c.2013 New York Times News Service
A couple of weeks ago I inadvertently stirred up the ire of some flight attendants when I wrote that they complain about working conditions even more than those champion complainers, pilots.
Many letters of complaint ensued from flight attendants. A typical one, from Barbara Vandehei, began, “We are not complainers.” The writer then described many gripes, including one that her airline had just reduced the number of flight attendants working its 737s to three from four.
“I am one of those flight attendants going to Dallas picking up trash, holding five cans and reminding everyone who didn’t listen to the announcement to put their seat belts on and turn off their electronic devices,” she wrote. “So before you write that we are all complainers, come walk a mile in my shoes with a full 737 with only three of us working.”
I replied to her and others that I meant no criticism. After all, I said, this country was founded by world-class complainers.
But rather than focusing on the negative, let’s consider a tribute to America’s flight attendants from a cultural historian, Victoria Vantoch, in her new book, “The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon” (University of Pennsylvania Press).
Vantoch was traveling in Scotland when I asked her in a phone conversation to evaluate how the job had evolved after those glory days in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, educated young women, many from small-town America, eagerly chose the profession, despite low pay, for its entree into a glamorous, wide world.
“My impression now when I fly is that flight attendants are really safety professionals,” said Vantoch, who said that she interviewed hundreds of former and current flight attendants. “They’re so highly trained, and they have so much to get done in such a short amount of time. The bags, so many passengers on every plane — it’s almost a different profession from what it was in the ’50s and ’60s.”
At the advent of the jet age in the late 1950s, as more Americans traveled more widely than ever, “the stewardess rose to fame as a celebrated icon of American womanhood,” she writes in the book. At the same time, she notes, “because she bridged the midcentury gap between domesticity and wage work,” the American stewardess also became a protofeminist.
Back when women were a distinct minority on college campuses, airlines hired college-educated women as flight attendants, and expected them to exhibit youthful, wholesome beauty and poise, as well as the grit to adhere to rules imposed by a male-dominated culture on physical standards like hairstyle and weight.
Oh, and it helped to be able to speak French. “Pan Am, the largest U.S.-based international airline, also required fluency in at least one language other than English,” Vantoch notes. Airlines also discriminated blatantly against minorities (and men, of course), and tossed stewardesses off the job when they aged into their 30s.
Yet the job was also enormously rewarding, especially for those on international routes. “To be a Pan Am stewardess in those days was like being a supermodel or a movie star,” one stewardess from that era told her. Stewardess-school graduations featured lavish Champagne dinners and limousine service. “Stewardesses felt respected by airline management,” Vantoch writes. (And yes, I hear you snorting in derision, flight attendants of today.)
Sexism was a strong undercurrent. There also was an element of propaganda during the early stages of “Cold War mudslinging,” Vantoch writes. American stewardesses were depicted as trim, pretty and consumer-oriented, while “Communism bred dour, chubby stewardesses who were, according to The San Francisco Chronicle, ‘less inclined to pamper the clientele’” on the Soviet airline Aeroflot, she writes.
Still, “the profession simultaneously offered a space for these young women to see themselves as capable, independent and ambitious professionals,” as well as “a unique opportunity for young women to travel far beyond the domestic arena and to forge a strong female-oriented community,” Vantoch writes.
The book’s payoff, I thought, comes in a chapter with the subheading “Pretty Women Fight Back.” Flight attendants, as stewardesses came to be known, forged major accomplishments through unionization. Many ridiculous, racist and sexist rules went away. Pay improved. Career paths firmed. Well into the 1990s, “flight attendants continued to forge new legal rights for working women in America,” according to Vantoch.
And the reaction? Initially, she said, some flight attendants complained about the book’s racy title and its cover photo, which depicts two stewardesses in those ridiculous hot-pants outfits that some male airline and advertising executives thought were a good idea in the 1970s. “But when they actually read the book I started getting these incredible handwritten letters” from flight attendants who did not fully realize how important their history was, she added.
Handwritten notes, mind you. These women always had style.