effortless; the better that stewardesses performed by airline standards, the more hidden were their skills and labor. Yet today flight attendants are acknowledged safety experts; they have their own unions. Gone are the no-marriage rules, the mandates to retire by thirty-two. In Femininity in Flight, Kathleen M. Barry tells the history of flight attendants, tracing the evolution of their glamorized image as ideal women and their activism as trade unionists and feminists.

Barry argues that largely because their glamour obscured their labor, flight attendants unionized in the late 1940s and 1950s to demand recognition and respect as workers and self-styled professionals. In the 1960s and 1970s, flight attendants were one of the first groups to take advantage of new laws prohibiting sex discrimination. Their challenges to airlines’ restrictive employment policies and exploitive marketing practices (involving skimpy uniforms and provocative slogans such as “fly me”) made them high-profile critics of the cultural mystification and economic devaluing of “women’s work.” Barry combines attention to the political economy and technology of the airline industry with perceptive readings of popular culture, newspapers, industry publications, and first-person accounts. In so doing, she provides a potent mix of social and cultural history and a major contribution to the history of women’s work and working women’s activism.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Femininity in Flight is outstanding. It is the most thoroughly presented book on femininity, work, and pink-collar activism to date. It expands the contours of the women’s rights movement and complicates the grounds on which women make demands for better working conditions.”— Eileen Boris, author of Home to Work: Motherhood and the Politics of Industrial Homework in the United States

Femininity in Flight is the first book that tells the story of the flight attendant occupation as a whole and gives us the history of the occupation in so compelling and rich a fashion. Kathleen M. Barry offers us an entertaining and witty account of how flight attendants embodied changing notions of femininity, and then she boldly challenges conventional wisdom by arguing that it was those very cultural constraints that in part spurred flight attendant activism.”— Dorothy Sue Cobble, author of The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America

Joshua Zeitz
[Femininity in Flight] combines all the strengths of a scholarly monograph—extensive archival research, a solid historiographical framework—with the kind of stylish layout and eye-catching illustration more common in books for the general reader. And Barry writes with clarity and wit. She tells a complicated story, but engrossingly.”
Nan Enstad
Femininity in Flight makes a significant contribution to our understanding of labor feminism, joining a body of work that challenges the notion that feminism was essentially a white middle-class movement. . . . A great read; it will keep you enlightened and entertained through even a lengthy flight delay.”
Dennis A. Deslippe
“[A] sophisticated and detailed study of flight attendants. . . . One of the many strengths of Barry’s book is the incorporation of the history of technology into her social and cultural analysis. . . . Readers will learn much from this deeply researched book.”
Anthony J. Stanonis
“Barry provides an entertaining study of American flight attendants since the 1930s, filling a major void in scholarship on labour history, women’s history, and tourism. Drawing particularly on memoirs, union records, and industry publications, Barry convincingly argues that stewardesses and their allies were vital to the advancement of second-wave feminism and the modern labour movement.”
The New Yorker
“Barry shows how ‘pink-collar’ activists among the ranks of flight attendants worked to improve the status of their profession. . . . Barry argues that the struggle to win professional respect was made particularly difficult by the conflict between the effortless glamour that attendants were expected to project and the tedium and difficulty of their actual responsibilities.”
Lisa Phillips
“Barry tells a fascinating story about the history of flight attendants and their success challenging deeply rooted gendered stereotypes that were largely invented by the airline industry to maximize profit and then exploited by air travelers and the public at large. . . . [E]ssential reading for historians and students of the twentieth century.”
Andrew O’Hagan
“Barry’s feminist analysis is clever and somewhat poignant, for it sees that in the role of the air hostess a vision of female selfhood and freedom has been forced to rub, rather uncomfortably, against a rather ogling set of corporate requirements.”
Paula Wehmeyer
“Soar through the pleasures and plights of females in flight with this highly informative read. . . . With a no nonsense writing style, well-documented evidence, and telling photos (marvel at the hot pants uniform on page 183), Barry demonstrates how flight attendants’ long history of organizing and fighting for their rights made them crusaders for all women and key contributors to second-wave feminism. After reading this you’ll step on a plane wanting to salute any veteran attendants for their journey as you embark on your own.”
Air & Space
“This well-researched book traces the evolution of flight attendants from glamorous sky queens to cabin safety experts and members of trade unions.”
Rosie Cox
"One of the great strengths of Femininity in Flight is the broad context within which Barry views flight attendants' struggles, in terms of women's work, union organisation and second-wave feminism. By contextualising her study so well and drawing out the parallels between stewardesses and other pink-collar workers, Barry has produced a book with wide appeal and relevance to many interested in labour history, the women's movement, and the growth of service work."

