Things were a little different back when flight attendants were ‘stewardesses.’ Air travel used to be thought of as a glamorous, unique experience that came with a prop perfectly designed to fit the needs of the mostly male passengers: young, thin, pretty girls in sexy outfits.
In the 50s, 60s, and 70s, becoming a flight attendant was every little girl’s dream; at the time, a woman’s role was exclusively to be a mother and wife, and although the job was seen by most as a temporary gig and not a career, being a stewardess allowed women to do something that was a completely new concept – earning their own money and having a role outside the household.
And the competitive aspect of the application process proved just how many young women wanted the chance to draw their own path.
PSA keeps the hemline up: PSA had strict requirements for women employees and described itself as the ‘airline that is famous for its stewardesses’
I’m Cheryl. Fly Me: Ads for National Airlines that featured their stewardesses under the words ‘Fly Me,’ caused uproar in the feminist community that was growing at the time
AIR STEWARDESS REQUIREMENTS
- Fills a cute orange mini-uniform
- Smiles and means it
- Gives other people a lift
- Under 29 years old
- 5 foot 1 to 5 foot 9
- 105 to 135 pounds
- High school diploma
‘We’d show up to do interviews and there would be a line around the block,’ retired flight attendant Marilyn Tritt, 66, who started her career in the 60s, told the Los Angeles Times.
‘We’d take them in 10 at a time, ask why do you want the job, then tell them to walk to the corner of the room, pivot and walk back,’ said Marilyn, who wrote a a book about the first 25 years of her career as a stewardess for PSA: Long Legs and Short Nights.
Not only did the job give women independence and a chance to travel the world, but being hired, people thought at the time, proved that a woman had true beauty and charisma – because the application and interview process was considered as tough as that of becoming a beauty queen or model.
Marilyn also said some strict requirements for the job were unwritten, like ‘blondes should have blue eyes, brunettes should have green, cute redheads could have either’.
Candidates also needed to be younger than 29.
Stewardesses were not allowed to marry or have children while they worked for an airline. If they violated their pledge, they risked being fired on the spot.
When Marilyn began her career, it was clear that she was not there to hep with safety procedures.
‘[Stewardesses] were not allowed to do PA announcements, because nobody could understand them. Therefore, let’s face it, they were along for the ride,’ she said.
She started out pretty and smart: This American Airlines ad for stewardesses highlights the importance of gender and appearance for the career at the time
They give you a lift: Marketing for airlines used to focus on the mostly male clientele and portrayed stewardess as entertainment for passengers
An excerpt from a newspaper article from 1979 highlights the objectification of stewardess that was considered a main part of the job, particularly because a large majority of passengers at the time were businessmen.
Barbara Collins, an assistant chief flight attendant for PSA at the time, is quoted as stressing that ‘PSA stewardesses have never worn slacks and never will’.
She continued: ‘Skirts are feminine and show off legs, and for an airline that caters to a large percentage of businessmen, that’s a factor to consider.’
The sexualization of air travel goes as far back as the 1930’s; one 1936 New York Times article says girls who qualify for ‘hostesses’ positions must be ‘petite, weight 100 to 118 pounds, height 5 feet to 5 feet 4 inches, age 20 to 26 years’.
The ‘Air Strip’: Pucci designed uniforms for Braniff International Airways. One of them had different layers so stewardess could remove them mid-air and reveal a different look
Clear priorities: A PSA employee said in 1979 that ‘skirts are feminine and show off legs, and for an airline that caters to a large percentage of businessmen, that’s a factor to consider’
Applicants had to pledge they wouldn’t get married or become pregnant, and risked getting fired if they did, according to Collector’s Weekly.
But those were just the requirements to be considered. Once you were hired the objectification not only continued, but was a crucial, if not the main, part of the job.
Each flight attendant was required to undergo a ‘rigid physical examination’ four times a year to prove they were in perfect health, according to the New York Times article.
During this time, stewardess could only be white, a rule which only changed in the 1950’s when it was ruled that black women would also be allowed to apply for, and fill, the roles.
Ruth Carol Taylor, an African-American nurse, applied to be a stewardess at Trans World Airlines (TWA) in 1957. After the airline turned her down for not filling one of their qualifications – being white – Ruth filed a complaint with New York State Commission on Discrimination.
The next year she heard that a local carrier, Mohawk Airlines, was hiring minorities for the stewardess positions, so she applied and became the first black stewardess on February 11, 1958.
Every girl’s dream: A career as a stewardess offered women the opportunity to have a role outside the household
Everyday we wear orange: A former PSA stewardess aid that they were required to wear Hula Orange lipstick and had to go through inspections that ensured they shaved their legs
Three months later, TWA, the airline that rejected Ruth because of the color of her skin, hired Margaret Grant as the first black stewardess for a major U.S. airline.
Unfortunately, apart from black women being allowed on board, not much changed in 30 years.
The Civil Rights Act was signed on 1964, but by the end of the 1960’s, stewardesses still has to be single, childless, thin, pretty and young in order to fulfill their role of entertaining men in the sky.
A classified ad in the New York Times from 1966 outlined the qualifications a woman had to have to get the job.
