The “stewardess rebellion” fought the industry and won.
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When flight attendants, known as stewardesses at the time, first took flight in the 1930s, the profession became a token of glamor. Unlike other jobs open to women at the time, like teaching or secretarial work, stewardesses had a unique opportunity to travel the world and meet new people thousands of feet in the air. While the position provided exciting opportunities for working women, it also capitalized on the bodies of these women to benefit the airline industry.
For decades, airlines exclusively hired young, single, unmarried, white women and enforced strict policies — like weight and age requirements — to make sure their employees were up to the standard they were selling. Airlines relied on the glamorous reputation of the jet-setting stewardess to sell luxury air travel, and it worked. Along with imposing extreme qualifications for the job, airlines leaned into a “sexy stewardess” stereotype with advertising campaigns and new uniforms, like Southwest Airlines’ “hot pants” that painted stewardesses as sex objects.
But in the 1960s and ’70s, stewardesses mounted an organized push against their employers’ discriminatory labor practices. They became one of the first groups in the US to fight discrimination in the workplace. And they won. Their activism and legal battles, which used Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, became known as the “stewardess rebellion.” It changed the airline industry into what we know today and paved the way for working women nationwide.
Note: The headline on this piece has been updated.
Previous headline: How flight attendants changed the airline industry
The book Femininity in Flight by Kathleen Barry played a huge role in researching this story: https://www.dukeupress.edu/femininity-in-flight
So did Nell McShane Wulfhart’s book about the stewardesses’ legal fights and unionizing: https://nellmcshanewulfhart.com/books/
You can read personal accounts from the stewardess rebellion here: https://archive.org/details/sexobjectsinsky00kane/page/84/mode/2up
Check out more history and photos from the Association of Professional Flight Attendants:
And learn more about Black flight attendants’ history from Black Flight Attendants of America:
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