The Great Stewardess Rebellion review: stirring read of and for a post-Roe world

In 1966, when America was still in the throes of the Mad Men era, when men were men and women were their secretaries, Martha Griffiths, one of a handful of women in Congress, wrote to the senior vice-president of United Airlines.

She asked: “What are you running, Mr Mason, an airline or a whorehouse?”

Charles M Mason had declared that a stewardess who lingered on the job for more than three years without finding a husband was “the wrong kind of girl”.

Mason’s comment described not just the devalued status of stewardesses in the 1960s but the reality of most working women at the time. Mason’s “wrong kind of girl” (these “girls” were usually college graduates) was a woman who might not want marriage and children to be her only occupation, or might need to work for a living.

As Nell McShane Wulfhart writes in her astonishing exposé of their long struggle for respect and equality, flight attendants were pimped out as sexual objects whose role was to serve, charm and entice male customers. TWA, United, Delta and other airlines argued that their bottom line depended on hiring young, beautiful women and firing them if they got married or pregnant, turned 32 or, God forbid, put on some pounds. Airlines were in the business of selling sex along with tickets, a very profitable Playboy Club in the skies.

This largely under-chronicled aspect of recent women’s history is a valuable reminder of how far women have come. Those were the days when women couldn’t get credit cards or sign leases without their husband’s permission, sexual harassment and firing pregnant women was legal, only 3% of lawyers and 7% of doctors were women, and women earned 40% less than men for the same jobs. Women may have achieved the right to vote in 1920 but they hadn’t made many more strides towards equality until the second-wave feminist movement lit the fire in the 1970s.

The recent bombshell draft opinion by the supreme court justice Samuel Alito, which would reverse 49 years of a woman’s right to control her body and life, only makes The Great Stewardess Rebellion a more relevant and urgent read. As American women stand on the precipice of revisiting their pre-1973 second-class citizenship, Wulfhart provides a stark reminder of how dark those days really were.

In 1965, as many as a million women interviewed for 10,000 positions as “sky girls”. A stewardess’s globetrotting life trumped the few other options available: secretary, nurse, teacher. Those who made the cut were shipped to the “charm farm”, a stewardess boarding school where candidates were taught how to comply with strict hair, makeup, nails and clothing regulations. False eyelashes and girdles, yes. Glasses, no. Skills like mastering airplane safety came a distant second to physical appearance.

As important as looking good was being svelte. If a stewardess stood 5ft 5 she could weigh 129lb or less, with three-pound overage once a month during menses. At the charm farm, “girls” close to the weight limit were pulled out of class for random weigh-ins. On the job, a scale was placed in the operations room, with stewardesses required to weigh in in front of their mostly male colleagues. Company doctors prescribed diet pills and many patients got hooked on Black Beauties. If a stewardess made the mistake of getting pregnant, she would have to quit, find a way to get an illegal abortion, or take sick leave to give birth in secret. At least six stewardesses who were fired after they turned 32 killed themselves.

And then there were the “uniforms”. At first, the style was proper: hats, gloves, knee-length skirt suits and heels. But in the latter half of the 60s, the sex-kitten look prevailed. In 1968, TWA launched the “Foreign Accent” campaign. Each plane had its own theme and costume: a gold minidress for France, a toga for Italy, a ruffled white blouse for Olde England. American Airlines required tartan miniskirts, matching vests and raccoon fur caps.

Braniff introduced the “Air Strip”, where stewardesses would slowly shed their Pucci-designed uniforms over the course of the flight. Madison Avenue ad copy boasted: “When she brings you dinner, she’ll be dressed this way … After dinner, on those long flights, she’ll slip into something a little more comfortable … the Air Strip is brought to you by Braniff International, who believes that even an airline hostess should look like a girl.”

When the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission opened, after the passage of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, stewardesses were among its first customers. More than 100 gender discrimination complaints were filed by stewardesses in the EEOC’s first year and a half. The agency, set up primarily to battle race discrimination, did not take the stewardesses seriously at first. Nor did the unions, Congress or the courts, and it would be years until any semblance of real change could be wrenched out of the airlines.

TWA air hostesses attend a course in Kansas City in 1948.
TWA air hostesses attend a course in Kansas City in 1948. Photograph: Bert Garai/Getty Images

But when the women’s liberation movement erupted in 1970 it empowered stewardesses too. Mary Pat Laffey filed a class action discrimination suit against Northwest Airlines for violation of Title VII and the Equal Pay Act. Northwest appealed over and over but Laffey finally made history in 1984, when she won the largest monetary judgment in Title VII history: $63m in back pay.

More importantly, the case forced other large corporations to settle EEOC cases and put affirmative action plans in place, paving the way for a workplace revolution. Laffey’s career lasted 42 years – enough time to witness the role of women in the workplace transform from servants and sexpots to partners and colleagues.

Now we wait to see how far the supreme court will go to turn back the clock.