‘A high school graduate, single (widows and divorcees with no children considered), 20 years of age (girls 19 1/2 may apply for future consideration). 5’2″ but no more than 5’9″, weight 105 to 135 in proportion to height and have at least 20/40 vision without glasses’.
A long history: Airlines’ focus on their female employees’ looks can be traced back as fat as the 1930s when commercial air travel blew up
Lucky guy? Airlines sought to portray air travel as a time for men to have a few hours of fun in the sky while they hung out with good looking women
Back when flying was supposedly ‘fun’ and ‘glamorous,’ stewardess were forced to retire by 32 – American Airlines actually imposed a mandatory retiring age of 32 in 1954. And still, they were not allowed to be married, have children or be pregnant, according to Vanity Fair.
A 1969 radio ad for PSA Airlines that aired on Los Angeles radio shamelessly asked for ‘girls who smile and mean it,’ ‘fill a cute orange mini-uniform,’ and ‘give other people a lift’.
‘Now if you’re single, 18 1/2 to 26 years old, 5 foot 1 to 5 foot 9, 105 to 135 pounds, have a high school diploma or better–come in for an interview at the Los Angeles International Airport stewardesses department Tuesday or Thursday. PSA is an Equal Opportunity Employer,’ continued the radio ad for the self-described ‘airline that is famous for its stewardesses’.
Blondes should have blue eyes: Some of the requirements to become a stewardess were unwritten, such as that brunettes should have brown eyes and blondes blue eyes
Is that part of the job? Diane Hansen, who was a stewardess for PSA for 21 year, said getting grabbed by male passengers was a part of the job
It makes sense that airlines wanted their stewardess to be petite because the outfits just kept getting smaller.
Italian fashion house Pucci designed several uniforms for Braniff International Airways during the 60’s and 70’s. One of them, the ‘Air Strip,’ from 1965, had different layers so stewardess would take something off mid-flight and reveal a different outfit underneath.
Diane Hansen, who was a stewardess for PSA for 21 years, told the Los Angeles Times that long legs and pretty faces, as well as being comfortable being ‘ogled or pinched by lecherous passengers,’ were crucial aspects of the job.
She said every stewardess was required to wear Hula Orange lipstick and had to go through inspections that ensured they shaved their legs. They also had to keep curls stuck to their heads so their hairdos would keep their shape and wear heels and a dress just to pick up their paychecks.
Oh, and they could be fired if they weighed in at two pounds over the airline’s expectation.
Not surprisingly, this marketing of stewardess as sex objects gave flyers, who were mostly men until the 70’s, certain expectations about their time in the sky.
Long legs were a must: Qualifications for becoming a stewardess included being a young, pretty, thin, and single woman
Racy inspiration: The culture of air travel during the 60s and 70s, based around the sexy image of the stewardesses, inspired many pornographic films and books
Stewardesses often had to deal with sexual harassment and drunk passengers who ‘might pinch, pat, and proposition the stewardesses while they worked,’ according to Kathleen Barry’s book, Femininity in Flight.
‘With ever bolder innuendo, airlines invited passengers to consider titillation by stewardesses a main attraction of air travel…. By the early 1970s invitations to sexual fantasy had become the overriding theme of the most visible and innovative airline marketing schemes…. the general trend of the late 1960s and early 1970s was to replace hints that stewardesses’ sexual allure was but one, albeit important, visceral pleasure of jet travel with coy but clear indications that sexual provocation was the ultimate thrill aloft,’ Kathleen wrote.
This treatment by airlines of their employees as sex objects even started a movement of pornographic films and books about sexcapades in the air with sexy stewardesses, like 1973’s Naughty Stewardesses and Orgy in the Sky.
By the 1970’s, though, as the women’s right movement grew, women were getting tired of the objectification of stewardess. An ad by National Airlines that included pictures of their stewardess next to their ‘Fly Me’ slogan was particularly important in the movement to change the culture of female employees in air travel.
The National Organization for Women (NOW) played a crucial role in protesting the ad, saying it was ‘sexist and degrading to women’ and demanding men be included in the campaign too.
A party in the sky? Air travel used to be seen as a fancy experience, with people showing up for their flights dressed up and ready to drink
That’s more like it: It wasn’t until the 1970s that airlines began changing their treatment of stewardesses which is evident in the more professional attire they wear today
Stewardess also unionized at around this time,and Stewardesses for Women’s Rights feminist group was founded in 1972. By 1974, former stewardess Paula Jane published a tell-all book, Sex Objects in the Sky: A Personal Account of the Stewardess Rebellion, that brought the reality of working as a stewardess into people’s homes.
Although protests and lawsuits for discriminatory practices had a big impact in the demise of the ‘cocktail waitresses of the sky,’ there were other factors that were fundamental in this change.
By the mid 1970’s, it wasn’t only business men getting on airplanes, and women and families began to take part in the action. This new clientele was not going to be particularly charmed by the idea of being stuck in a box in the air with ‘sexy’ women.
The marketing strategy had to change to better accommodate the the passengers, and stewardess became flight attendants, the professionally dressed, male or female, airline workers who now focus more on safety instructions than on serving business men a good scotch.