Product Details

Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
Radical Perspectives
Product dimensions:
6.20(w) x 9.50(h) x 1.00(d)

Read an Excerpt


A History of Flight Attendants
By Kathleen M. Barry

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2007 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-3934-2

Chapter One


Nurse-Stewardesses in the 1930s

In 1933 a reporter from the Toledo Sunday Times took dramatic note of a new job for women in Depression-era America. The airline stewardess "goes to work 5,000 feet above the earth, rushing through space at a rate of three miles a minute. She has been eulogized, glorified, publicized, and fictionalized during her comparatively short existence. She has become the envy of stenographers in New York and farmers' daughters in Iowa. She seems to be on the way to becoming to American girlhood what policemen, pilots, and cowboys are to American boyhood." With rhetorical flourish, this female journalist heralded the arrival of America's newest icon of femininity, the airline stewardess.

Though small in numbers, no more than a thousand by the end of the 1930s, female flight attendants sparked the imagination of many writers amid America's worst economic disaster. Aviation inspired excitement and romance during hard times, and stewardesses brought an air of reassuring femininity to the rough-and-ready world of flying. As many reporters declared, they met the challenges of rudimentary technologies and unpredictable passengers with unflappable charm, courage, and ingenuity. Amid economic hardship, social dislocation, and tendentious debates over women's right to employment, female flight attendants quickly gained a permanent place in airplane cabins and in popular culture as enviable "sky girls," with good looks, flawless hostess skills, and exciting jobs.

The flight attendant occupation took permanent shape in the 1930s as "women's work," that is, work not only predominantly performed by women but also defined as embodying white, middle-class ideals of femininity. As the nascent commercial aviation industry sought to lure well-heeled travelers into the air, airline managers and stewardesses together defined the new field of in-flight passenger service around the social ideal of the "hostess." A stewardess's foremost duty was to mobilize her nurturing instincts and domestic skills to serve passengers, much as middleclass, white women were expected to treat guests in their own homes. The early airlines' crystallizing ideal of the stewardess also demanded, however, that the hostess be as desirable as she was nurturing. From the start, stewardess work was restricted to white, young, single, slender, and attractive women. Female flight attendants quickly earned an enduring reputation as representing the best of American womanhood.

The hostess ideal and hiring restrictions not only stamped the flight attendant occupation itself as archetypal white "women's work" but also helped to shape racial and gender hierarchies in the culture and economy of the early-twentieth-century United States. African American male railroad porters, who numbered more than twenty thousand in the 1920s, had long embodied service expectations in long-distance domestic travel. Commercial air carriers elected instead to offer passengers a genteel "hostess," rather than a racially subordinate servant. By hiring only white employees for flight crews, airlines linked whiteness to technological prowess in an industry widely hailed as being at the cutting edge of modern commerce and mechanical ingenuity. But in segregating the flight crew by sex-men in the cockpit as pilots and women in the cabin as passenger attendants-airlines confirmed popular equations of masculinity with mechanical mastery and femininity with technology's domestication. Stewardesses entered the popular cultural imagination as the female "pioneers" of the modern frontier of flight-a feminizing influence in a race-coded paradigm of progress, with American aviation advancing capitalism and civilization throughout the nation and world.

With their "sky girls," airlines also contributed to elaborating the division of labor in the service economy as paid domestic labor declined and commercialized services burgeoned outside the home. Women's employment and the service sector would grow together, but higher-status public contact work would be largely reserved for whites, while racially subordinate groups would be segregated in lower-status, behind-the-scenes service jobs. The first generation of female flight attendants quickly became a glamorous aristocracy in the expanding pink-collar service hierarchy. As such, they helped define employers' and customers' expectations of feminized service in a commercial context, and the physical and social profile of the women who could best impress customers. The popular début of young, white women in airline passenger service in the 1930s would resonate for decades to come in commercial aviation, the service economy, and cultural fantasies of femininity in the United States.


