The Great Stewardess Rebellion: How Women Launched a Workplace Revolution at 30,000 Feet by Nell McShane Wulfhart (320 Pages; Hardcover)
The development of the airline industry brought with it the profession of airline stewardesses. Such service personnel, including office workers, at this time were typically women.
Stewardesses were an important part of flying, having the responsibility of taking care of many customers, at times in emergency situations. But, they received very little respect. Stewardesses were almost seen as glorified Playboy bunnies in the air, expected to retire when married or shortly after they turned thirty, with strict weight and appearance standards.
The Great Stewardess Rebellion is the story of how stewardesses, later called “flight attendants” largely since men started to join the profession as equal protection laws kicked in, fought back. The book tells this story particularly by looking at many individuals involved, including women who fought for women’s equality inside the federal government.
The workplace rebellion here was part of a wider women’s and labor’s movement with stewardesses having their own special concerns and complexities. We get an inside look at their lives and careers, including how advertising treated them as sex objects, belittling their roles. One group of flight attendants fought back even against their own union, forming their own.
This account often reads like a novel, while also informing the reader about decades of history involving a range of subjects. As women and labor continue to fight for their rights and against injustices, this is particularly a timely read.
The stewardess rebellion is a story of harnessing the energy of the women’s movement to make radical change. It’s a story of seizing power from the powerful.
The Great Stewardess Rebellion is about many stories of stewardesses, mainly women, who were an important part of both the women and labor movement. It is an account about how they fought for decades to seize power and protect their rights, especially as members of a union.
Should I Read It?
This book is both about people and movements. A general audience, as well as those studying the subjects covered, should both enjoy it. They will enjoy reading about the lives of the characters, which could be a good basis for a t.v. series, and the subjects covered.
It is written in a down to earth narrative style focused on the stories of individuals. All the same, it tells a wider story, the individuals serving as a means to inform the readers about labor, the women’s movement, advertising techniques, and a whole lot more. This is a good basic approach to telling history and educating people about a range of things.
The book clearly has a point of view. It is on the side of the flight attendants and women here, including one of the main characters who is now an out lesbian. This will appeal to some readers, others will not care much, while perhaps some will be turned off if they do not share the views of the author. Anyways, the book is not so biased toward one viewpoint to be propaganda.
The book has a few pictures and sizable endnotes, so the reader has some visuals of the subject matter, as well as the assurance of its academic bona fides.
Being a stewardess began as a short lived job (retirement around 32 or when you got married), with very sexist rules, and lousy working conditions.
This book is the story of how being a stewardess became a career (“flight attendant”) with strong union protections. It is an important story in the wider woman’s movement, here told with special focus on a few key players.
Part One: Patt
Chapter One: Honeybuns on the Charm Farm
Patt Gibbs joined American Airlines to get away from her mother, a local celebrity. She was not quite the stereotypical “glamorous” stewardess type. A basic concern was to look the part, in her case requiring her to fix a gap in her teeth and working hard to keep her weight down under 120 lbs. She trained at a regimented stewardess school with other “honeybuns,” training often a lot more concerned about appearance than the many tasks necessary on board a plane.
Chapter Two: Gloves to Grievances
A stewardess had to follow a range of rules down to not taking off her cap while in uniform, even when off the plane. The $650 ($5,648 in 2021 dollars) supplies at this time were out of your own pocket.
Patt had her own style, down to driving a motorcycle to work. She basically fell into being a member of the union, so in need of membership just showing up at a meeting led to others to pay her dues. Patti became a union rep, after once having management dreams.
Chapter Three: The Air Strip
Patt became the chair of her local union, first keeping the position for six years. The union had a long way to go, a major thing being the age requirements, Congress failing to protect them from discrimination. Meanwhile, airlines highlighted the stewardess’ sexual appeal, including one campaign where one airline had them shed pieces of their uniform (“air strip”) during the flight.
Chapter Four: Sonia in Fantasyland
Sonia Pressman was a thirty-four-year-old lawyer at the National Labor Relations Board in 1963. She testified to Congress in promotion of the then pending Equal Pay Act, which made it illegal to pay workers different wages based on sex. Pressman later became the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s (EEOC) first woman lawyer. And, a sort of “inside source” for the rising women’s movement, including the new National Organization for Women (NOW).
Chapter Five: What the BFOQ?
It would take years for the new laws, including the ban of sex discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, to benefit women in practice. One early tactic for airlines was to claim all their rules for stewardesses, including firing them after marriage, were “bona fide occupational qualifications (BFOQs). A BFOQ opened a path to an exemption to anti-discrimination laws.
