In 1971, National Airlines introduced a new slogan: “Fly Me.”
The first print advertisement featured a photographic close-up of Cheryl Fioravante, a freckle-faced stewardess with a boyish coiffure, smiling innocently. “Hi, I’m Cheryl. Fly Me,” the ad read in large, black boldface. Subsequent ads invited travelers to “fly” other fresh-faced stewardesses, like Jo and Laura.
The innuendo-laden campaign cost National a small fortune—they spent over $9 million a year on the ads—but it paid off. The National Organization for Women objected to the ads, calling them sexist, saying that they presented flight attendants as a “flying meat market” and invited passengers to make sexual advances. Nevertheless, the “Fly Me” series raised the carrier’s profile and won a handful of advertising awards.
Advertising the bodies of women employees was good for business. Though the “Fly Me” campaign is now displayed on a number of websites, often as a glaring example of outdated sexism, at the time, “Fly Me” reflected the widespread sexualization of flight attendants, which belied the harsh working conditions that these women negotiated while flying unfriendly skies. That began to change in the mid-1960s when flight attendants mounted an organized push against their employers—and ultimately, improved their workplaces.
The bodies of women flight attendants have long been an integral part of the airlines’ marketing strategy. In the postwar period, government regulations ensured that fares, routes, and planes were nearly indistinguishable. To stand out, airlines marketed their flight attendants’ looks and promised an exciting or erotic in-flight experience. At the dawn of the commercial aviation industry, airlines introduced formal and informal policies to ensure that their flight attendants were uniformly young, slender, unmarried white women, running job ads with explicit requirements for height, weight, and marital status. “Charm farms,” as stewardess schools were often called, taught women how to exercise, walk in high heels, and fashionably style their hair and makeup. They often trained fashion models, as well.
“When we got back from our all-day beauty overhaul, we all burst into tears. We couldn’t believe our eyes: we all looked alike—we were clones of each other!” recalled Betty Turner Hines, a former flight attendant for Pennsylvania Central.
The airline industry enforced the widely held idea that for middle-class women, a job was a short-term stint between college and marriage. They sold stewardessing as a way of acquiring the skills needed as wife and hostess, as well as a means to meet wealthy, white, marriageable businessmen. Former Pan Am flight attendant and NOW President Patricia Ireland wrote in her memoir that during her training in the 1960s, they were constantly told that “the job offered wonderful preparation for fulfillment of marital duties… learning how to make your husband comfortable, how to serve him scotch on the rocks, how to diplomatically handle dinner conversation with his new boss. It was understood that working on an airplane (especially in first class) was a dandy way to meet a man.”
To ensure that being a flight attendant remained a short-term job, not a long-term career, airlines in the 1950s instituted mandatory retirement for stewardesses between the ages of 32 and 35. If these women continued to work for the airlines, they were forced into lower-paying ground jobs. Age requirements drove down wages and prevented career-oriented stewardesses from accruing seniority or benefits. These regulations also aimed to prevent stewardesses from organizing for better pay and work policies.
And then there were the weight regulations. Airlines routinely subjected women working as flight attendants to “weigh-ins” to make sure that they remained slender. At some airlines, supervisors could ask a stewardess to jump on the scale if they didn’t like the way she looked. Trans-Western Airlines representatives insisted these rules were necessary because “a good public image through attractive hostesses is one of the few ways an airline can compete.”
Those labeled as “overweight” either shed pounds quickly or faced suspension or firing. Stewardesses recounted taking diuretics, sleeping pills, and laxatives, and living on starvation diets for days before their weigh-ins. Sometimes company doctors would supply diet pills or recommend crash diets. Even incorrectly styled hair, makeup, or clothing might also result in suspension or termination.
The airlines’ ideas about sexually attractive women were also deeply racialized. In 1971, only about six percent of the nation’s nearly 35,000 flight attendants were racial minorities—and this small number marked a significant increase from previous decades. In 1966, a Civil Rights commissioner in New York found that, “for too long there has been an underlying ‘white esthetic’ in the evaluation of physical attractiveness by American industry.” The bias, the commissioner explained, had the overall effect of excluding “a large proportion of well-qualified applicants” from non-white backgrounds from working in the airlines.
The marketing of stewardesses’ bodies accelerated dramatically in the mid-1960s, when airlines began replacing prim and proper uniforms with increasingly revealing clothing. Braniff International Airlines ushered in this transformation in 1965 when it announced “an end to the plain plane” and created a high-fashion “air strip” to be performed by its hostesses. Working together with the Italian designer Emilio Pucci, the company arranged for its stewardesses to take off or change their clothing in-flight. Stewardesses wore traditional skirt-suits to welcome passengers. For dinner service, they changed into a shift dress, and for after-dinner drinks they changed into knee-length ‘‘harem’’ pants. Of course, this featured heavily in their ads. The tactic of turning airplane aisles into catwalks worked: In 1966, the company reported a 50 percent increase in business.
Meanwhile, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, popular films and novels portrayed flight attendants as “swinging stewardesses” who sought sexual adventures in the sky. There were bestselling books like 1967’s Coffee, Tea or Me? The Uninhibited Memoirs of Two Airline Stewardesses, later adapted into a movie, and sexploitation films like Swinging Stewardesses. By the early 1970s, advertisements, books, and pornographic films had all given passengers the idea that stewardesses on any carrier were a form of in-flight sexual entertainment. Many badgered women flight attendants for their phone numbers and for dates. According to Paula Kane, an activist and former flight attendant with American Airlines, “pinching and patting” by men passengers increased significantly in the wake of the “Fly Me” campaign. Likewise, after Continental launched its “we move our tails for you” campaign, stewardesses received requests from men to wiggle provocatively for them. When they complained to Continental about the impact of the campaign, management advised flight attendants to respond to customers’ requests that they “move their tail” with flirty one-liners like “Why, is it in the way?” Flight attendants who responded more assertively to customers risked being written up or suspended.
