The flight attendant occupation took permanent shape in the 1930s as “women’s work,” that is, work not only predominately performed by women but also defined as embodying white, middle-class ideals of femininity.
As the nascent commercial aviation industry sought to lure well-heeled travelers into the air, airline managers and stewardesses together defined the new field of in-flight passenger service around the social ideal of the “hostess.”
A stewardess’s foremost duty was to mobilize the nurturing instincts and domestic skills to serve passengers, much as middle-class, white women were expected to treat guests in their own homes. The early airlines’ crystallizing idea of the stewardess alose demanded, however, that the hostess to be as desirable as she was nurturing. From the start, stewardess work was restricted to white, young, single, slender, and attractive women.
A 1936 New York Times article described the requirements: The girls who qualify for hostesses must be petite; weight 100 to 118 pounds; height 5 feet to 5 feet 4 inches; age 20 to 26 years. Add to that the rigid physical examination each must undergo four times every year, and you are assured of the bloom that goes with perfect health.
The post-WWII America changed drastically and millions of Americans started to travel on airplanes and the stewardess profession expanded further.
Now, young working women did not have to change bedpans or take dictation; they could travel the world, meet important people, and lead exciting lives. The stewardess position was well paid, prestigious, and adventurous – and it quickly became the nation’s most coveted job for women.
Scores of qualified young women applied for each opening so airlines had their pic and could hire only the creme de la creme. In order to win a stewardess position, an applicant had to be young, beautiful, unmarried, well-groomed, slim, charming, intelligent, well educated, white, heterosexual, and doting. In other words, the postwar stewardess embodied mainstream America’s, perfect woman. She became a role model for American girls, and an ambassador of feminity and the American way abroad.
The appearance was considered as one of the most important factors to become a stewardess. At that time, airlines believed that the exploitation of female sexuality would increase their profits; thus the uniforms of female flight attendants were often formfitting, complete with white gloves and high heels.
In the United States, they were required to be unmarried and were fired if they decided to wed. A stewardess could not be pregnant. A stewardess could not grow older than her early thirties.
Because no one tried to hide the fact that flight attendants were there to be eye candy, big-named designers had a fun time dressing them up and coming up with sexy new gimmicks to promote air travel. In 1968, Jean Louis gave United Airlines stewardesses a simple, mod A-line dress with a wide stripe down the front and around the collar, and paired it with a big, blocky kefi-type cap.
The stewardess image reached its height of sexualization, becoming a collective cultural fantasy that airlines shamelessly promoted through their advertising. The dark side of this trope was that women who got this prestigious position were often subjected to sexual harassment from drunken passengers, who might pinch, pat, and proposition the stewardesses while they worked, according to Kathleen Barry’s Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants.
Despite their dual roles as mothering servants and objects of sexual fantasy, stewardesses were fighting for changes inside the airline industry. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s first complainants were female flight attendants complaining of age discrimination, weight requirements, and bans on marriage.
Originally female flight attendants were fired if they reached age 32 or 35 depending on the airline, were fired if they exceeded weight regulations, and were required to be single upon hiring and fired if they got married. In 1968, the EEOC declared age restrictions on flight attendants’ employment to be illegal sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The restriction of hiring only women was lifted at all airlines in 1971. The no-marriage rule was eliminated throughout the US airline industry by the 1980s. The last such broad categorical discrimination, the weight restrictions, were relaxed in the 1990s through litigation and negotiations.
(Photo credit: SDASM Archives / Getty Images / Keystone / The Life Picture Collection / San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives / The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon by Victoria Vantoch / Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants by Kathleen Barry).