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Fighting the Man at 30,000 Feet and Winning

Issue 276

How airline stewardesses fought sexism and unionized their profession.

Jessica Max Stein Dec 19, 2022

It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that in the 1960s, the airplane cabin was the most sexist workplace in America,” declares Nell McShane Wulfhart in The Great Stewardess Rebellion: How Women Launched a Workplace Revolution at 30,000 Feet. Nor does this seem like much of an exaggeration, given the grim picture Wulfhart initially paints. Stewardesses were fired upon ­marriage, ­pregnancy, or when reaching a certain age (32 on some airlines, 35 on others). These restrictions limited their tenure, making it nearly impossible to organize. Yet organize they did, in tandem with civil-rights laws and the women’s movement, changing their working conditions almost unimaginably. Their story is a delightful underdog saga and a vivid snapshot of the heyday of flying, in the era before deregulation.

Wulfhart tells this story largely through two flight attendants and organizers: Patricia “Patt” Gibbs and Tommie Hutto. She refers to the women by their first names throughout, a little chummy. 

Gibbs joins American Airlines in 1962 at age 20, her story illustrating the decade’s circumstances and changes. Indicative of the job’s strict appearance standards, Gibbs is required to close the gap between her front teeth. This agonizing dental procedure has one silver lining: It helps her adhere to the airline’s stringent weight standards (which, notably, did not apply to male stewards). “Her mouth was always in pain, but she comforted herself with the fact that the pain meant she ate less.” The book is studded with little jewels like this, evoking an era. 

The injustices pile up. Stewardesses are required to wear heels (despite being on their feet for hours at a stretch) and girdles, subjected to “girdle checks” (read: gropings). Their pay is docked for things like removing hats or gloves while in uniform, even if not on duty. Gibbs gets docked for riding a motorcycle to work, considered “conduct unbecoming to an American Airlines stewardess.” She is repeatedly fired for similar tiny infractions, especially after she becomes active in the union, and has to file grievances to get reinstated, often without back pay. The Air Line Stewards and Stewardesses Association (ALSSA) isn’t taken seriously by its parent union, the much larger and male-dominated Transport Workers Union (TWU). The TWU sees the stewardesses as merely transient workers, not realizing this is built into the injustices of the job. (This doesn’t change after ALSSA breaks up in the early 1970s, with each airline having its own local chapter in the TWU.) 

The stewardesses find help in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and in the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces it. By the early ’70s, the marriage and age restrictions are largely lifted — and men start joining in. Brian Hagerty, a gay steward, provides a male perspective, in keeping with the book’s engagingly vivid portraits. The presence of men gets rid of some of the oppressive rules for women: heels, nail polish, makeup. Gibbs files a grievance against girdles: If it’s so important to rein everything in, “why don’t the men wear jockstraps?” She wins. 

The injustices pile up. Stewardesses are required to wear heels (despite being on their feet for hours at a stretch) and girdles, subjected to “girdle checks” (read: gropings).

Still, things are pretty bad for the stewardesses. Tommie Hutto joins American Airlines in 1970 at age 23, and is routinely accosted by men masturbating in their cars as she walks to work at LaGuardia. Uniforms become increasingly humiliating. TWA stewardesses have to wear flimsy paper dresses, other airlines require micro-miniskirts or hot pants and go-go boots. Ads sexualizing stewardesses only worsen this atmosphere. “I’m Cheryl. Fly me,” announces National. “We really move our tails for you,” claims Continental. The ads lead to “leering, groping and heavy-handed flirting” on the planes. Some airlines even require the stewardesses to kiss the passengers as they deplane. Again, Wulfhart has an eagle eye for memorable, telling details like this. 

Hutto takes refuge in Stewardesses for Women’s Rights (SFWR), which grows from a tiny meeting in a Greenwich Village church basement (with Gloria Steinem in attendance) to a national organization with an office at 30 Rockefeller Plaza and branches all over the country. SFWR enacts some changes, getting the Federal Aviation Administration to restrict transporting hazardous materials on planes, and puts out its own commercial reminding the public that stewardesses are there for safety, not for sex. 

Still, if anything, the productivity of SFWR highlights the uselessness of the TWU. The American Airlines ­stewardesses move to form their own union, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants (APFA). Wulfhart dramatizes this a little cornily: Gibbs sneaking off to LA for a “secret meeting,” the women frantically trying to get everyone to sign authorization-to-act cards that will trigger a vote to form the union, breathlessly counting up the votes and, predictably, forming the APFA. 

The narrative pits Gibbs and Hutto against each other. Gibbs wants to start a new union and Hutto, by now president of a TWU-affiliated union local, wants to work within the system. Wulfhart contrasts their different styles, exaggerating the characterizations for dramatic effect. Gibbs is the brazen, combative lesbian; Tommie, the more diplomatic married chick. Yet once the APFA is formed, Patt becomes the new president, and Tommie becomes the vice president, the two women often working together to negotiate arbitration, voicing nothing but mutual respect. The reader is left to wonder why the story pitted its two main characters against each other.

The book could also do a better job with minorities within this minority. There’s a short section on stewardesses of color (3% of all stewardesses in 1972), but then it returns to the all-white narrative. And while the book follows Gibbs’ journey out of the closet, it doesn’t particularly apply this to her experiences as a flight attendant and organizer. Though flight attendants could be fired for being gay, the book only mentions this in the context of the gay male flight attendant.  

The APFA serves the women powerfully for just a few years before deregulation pummels the industry. Lots of airlines fold, many flight attendants lose their jobs and those that remain struggle to hold on to benefits and protections. Some weight rules are relaxed in the early 1990s, but the issue is never quite resolved despite being emphasized throughout the book.

Still, the women wrought many changes. What’s more, they set a precedent of activism that influenced later generations of flight attendants such as Sara Nelson, the International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, which represents nearly 50,000 flight attendants at 19 airlines. Indeed, the book ends with her words when she called for a general strike during the government shutdown of 2019: “Strike, strike, strike, strike, strike,” she said. “Say it — it feels good.”

The Great Stewardess Rebellion: How Women Launched a Workplace Revolution at 30,000 Feet
by Nell McShane Wulfhart
Doubleday, 2022

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