The Great Stewardess Rebellion review: moving study of what Roe v Wade helped defeat | Books

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In 1966, when America was still in the throes of the Mad Men era, when men were men and women their secretaries, Martha Griffiths, one of the few women in Congress, wrote to the senior vice president from United Airlines.

She asked, “What do you run, Mr. Mason, an airline or a brothel?”

Charles M Mason had said a flight attendant who lingered at work for more than three years without finding a husband was ‘the wrong kind of girl’.

Mason’s commentary not only described the devalued status of flight attendants in the 1960s, but the reality for most working women at the time. Mason’s “bad kind of girl” (these “girls” were usually college graduates) was a woman who perhaps didn’t want the marriage and the kids to be her. only profession, or could need pick up a living.

As Nell McShane Wulfhart writes in her stunning expose of their long struggle for respect and equality, flight attendants were pimped like sex objects whose role was to serve, charm and lure male customers. TWA, United, Delta and other airlines argued that their bottom line depended on hiring young, beautiful women and firing them if they got married or were pregnant, turned 32 or, heaven forbid, were gaining weight. Airlines sold sex with tickets, a very profitable Playboy Club in the sky.

This largely misunderstood aspect of recent women’s history is a valuable reminder of how far women have come. It was the time when women couldn’t get credit cards or sign leases without their husband’s permission, sexual harassment and firing of pregnant women was legal, only 3% of lawyers and 7% of doctors were women, and women earned 40% less than men. for the same jobs. Women may have won the right to vote in 1920, but they hadn’t made much headway toward equality until the second-wave feminist movement kindled the fire in the 1970s.

Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito’s recent explosive draft opinion that would override a woman’s 49-year right to control her body and her life only makes The Great Stewardess Rebellion more relevant and urgent reading. As American women are set to revisit their pre-1973 second-class citizenship, Wulfhart is a stark reminder of just how dark those days really were.

In 1965, no less than a million women were interviewed for 10,000 “girls from heaven” positions. The globetrotting life of a flight attendant outweighed the few other options available: secretary, nurse, teacher. Those who made the cut were shipped off to the “Glamour Farm,” a boarding school for flight attendants where contestants learned to adhere to strict hair, make-up, nail and grooming regulations. clothes. False eyelashes and sheaths, yes. Glasses, no. Skills like proficiency in aircraft safety lagged far behind physical appearance.

As important as looking good was being lean. If a stewardess was 5ft 5in tall, she could weigh 129 pounds or less, with a three pound excess once a month during her period. At the Charming Farm, “girls” near the weight limit were removed from class for random weigh-ins. At work, a scale was placed in the operations room, with flight attendants having to weigh themselves in front of their mostly male colleagues. Company doctors prescribed diet pills, and many patients became addicted to black beauties. If a flight attendant made the mistake of getting pregnant, she would have to quit, find a way to have an illegal abortion, or take sick leave to give birth in secret. At least six flight attendants who were fired after turning 32 have committed suicide.

And then there were the “uniforms”. At first, the style was correct: hats, gloves, knee-length skirts and heels. But in the second half of the 60s, the sex kitten look prevailed. In 1968, TWA launched the “Foreign Accent” campaign. Each plane had its theme and its costume: a golden mini-dress for France, a toga for Italy, a white ruffled blouse for Old England. American Airlines required tartan miniskirts, matching vests and raccoon fur hats.

Braniff introduced the “Air Strip”, where flight attendants slowly shed their Pucci-designed uniforms during the flight. The Madison Avenue ad copy boasted, “When she brings you dinner, she’ll be dressed this way…After dinner, on those long flights, she’ll slip into something a little more comfortable…the Air Strip.” is brought to you by Braniff International, who believe even a flight attendant should look like a girl.

When the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission opened its doors, following the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, flight attendants were among its first clients. More than 100 complaints of gender discrimination were filed by flight attendants in the first year and a half of the EEOC. The agency, created primarily to combat racial discrimination, did not take hostesses seriously at first. Neither would unions, Congress, or the courts, and it would be years before any semblance of real change could be wrested from the airlines.

TWA flight attendants take a course in Kansas City in 1948. Photography: Bert Garai/Getty Images

But when the women’s liberation movement broke out in 1970, it also empowered flight attendants. Mary Pat Laffey has filed a discrimination class action lawsuit against Northwest Airlines for violation of Title VII and the Equal Pay Act. Northwest appealed repeatedly, but Laffey finally made history in 1984, when she won the biggest monetary judgment in Title VII history: $63 million in back wages.

More importantly, the case forced other major companies to settle EEOC cases and put affirmative action plans in place, paving the way for a revolution in the workplace. Laffey’s career spanned 42 years – enough time to see the role of women in the workplace transform from servants and sexpots to partners and colleagues.

Now we are waiting to see how far the Supreme Court will go to turn back the clock.


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