Chapter Six: Black Mollies
Patt became well known as an independent-minded person (one photo showed her with a toy gun), who repeatedly was fired for rules infractions. She fought back each time, getting her job back. Patt found it hard to keep her weight down to match company requirements, encouraged to use diet pills (actually speed, nicknamed “black mollies”), which was addictive.
The rules against marriage and pregnancy also was a constant threat, especially in the 1960s when abortion was generally illegal. [The right to reproductive liberty fit the general empowerment theme of this book, which was published before Roe v. Wade was overturned.]
Chapter Seven: Think of Her as Your Mother
The fight against age discrimination continued, including when the Age Discrimination Act of 1967 only protect persons over forty. Airlines requiring stewardesses to retire between 32-35 would not be covered by this law. In one tragic case, a stewardess pressured to become an instructor (but instead put in charge of supplies) committed suicide.
The stewardesses did not take discrimination and bad workng conditions quietly, including having public protests. Patt also was part of a big win in which a threat to become part of the Teamsters (which American Airlines hated) led to a pay raise.
Chapter Eight: Do Women Age Faster on Airplanes?
This chapter addresses the successful battle to end the age and marriage restrictions for stewardesses. This was a result of decisions by the EEOC as well as multiple lawsuits. Some airlines began to change beforehand; this made it universal. The net result was that what was once a short time job, intended to be a sort of lark before marriage, could now become a career. Some early legal battles continued to linger all the same into the 1980s.
Chapter Nine: In and Out of Uniform
Airlines continue to promote the sex symbol message for stewardesses, including in advertising and a variety of uniforms. Meanwhile, the women’s movement was taking place, including Miss America protests and the fight over the Equal Rights Amendment. And, Patt was recognizing her own attraction to women. She also learned how to fly planes herself.
Part Two: Tommie
Chapter Ten: Flying Pianos
Tommie Hutto from West Texas received a sociology degree (1968) and obtained a position providing job training for people of color. She became a stewardess to get out of Texas, in part because of political arguments she had with her family. She found little ways to be independent, including refusing to get the typical short haircut of stewardesses. Tommie settled into the job, moving to New York City, and eventually marrying, which was now allowed.
Chapter Eleven: Pregnancy and Pursers
Sonia Pressman married at age forty-two (1970) and had a child.
She eventually moved from the EEOC and became a counsel for the General Telephone & Electronics Corporation. Sonia warned the company of their policy of firing pregnant women, but was ignored, resulting in an unnecessary lawsuit (they lost).
Stewardesses at American Airlines were not fired for being pregnant. Nonetheless, they had to notify the company, stop flying, and take maternity leave without pay. And, once they returned, they had to pass a medical exam, and maintain the same previous weight requirements.
Chapter Twelve: The Case of Mary Pat
This chapter is about the battle of Mary Pat Laffey, who wanted to become a “purser,” a more elite position. The airline clearly was guilty of sex discrimination, only given the position to men, even if women basically did the same duties. She won, but only after years of litigation; as the opinion notes: “Our opinion thus serves as the court’s closing chapter in this nearly fourteen-year-old controversy.”
Chapter Thirteen: Men on Board
The equal protection laws of the 1960s led to the hiring of men for a position now given the more sex-neutral name “flight attendant.” Men being on board helped women flight attendants fight a range of demeaning rules such as “girdle checks.”
There was some pushback from passengers used to women and some homophobia, though straight men flight attendants got a reputation as being the worst kind.
Meanwhile, homosexuality was now off [end of 1973] the official list of mental illnesses though Patti herself was not officially “out.” But, she was comfortable about who she was, and felt more energized overall.
Chapter Fourteen: Go Fly Yourself
Along with males and gay employees, slowly the number of people of color rose. In 1972, about six percent of flight attendants were nonwhite, with Latinx and Asians making up half. They all had to deal with discrimination, including black flight attendants getting the cold shoulder whenever they had to share a hotel room with a white woman.
Sexism also continued, including an advertising campaign with a sexually suggestive motto [“I’m Cheryl. Fly Me”]. Flight attendants protested, including with picket signs like “Go Fly Yourself.”
Chapter Fifteen: Stewardesses for Women’s Rights
Tommi was already part of the women’s movement, including being a member of NOW. She then got involved with a new group, the Stewardesses for Women’s Rights. Gloria Steinem (who provided a blurb for this book), the feminist icon, spoke at the meeting discussing its founding. The SFWR, in numbers not that large but with sizable reach for a time, was particularly important since the flight attendant’s union still often saw them as junior members.