The first stewardesses who took flight in 1930 embodied the growing efforts of airlines in the United States to lure passengers from other means of travel by providing transport that was not only faster but safe, reliable, and comfortable as well. For more than two decades after the Wright Brothers' historic flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, airplane rides represented thrilling entertainment or military derring-do to Americans, rather than a way to travel. Despite America's "airmindedness," in the historian Joseph Corn's phrase, it was western Europe that initially led the way with airline passenger transport in the wake of the First World War.

By the late 1920s, however, the government and public gave American carriers a new incentive to focus on passenger transport. Beginning in 1925 the federal government began more purposefully to nurture a passenger-focused airline industry by enacting legislation to turn over air mail to private contractors, fund the development of aviation technology and infrastructure, and then adjust the mail contract system to encourage the carriage of passengers along with mail. The Post Office in the later 1920s and early 1930s also promoted airline consolidation by generally awarding its most lucrative contracts to the largest, most well-established carriers, rather than the lowest bidders. Government officials used the mail contract system to ensure the growth and stability of the industry and especially to promote passenger service, which they hoped would eventually free airlines from the need for subsidies. Airlines based in the United States received an additional boost in 1927, when Charles Lindbergh enthralled the nation as the first aviator to complete a transatlantic flight. The feat won international acclaim for "Lindy" and served the aviation community as an advertisement for the growing reliability of aircraft and engine designs. Lindbergh's historic solo flight to Paris sparked unprecedented public interest and investor confidence in aviation.

In the late 1920s commercial aviation in the United States grew explosively. More than one hundred carriers were flying passengers, mail, and other cargo on routes connecting the nation's major cities and spanning the continent. Amid the flurry of start-ups, mergers, and acquisitions spurred by the aviation boom, the historic "Big Four" domestic airlines-United, American, Eastern, and TWA-and the international carrier Pan American emerged as industry leaders. By the end of the decade they were flying twelve-seat planes and experimenting with passenger-only routes. Passenger traffic on all of the nation's airlines expanded rapidly, from less than 9,000 in 1927 to more than 400,000 in 1930, despite the national slide into economic depression. Having been slow to start, by the late 1920s the airline industry in the United States outdistanced its European and Canadian competitors in total passenger traffic. By 1933 the Big Four alone carried more than half a million passengers.

During the 1930s aircraft manufacturers increasingly geared their designs to the growing business of passenger transport. In just a few years small planes of wood, wire, and fabric gave way to larger, sleeker metal craft with upholstered, climate-controlled interiors, prompting favorable comparisons with the Pullman rail cars that defined luxury travel on the ground. Douglas's DC-3, introduced in 1936, was the culmination of these trends and a watershed in its own right. It offered spacious, reclining seats for twenty-four for daytime flights, or berths for sixteen and two dressing rooms for overnight flights. With greater speed and hauling capacity than its predecessors, the DC-3 became the workhorse of the airline industry for decades. "It freed the air lines from complete dependency on government mail pay," remembered C. R. Smith, president of American Airlines, because it was "the first airplane that could make money just by hauling passengers." Within just a decade or so, technological advances and federal money enabled airlines to become a major competitor for American travelers' business.


In the later 1920s most travelers were understandably reluctant to choose airlines over railroads or ships, for flying was generally more expensive and widely perceived as more dangerous. As for comfort, as one historian has quipped, early commercial air travel often "verged on torment." Before the DC-3's arrival, cabins were cramped and offered little protection from temperature extremes, fuel odors, or the vibration and deafening roar of engines and propellers. Planes flew through rather than above the weather, making airsickness all too common. With rudimentary technologies on the ground as well, flights were often interrupted or canceled because of weather conditions or mechanical failures.