Fed up, flight attendants became leaders in the rising feminist movement. In 1966, Colleen Boland, the president of a major flight attendants’ union, became a founding member of NOW. And by the mid-1960s, women had a new legal tool at their disposal. The passage of title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allowed flight attendants, who were still overwhelmingly white women, to challenge workplace discrimination. Stewardesses worked with NOW to challenge marriage restrictions and mandatory retirement by age 35.
In 1972, two Eastern Air Lines stewardesses, Jan Fulsom and Sandra Jarrell, started Stewardesses for Women’s Rights. Both women had suffered because of the airline industry’s sexualization. Fulsom told the Los Angeles Times that in her three and a half years working for Eastern Air Lines, she had been “pinched, fondled, leered at, asked out on dates and propositioned more times than she [could] remember.” Her most traumatic experience of sexual harassment occurred when a drunken man passenger shouted at her, grabbed her, and ripped her skirt off. When Fulsom complained to the flight captain, he responded with laughter.
After Jarrell failed to meet Eastern Air Lines’s target weight, her supervisors threatened her with suspension. Jarell knew that airlines did not enforce weight restrictions for men working as flight attendants and pilots, who never seemed to be called for weigh-ins. This double standard, she understood, came from “airlines obviously want[ing] to perpetuate the sex image of the flight attendant.” She resigned from Eastern in 1971 and filed a complaint with the EEOC. When she later tried to get her job back, her interviewer told her she exceeded the maximum hiring weight. Her interviewer described Jarrell as “defensive and hostile whenever the subject of the weight program arose.” Jarrell was unable to convince the EEOC that the airline’s decision was an act of retaliation.
After Fulsom and Jarrell shared their stories with each other, they realized that the airline industry’s existing unions, dominated by men, didn’t pay much attention to the gendered discrimination women working as flight attendants experienced. Their group brought an explicitly feminist agenda to airline labor activism.
Only 15 people attended the group’s first meeting, but that number grew quickly. Members leafleted persistently, dragged friends to meetings, and held consciousness-raising sessions in airport employee parking lots. These actions sensitized flight attendants to shared workplace problems and helped individual flight attendants recognize that they were not alone in their anger. Within two years, the organization had grown to 1,000 members. Within four years, it had 3,000 members.
The leaders of Stewardesses for Women’s Rights gave members a set of critical and practical tools to challenge sexism and chauvinism. First, they suggested that flight attendants should challenge the objectification of women by the airlines and the media through everyday acts of consciousness raising. For example, they asked their members to, “Talk about women and men and gender roles the roles they play to their friends on airlines and outside of the airline industry.” Leaders encouraged the group’s members to use the media to challenge exploitative advertising and to call out those who perpetuate negative stereotypes about flight attendants. The group maintained, “Sexist airline advertising is a threat to passenger safety because it undermines our authority in the event of an emergency and passengers don’t take orders from the objects of their sexual fantasy,” and its leaders also insisted that women needed to assume positions of institutional power and shape policy.
But perhaps their most important tool was persistent legal action against the airline industry. Stewardesses for Women’s Rights found a lawyer willing to take flight attendants’ complaints about weight, grooming regulations, and promotion opportunities to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They quickly filed 14 complaints. And the group’s efforts spurred other flight attendants to complain to the EEOC, resulting in a cascade of lawsuits challenging the restrictions airlines placed on stewardesses’ age, marital status, weight, uniform, and hairstyles.
Black flight attendants also used the courts and the EEOC to challenge the airlines’ white beauty standards. Deborah Renwick, a stewardess with United Airlines, received a three-week suspension and then was terminated for having an Afro. With the support of the NAACP, she successfully sued United Airlines and won the right for flight attendants to wear Afros.
The impact of these legal actions was dramatic. As the EEOC and the courts struck down marriage, pregnancy, and age requirements, the average job tenure of a flight attendant increased from 15 months in 1965 to over six years a decade later. While not all lawsuits and complaints were successful and some cases, especially those surrounding weight requirements, dragged on for years, flight attendants remade the face of the airline industry and created new employment opportunities for women through their sustained struggle in the courts and in the press. Their uniforms became more professional and less revealing. Working alongside feminist groups such as NOW, and with their unions, they educated the public about the realities of their work and empowered each other to speak out against their demeaning treatment.
The impact of their activism was felt beyond their profession, as well. Educated, ambitious, and motivated, these flight attendants went on to take leadership roles within their unions and to become more politically active in other aspects of their lives. One member of Stewardesses for Women’s Rights described it as “my awakening to the feminist movement, to the labor movement. It woke me up to my political goals and ideas.”
Flight attendants’ demands for respect as women and workers—and their organizing efforts to put some muscle behind those demands—still resonate today.
Gillian Frank is co-host of the “Sexing History” podcast and a postdoctoral research fellow at University of Virginia’s Program in American Studies.
Lauren Gutterman is co-host of the “Sexing History” podcast and an assistant professor of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
Subscribe to their podcast, Sexing History, on iTunes. For interviews with flight attendants and more on flight attendants’ struggle against workplace sexual harassment and sexual discrimination, check out this episode.