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Published by EH.NET (June 2007)

Kathleen M. Barry, Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007. xv + 304 pp. $23 (paperback), ISBN: 978-0-8223-3946-5.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Vicki Howard, Department of History, Hartwick College.

On the front cover of Femininity in Flight two youthful flight attendants, dressed in tailored uniforms, wave and smile against a blue cloud backdrop as if to beckon the reader to step inside their airplane and Kathleen M. Barry’s beautiful book. At first glance, the cover photograph provides us with an example of the glamorous early postwar “stewardess.” Readers of this first-rate labor and cultural history of the American flight attendant profession will likely never look at images like these in the same way. Upon closer examination of the cover image, one half sees a sense of irony behind the smile and the waving arm, belying a long labor struggle and a budding feminist consciousness. Femininity in Flight tells the story of the radicalization of these women, from Ellen Church, a nurse and trained pilot who became the world’s first airline stewardess in 1930 to the women who founded Stewardesses for Women’s Rights in 1972 and published feminist memoirs, such as Sex Objects in the Sky.

Barry, an independent scholar living in London, has written a monograph that will be of interest to a wide range of scholars and students, as well as general readers who will enjoy her accessible prose and well-organized chapters. Femininity in Flight fits into a growing scholarship that has benefited from the history profession’s increasing interdisciplinarity and attention to gender. Drawing on unprocessed collections at the Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, and on interviews conducted with former and current flight attendants, the book fits into the field of women’s labor history developed by Susan Porter Benson, Eileen Boris, Dorothy Sue Cobble, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Ruth Milkman, among others. In a fairly traditional way, several chapters explore pink-collar grassroots movements and the complex inter and intra-union struggles and gender politics of flight attendants as they sought to organize under existing pilot unions and eventually create their own independent associations. This union history is put into context, with analysis of economic regulation, such as the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 that centralized aviation policy, and with extensive discussion of changing civil rights law, brought about by the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that made it illegal to discriminate in employment.

Femininity in Flight, however, is also a cultural history of flight attendants that draws on advertising, film, and fiction to talk about the “wages of glamour” (pp. 14-15) and to analyze changing representations of attendants from the 1930s through the 1970s. The dual identity of Barry’s book as a labor and cultural history is not just a reflection of her broad intellectual interests ? it is central to the thesis of the study. She argues that the labor history of these women cannot be separated from the cultural ? that “glamorization was a double-edged sword that motivated and shaped flight attendants’ activism, and in turn their contributions to working women’s struggles for more respectful treatment” (p. 3). The glamorous image of the profession compensated for the low pay, arduous work, and often harassing and even unhealthy or dangerous conditions. But, as Barry shows, glamour also became a burden for female flight attendants that they continually tried to shed or at least turn to their advantage as they pressed for equality and safety on the job and for greater respect for their profession as a whole.

The early story of flight attendant work followed larger patterns in labor history, starting with feminization, the process by which many occupations became “women’s work.” As Barry demonstrates, the occupation became permanently feminized in the 1930s, an era during which the gendered identity of the job and its relation to other service work was still uncertain. Young, attractive, white “sky girls” became the favored labor pool, pushing out white male stewards except on long distance international flights. When airlines feminized the occupation in the 1930s, they also turned their backs on other potential labor pools, such as black men, who had traditionally held service jobs in other areas of transportation, such as the railroads. Barry argues that airlines employed passenger attendants who acted as both host and servant, in the tradition of the railroad porter, but that they also set themselves apart from the railroads and other services by “offering the ‘fellowship’ of whiteness and banishing tipping” (p. 16). At the beginning of the commercial aviation age, moreover, female cabin crew had to attend to passengers’ fear of flying and required courage themselves. Early airlines who could afford the frill of a hostess made the decision to hire only women with a nursing diploma. Many of the restrictions on marital status, age, height, weight, and grooming that would haunt the field were established during this period as well.

By the postwar era, the period that occupies most of the book, the stewardesses lost the nurturing and courageous image developed in the 1930s as beauty and charm became the profession’s main requirements. In a chapter that explores “the postwar stewardess mystique,” Barry argues that much of their labor on the plane was invisible to passengers, and indeed, that glamour itself was work as stewardesses sculpted their bodies and made up their faces to fit the airlines’ requirements. In these early postwar chapters, readers will enjoy accounts of a lost era of luxury flying. Rather than losing your luggage as is common today, American airlines promised “door-to-door” baggage pickup and delivery. In the context of regulation, airlines sought to capture market share through service, rather than new routes or price cuts. Competition gave rise to such things as Pan Am’s “President’s Special,” which offered seven-course meals and gifts of cigars, perfume and orchids.

One of the strongest portions of the book is the extensive discussion of Title VII and the role it played in transforming the profession. Without federal support, unions had failed to lift the marriage ban and other discriminatory requirements. Rules varied at different airlines, with some hiring only women, some disallowing glasses for women but not for men, some requiring retirement at age 32 or 35 for women but not for men, and so on. Favoring a transient, pliable female-only workforce that lacked the ability to gain seniority and power, and believing that the youthful and sexually available image of the single stewardess was central to their success, the industry dug in its heels after 1964. Stewardesses pushed for action quickly, but met failure in the courts as the airlines repeatedly and successfully claimed a “bona fide occupation qualification,” a loophole that employers could use to justify differential treatment of job applicants and employees on the basis of sex, religion, or national origin (though not race). By 1968, the Equal Opportunity Commission (EEOC) definitively denied the use of this loophole for flight attendants, but it was not until 1971 that the courts settled the question finally and disallowed sex as a “bona fide occupation qualification” for flight attendants.

Title VII brought about vast changes in the industry, just as the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 began a process that would transform commercial flying. Barry briefly overviews these changes, describing the setbacks for unions in the 1980s, the rise of a new and larger flight attendant union in the 1990s, and the economic decline in the industry caused by the September 11th terrorist attacks. But Barry’s interesting story really ends in the late 1970s, when the activism of these women began to bear real fruit, and stewardesses became flight attendants.

Vicki Howard is an Assistant Professor of History at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, and the author of Brides Inc. American Weddings and the Business of Tradition (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006).