To woo the affluent traveler who could afford airfare, some carriers began to follow European airlines' practice of employing cabin attendants to offer the personalized attention and at least some of the creature comforts found on the rails or at sea. Carriers in Europe, then the United States, turned first to young, white men to attend to passengers. The first-ever flight attendants were teenagers hired as "cabin boys" by German and English airlines in 1922. By the later 1920s several European airlines were employing "stewards," adult men recruited from first-class hotels, restaurants, and ocean liners. America's first flight attendants took flight in 1926, when Stout Air Services of Detroit hired male "aerial couriers." Soon the overseas carrier Pan American and others followed suit. By the end of the decade several American carriers employed couriers or stewards to serve gourmet fare, chauffeur passengers to the airport, answer their questions in flight, and handle baggage and paperwork.

In looking to and across the Atlantic for their service standard, airlines eschewed what might have been the more logical model to emulate, that of their main competition. With the exception of Pan Am, airlines in the United States battled for market share with the railroads. The railroads since the later nineteenth century had famously relied upon male African American attendants to embody their ideal of passenger service. As black porters played host on luxurious Pullman cars, the role of the racially subordinate servant ultimately defined their relationship to affluent, white passengers. Indeed, popular cultural images collapsed porters into the racist caricature of "George," a docile, slow-witted, buffoonish attendant, and a close cousin to "Sambo," the simple-minded slave of the white antebellum imagination. Passengers, for their part, often invoked the stereotype by summoning porters as "George." Pullman's all-black maids, while far fewer in number, reinforced the racial inequalities of railcar service and made clear how gender and sexuality intertwined with racial stereotyping. Maids were employed to attend especially to women passengers, a means of mitigating the perceived dangers of intimate contact between porters and white women; maids also received lower wages than porters and harsher treatment from management. The black servility marketed by Pullman was belied by the skilled service that porters and maids provided, as well as the militant labor and civil rights activism of the porters' pioneering union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car porters. Still, racist custom and the Pullman Company's own advertising, though eager to portray attendants' competence, invited white rail passengers to expect racial dominance as part of the service they purchased.

Yet as railroads enabled the white traveler in effect to play master or mistress to black attendants, the commercial basis of this unequal relationship was explicit: passengers were expected to tip and had to pay for meals, drinks, and the use of pillows. In fact, part of the "George" stereotype was his shameless pursuit of tips-compensation that the Pullman Company used to justify low wages for porters. Tipping was well established in other travel and service industries as well by the twentieth century. On ocean liners passengers tipped their stewards, or less often the small number of stewardesses who, like Pullman maids, waited on lady passengers. In restaurants and hotels too, personal service typically generated gratuities that grew with the level of luxury offered. Travelers and diners may have liked to judge the attention they received in a noncommercial language of "courtesy" versus "rudeness," but tips cast porters' and other workers' service as undeniably for hire. As for the workers themselves, "tips go with servility," remarked a journalist in 1902, who marveled that "any native-born American could consent" to accepting a gratuity.

Early airlines distinguished themselves from the railroads and other sellers of service by offering the "fellowship" of whiteness and banishing tipping. The high cost of air travel skewed its possible customer base toward wealthy and thus largely white travelers, but even so, airlines reportedly discouraged the patronage of African Americans (calls for reservation were racially screened by residential address). To serve their white clientele, airlines employed passenger attendants to act as both host and servant, much like railroad porters, but the airlines also sought out "professional" and "attractive" young, white men and prohibited them from accepting gratuities. As an aviation writer later observed, airlines decided that "they would let George, the Pullman porter, collect the quarters and the half dollars." Customers "feel happier and impartially serviced" when "tipping for special attention is painlessly removed." With no charges or tipping, another writer elaborated, the airline attendant could "meet every passenger ... with a pleasant smile, and on a more or less personal basis of genial good fellowship." Gratis service and racial "fellowship" eased the problem of white male subservience and encouraged a sense of exclusive community in the face of fear and far less comfort than Pullman cars or ocean liners offered. Airline management further diminished any servile connotations attached to stewards' work by treating it as a possible stepping-stone to positions as pilots or executives.


Excerpted from FEMININITY IN FLIGHT by Kathleen M. Barry Copyright © 2007 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Kathleen M. Barry has a doctorate in history from New York University. She has taught American history at NYU and the University of Cambridge.

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