The Great Stewardess Rebellion: How Women Launched a Workplace Revolution at 30,000 Feet

The Great Stewardess Rebellion: How Women Launched a Workplace Revolution at 30,000 Feet

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

The Great Stewardess Rebellion: How Women Launched a Workplace Revolution at 30,000 Feet

by Nell McShane Wulfhart


    Qualifies for Free Shipping
    Check Availability at Nearby Stores

Related collections and offers


The empowering true story of a group of spirited stewardesses who “stood up to huge corporations and won, creating momentous change for all working women.” (Gloria Steinem, co-founder of Ms. magazine)

It was the Golden Age of Travel, and everyone wanted in. As flying boomed in the 1960s, women from across the United States applied for jobs as stewardesses. They were drawn to the promise of glamorous jet-setting, the chance to see the world, and an alternative to traditional occupations like homemaking, nursing, and teaching.

But as the number of “stews” grew, so did their suspicion that the job was not as picture-perfect as the ads would have them believe. “Sky girls” had to adhere to strict weight limits at all times; gain a few extra pounds and they’d be suspended from work. They couldn’t marry or have children; their makeup, hair, and teeth had to be just so. Girdles were mandatory while stewardesses were on the clock. And, most important, stewardesses had to resign at 32.

Eventually the stewardesses began to push back and it’s thanks to their trailblazing efforts in part that working women have gotten closer to workplace equality today. Nell McShane Wulfhart crafts a rousing narrative of female empowerment, the paradigm-shifting ’60s and ’70s, the labor movement, and the cadre of gutsy women who fought for their rights—and won.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385546454
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/19/2022
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 1,158,280
Product dimensions: 6.70(w) x 9.60(h) x 1.50(d)

About the Author

NELL MCSHANE WULFHART is a frequent contributor to the New York Times travel section and wrote the column "Carry On" from 2016-2019. She has written for Travel + Leisure, Bon Appétit, Condé Nast Traveler, The Wall Street Journal Magazine, and T Magazine. She is the author of the Audible Original Off Menu.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Honeybuns on the Charm Farm

Patt Gibbs became a stewardess to get away from her mother. Gracie Gibbs was a showboat, the best-known person in Springfield, Missouri. She had six children and a thirst for fame. When she and her husband started working at Sifferman’s, a local appliance store, black-and-white televisions were making their first appearance on the shelves. Gracie, who had an air of glamour and an endless belief in her own abilities, convinced the owner to let her star in his commercials, and she soon became known as the face of Sifferman’s. When she and Patt’s father, Bob, opened their own store—Appliances by Gracie—TV stations, still new, were in need of content. Gracie launched her own talk show, Gracie’s Good Neighbor. Local musical talent performed (Brenda Lee, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and other eventually famous singers) between interview segments and Beautiful Baby contests. As far as Springfield went, Gracie was a star.

Patt, who was second eldest, and her five brothers and sisters all made appearances, though Gracie wouldn’t let them use a script or dummy board—they were expected to remember all their lines. Patt tried her best on the show, but she never felt that she was quite what her mother had expected to get when she had a daughter. Her mother bought her ballet lessons; Patt traded them for trampoline classes. Patt asked for western gear as a Christmas gift, to wear to horse shows; instead she got modeling lessons. And while her mother’s fame eased the family’s money stresses, being known as “Gracie’s daughter” wasn’t what Patt had in mind for her life.

Patt didn’t become a stewardess because she was seeking adventure. Life up to this point had been far from boring. Her parents had moved the family from town to town, state to state, her entire existence. She was born Patricia Ann Gibbs in Cincinnati during World War II, but if she had been born two weeks earlier she would have been Patricia Ann Goldberg. In 1942, “Goldberg” was too Jewish for a town like Cincinnati, which had more than its fair share of German sympathizers, so Bob decided they needed a new name. The family didn’t get to choose for themselves; instead, the courts chose for them. And so Gibbs they became. They left Cincinnati, though, in part because their landlord discovered that Bob, an animal lover, was keeping a pet alligator in the bathtub. The Gibbs parents opened and then closed restaurants; they sold pots and pans door-to-door. Patt’s brother Bobby ran away with a circus that passed through town one year. Later on, Patt and her siblings would all work at the circus in the summers, Patt shoveling elephant dung, performing trampoline acts, even mastering the trapeze. The family lived in Kentucky, then Indiana, then Illinois, then Ohio again, then Florida. But it was in Springfield, as they were enjoying a modicum of success thanks to Gracie, that Patt decided to make a change.