Chapter Sixteen: We Really Move Our Tails for You
One thing SFWR protested was the continual use of sexist advertising, including an ad where the routes of one airline was shown on the bare back of a flight attendant. A major problem with such advertisements was that it cheapened the professionalism of flight attendants and threatened their authority during flights. It also obviously led to a lot of sexist comments or worse, including groping flight attendants. Respect for flight attendants was hard to come by.
Chapter Seventeen: First the Commies, Then the Feminists
Tommie eventually obtained a major position in the union. She had a more low key negotiating style that Patt, who was gifted a toy gun as a symbolism for her rougher approach. Tommi did have problems when the Transport Workers Union (TWU) charged the SFWR was in effect trying to “poach” on their union territory. The matter became moot when the SFWR, which already was losing its cred as a “grass roots” organization, died out.
Chapter Eighteen: The Single Rooms Contract
Flight attendants rebelled when the TWU tried to obtain their support for a contract that did not address the important issue of single rooms on layovers. Sharing rooms caused a lot of difficulties, and it was a basic non-negotiable. Flight attendants would only agree to a new contract with single rooms included. Tommi meanwhile advanced up the union leadership ladder.
Part Three: Patt and Tommie
Chapter Nineteen: Stay or Go?
Patt in 1976 got involved with some dissatisfied flight attendants, who decided it was time to form a union independent of the TWU. It would be called the “Association of Professional Flight Attendants” (APFA), and she started to spread the word. Tommi and others were against the move, arguing progress was being made, and they would have more power inside a larger, more established union. Patt was removed from her union position for her “treachery.”
Chapter Twenty: Election Day
May 1977 was the date for the election to determine if flight attendants wanted to form a new union. American Airlines flight attendants voted in support of the APFA.
Chapter Twenty-One: Professionals at Last
Tommie was crushed but accepted the new reality, making sure to obtain as much paperwork from the office (grievances and so on, necessary for future union work) before the TWU could seize them. She and other former loyalists, though they promised before the vote that they would never do it, also put themselves up for election for leadership roles in the new union.
Patt and Tommie were able to work together as the new union found its footing. Patt eventually found her longtime companion, Susan French, a fellow flight attendant. The APFA is still an independent union, now representing twenty-eight thousand flight attendants.
The independent flight attendant union was in many ways unique, other women dominated unions more likely to try to work within the system. The APFA is the only independent flight attendant union remaining, another eventually joining with the Communication Workers of America.
Deregulation led to major changes, losses, and company-union clashes in the airlines. Some positive changes occurred such as a limited federal smoking ban on flights. Weight limits continued to be a major battle. Battles continued throughout, the newest face of labor being Sara Nelson, who became president of the Association of Flight Attendants in 2014.
Points to Ponder
Pan Am was a short-lived period drama about pilots and stewardesses in the early 1960s, each character having their own complex personal story. This book also shows the variety of stewardesses, including those that reflected the changing times. Two key characters was a Midwestern woman who is a lesbian and someone a bit like Ali McGraw from Love Story.
A basic theme of the book was to fit the “great stewardess rebellion” into the context of the times. Things started in the “Mad Men” era of the 1950s, moved to the more rebellious (and openly sexual) 1960s, and into the 1970s where the women’s movement fully came into its own.
For instance, the 1970s was also the time of Title IX, protecting equality in education. And, the book 37 Words, which discusses the legislation, has some overlap with the one.
Nell McShane Wulfhart is a journalist from Philadelphia now living in Uruguay.
She was a previous New York Times columnist and contributor as well as writing for various publications. Her work particularly addressed travel-related subjects.
Wulfhart also is the author of Off Menu: The Secret Science of Food and Dining, an Audible Original. A sample as well as links to other writings by the author can be found on her website.
Is The Great Stewardess Rebellion a Reliable Source?
This is not a scholarly work and the author is not an expert of the material covered.
Nonetheless, I found the book overall reliable. The book is well sourced with numerous endnotes. The material covered includes a lot of personal accounts, but I trusted the author’s judgment in telling these stories. No errors in the general history are apparent.
A good sign respecting the labor history involved is that multiple experts (including Erik Loomis, who has written much on labor history, and Sara Nelson, International President, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, AFL-CIO) provide high praise. Gloria Steinem also praised the book, providing some bona fides regarding the women’s history material as well.
The book has a progressive point of view, one supportive of the women whose stories we are told. Perhaps, some pro-labor bias has snuck in, but a truly neutral historical account is hard to come by. And, any leanings here are open, and the reader can keep it in mind as they read.