It was 1961 and Patt was nineteen when her cousin Jim came to town. Jim Thorpe, like so many people in Patt’s family, had had several careers. He’d been a bass player with the Glenn Miller Orchestra, but a knife accident had destroyed his vision; he then became a recruiter for American Airlines. He was in Springfield interviewing potential stewardesses, hundreds of them, and had convinced Patt to come help him sort through the applications. “Why don’t you think about becoming a stewardess?” he asked her just before he left. She couldn’t, she told him, she was too fat. And what she knew about stewardesses—high heels, makeup, girdles—well, it sounded more like Gracie than her. But the idea had been planted. And several fights with Gracie later, about wanting to get away from the family and live her own life, she picked up the phone and called Jim. “Okay, I’ll interview to be a stewardess,” she told him. “I need to get away from home. But here’s the thing: I don’t want you to tell anyone at American Airlines that we’re related. I don’t want my mother’s input, I don’t want your connections. I just want to do it myself.”

Patt’s impression of the glamour girl type that made the ideal stewardess wasn’t far off the mark. Looks were by far the most important factor in the interview process. The 1963 American Airlines supervisor handbook would emphasize that when it came to hiring, “the first fundamental is appearance. A stewardess must be attractive. We can sometimes pretend a person is attractive, if we admire them for some other reason. This should be avoided.” The beauty of stewardesses was so well known that an American Airlines Barbie debuted in 1961. She had bright red lips, high heels, a flight bag with the AA insignia, and a neat blue hat perched atop her voluminous hair. (Captain Ken wouldn’t show up until 1964.)

At five foot three and 121 pounds, Patt wasn’t Barbie-slim. And slim was a requirement. Weight limits were uncompromising at every airline. At the same time Patt was considering her new career, an article titled “A Tale of the Scale” appeared in The Delta Digest, the airline’s employee magazine. It told the story of stewardess Hildy Hoffman, who was five foot three and had weighed 170 pounds in high school. She lost fifty pounds in one summer, plus an extra five as requested by the airline, and was rewarded with a job. “I love it,” Hildy was quoted as saying. “It’s every bit as interesting and exciting as I thought it would be, even if hard work too. And I don’t miss a single one of those pounds I gave it up for.”

If Patt was going to make it to training school, she’d have to drop a few pounds like Hildy. She put herself on a strict diet. And it worked. Filling out the application for American Airlines, she happily entered “110 pounds” in the blank space for “weight.” The form also required her bust, waist, and hip measurements, her marital status, disclosure of debts or a criminal record, and whether she rented or lived with her parents. She filled it out, sent it off, and went back to the set to learn her lines.

Different airlines preferred different kinds of stewardesses. These women were the most visible of the airlines’ employees, after all; they were walking, talking brand representatives. Pan Am, with its international routes, looked for elegance, sophistication, and a cosmopolitan air. United, wanting to appeal to the middle-class American, looked for a girl-next-door type. TWA, like Pan Am, wanted its “air hostesses” to project exclusivity and worldliness. Pacific Southwest was known to hire the blonde and pert, with an hourglass figure strongly preferred. Delta, based in the South and priding itself on its conservative nature, hired for “high moral character”; its recruiters were known to prefer a demure, wholesome smiler to a bombshell. Delta’s ads boasted about its stewardesses’ “superior background,” and claimed that “we can’t give her that gracious air, that friendly spirit. They come of home and heritage.” Delta’s evocation of old southern traditions was code for white and Christian; the homes and heritage it was scrutinizing in its search for candidates were pretty uniform.

American Airlines steered a course between worldly, respectable, and sexy, landing on its perfect stewardess: the “all American” girl. I could do that, Patt thought. She knew she wasn’t a bombshell, but she figured she could pull off sweet and cute.

The reason Patt had known she was too fat for the job was because the recruitment material made no bones about what the airlines were looking for. A New York Times classified ad for Eastern Airlines requested “a high school graduate, single (widows and divorcees with no children considered), 20 years of age (girls 191/2 may apply for future consideration). 5'2" but no more than 5'9", weight 105 to 135 in proportion to height and have at least 20/40 vision without glasses.” Patt never wore makeup or spent much time on her hair, but she had clear skin and was newly thin; she figured it was worth a shot. Besides, she couldn’t spend the rest of her life as a recurring character on Gracie’s Good Neighbor.

She was offered an interview in March 1962. Patt’s father drove her to Love Field, the Dallas airport. She dressed modestly, with her short hair curled in a bang over her forehead. An interviewer named Fred Hazard began by looking her up and down. He asked her to walk over to the wall, turn around, and walk back. He brought his face near to hers to examine her complexion; looked closely at her hair. He had her show him her hands so he could check for scars and signs of nail biting. Patt suddenly felt a discomfiting resemblance to a prize steer at auction. At the end of the interview, he sat her down and said, “Well, I’d like to give you an opportunity to become a stewardess, but you’ve got a space between your two front teeth, about an eighth of an inch. If you can do something with those teeth, send me a picture and then we’ll see.”

Energized, Patt went back to Springfield and made an appointment with a dentist. “How soon can you pull these teeth together?” she asked him. He fitted her for braces and had her come back once a week for tightening. Her mouth was always in pain, but she comforted herself with the fact that the pain meant she ate less. Fred Hazard had given her a May deadline to send the photo, so she had the dentist take the braces off after a couple of months, smiled wide for the camera, and sent the snapshot off to Hazard. Within a week, her acceptance letter had arrived. She was to report to training school in June.

Patt was under twenty-one, so she was sent a contract for her parents to sign. It stated, “I will abide by the policy of the Company that my employment as a Stewardess will not be continued beyond the end of the month during which my 32nd birthday falls.” The contract also specified that “among the qualifications and regulations of a Stewardess position are those of an attractive appearance, a pleasant personality, an even temperament, neatness, unmarried status, and the ability and desire to meet and serve passengers, and the failure to maintain such qualifications or to meet other standards required of Company employees will also be cause for the termination of my employment.”

It had been less than a decade before, in 1953, that American had implemented the age restriction, the first airline to do so. According to American, automatic termination upon turning thirty-two was necessary because “basic among the qualifications is an attractive appearance. Such an appearance ordinarily is found to a higher degree in young women. Therefore, the establishment of an age limit will best effectuate and preserve the concept of Stewardess service as it is understood in this Company.”

The stewardesses’ union had made efforts to protest this stricture but succeeded only in limiting its application to new hires: stewardesses hired before December 1, 1953, would be “grandmothered” in and allowed to work past the age of thirty-two. Other airlines soon added their own age limits: in 1956 Northwest imposed an age ceiling of thirty-two, and the next year TWA started retiring female stewardesses at thirty-five—though male flight attendants could fly into their sixties. By the middle of the 1960s, more than 60 percent of stewardesses worked for airlines that demanded they resign when they reached either their thirty-second, thirty-third, or thirty-fifth birthday.

“I’m nineteen,” Patt thought. “I’m never going to get old.” Both turning thirty-two and getting married seemed so far away as to be unimaginable. Her parents signed, she signed, and by June, Patt was back in Dallas, unpacking her bag in the dormitory of the American Airlines Stewardess College.

When Patt stepped onto the campus, she felt like she’d entered a whole new world, one of affluence and sophistication. American had opened its million-dollar training school just five years earlier. The school was spread over twenty-two acres near Love Field, and had its own swimming pool, as well as shuffleboard and tennis courts. It looked like a college campus, with enticing green lawns and sofa-strewn lounges filled with students taking notes, or just relaxing and chatting. The only difference was that they were all women and they were dressed in identical navy blue skirt suits, pumps, and hats. And this campus was surrounded by a chain-link fence that, for the first few years, was electrified—whether to keep the women in or men out was hotly debated. On one of the lush lawns sat the famous statue of a kiwi bird. The kiwi gave its name to the Kiwi Club, a group of former American Airlines flight attendants. Once the students were no longer working, it was explained, they would be eligible to become Kiwis. But they’d no longer have their wings. Since they were mostly former only because they’d been grounded upon marriage, pregnancy, or turning thirty-two, the symbolism of a flightless bird was a little on-the-nose. (Other airline clubs had equally dispiriting names: Eastern Airlines had the Silverliners, United the Clipped Wings, and Continental the Golden Penguins.)

American’s inspiration for building a school dedicated solely to the training of stewardesses was twofold: the growth of air travel, and the increasing realization that its young women were its best and most eye-catching asset. Other airlines soon followed American’s lead. Braniff International Airways opened an International Hostess Training College (bars were affixed to the balconies of the dorm rooms, and an alarm system alerted dorm supervisors if a window or door was opened against regulations). United launched a stewardess school, called “Cloud College,” in Chicago. In addition to safety training, the curriculum offered lessons on how to put your coat on properly, posture instruction, and rules for carrying gloves and a purse (“carry everything on one side if possible”). Continental sent its trainees directly to the John Robert Powers Modeling School, tacking on a half day of training in emergency procedures. The American Airlines Stewardess College, which started churning out impeccably styled stewardesses at assembly line speed, quickly became known as “the charm farm.” Its students were given a nickname of their own. C. R. Smith was the founder and president of American Airlines, and he had a courtly yet dominating personality that made him immediately identifiable as the man in charge. The inhabitants of the charm farm, with their clear skin and white teeth, were always called—by the students, the instructors, and C.R. himself—“C.R.’s honeybuns.”

The United States was entering a period of rapid cultural change, but you wouldn’t have guessed it from observing life on the charm farm. Government approval of the birth control pill, the opening of the first Playboy Club, and the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins all launched the 1960s with a bang. But inside the chain-link fence, the students’ world was reduced to practicing walking in high heels and scheduling visits to the on-site beauty salon where former models, who had been hired as instructors, would test out makeup and hairstyles.

From the B&N Reads Blog

Customer Reviews