Femininity in Flight

A History of Flight Attendants

Femininity in Flight

Radical Perspectives

More about this series

Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: 19 b&w photos Published: February 2007

Author: Kathleen Barry

American Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, History > U.S. History

“In her new chic outfit, she looks like anything but a stewardess working. But work she does. Hard, too. And you hardly know it.” So read the text of a 1969 newspaper advertisement for Delta Airlines featuring a picture of a brightly smiling blond stewardess striding confidently down the aisle of an airplane cabin to deliver a meal.

From the moment the first stewardesses took flight in 1930, flight attendants became glamorous icons of femininity. For decades, airlines hired only young, attractive, unmarried white women. They marketed passenger service aloft as an essentially feminine exercise in exuding charm, looking fabulous, and providing comfort. The actual work that flight attendants did—ensuring passenger safety, assuaging fears, serving food and drinks, all while conforming to airlines’ strict rules about appearance—was supposed to appear effortless; the better that stewardesses performed by airline standards, the more hidden were their skills and labor. Yet today flight attendants are acknowledged safety experts; they have their own unions. Gone are the no-marriage rules, the mandates to retire by thirty-two. In Femininity in Flight, Kathleen M. Barry tells the history of flight attendants, tracing the evolution of their glamorized image as ideal women and their activism as trade unionists and feminists.

Barry argues that largely because their glamour obscured their labor, flight attendants unionized in the late 1940s and 1950s to demand recognition and respect as workers and self-styled professionals. In the 1960s and 1970s, flight attendants were one of the first groups to take advantage of new laws prohibiting sex discrimination. Their challenges to airlines’ restrictive employment policies and exploitive marketing practices (involving skimpy uniforms and provocative slogans such as “fly me”) made them high-profile critics of the cultural mystification and economic devaluing of “women’s work.” Barry combines attention to the political economy and technology of the airline industry with perceptive readings of popular culture, newspapers, industry publications, and first-person accounts. In so doing, she provides a potent mix of social and cultural history and a major contribution to the history of women’s work and working women’s activism.


[Femininity in Flight] combines all the strengths of a scholarly monograph—extensive archival research, a solid historiographical framework—with the kind of stylish layout and eye-catching illustration more common in books for the general reader. And Barry writes with clarity and wit. She tells a complicated story, but engrossingly.” — Joshua Zeitz, American Heritage

Femininity in Flight makes a significant contribution to our understanding of labor feminism, joining a body of work that challenges the notion that feminism was essentially a white middle-class movement. . . . A great read; it will keep you enlightened and entertained through even a lengthy flight delay.”
— Nan Enstad, Labor History

Femininity in Flight tells a fascinating story of how technology and femininity appropriated each other’s glamour—and how aviation and its handmaidens eventually descended from the clouds to become an ordinary industry and an ordinary group of workers.” — American Heritage of Invention and Technology

“[A] history of how gracious stewardesses turned into sexy air hostesses and then into tough, grumpy flight attendants. . . . It is striking, and shameful, that women had to leave their jobs once they married, were often subject to snap underwear inspections and had to retire at 32. . . . Much more interesting is the way in which the status and reputation of cabin crews mirrored other social changes.” — The Economist

“[A] monograph that will be of interest to a wide range of scholars and students, as well as general readers who will enjoy her accessible prose and well-organized chapters.” — Vicki Howard, EH.Net

“[A] sophisticated and detailed study of flight attendants. . . . One of the many strengths of Barry’s book is the incorporation of the history of technology into her social and cultural analysis. . . . Readers will learn much from this deeply researched book.” — Dennis A. Deslippe, The Historian

“[A] well-documented history. . . . One of its strengths is a demonstration that cultural history does not have to be impressionistic, and that economic imperatives and consciousness-raising can be as entertaining to read about as exploitation movies.” — Roz Kaveney, TLS

“[T]he era of the ‘glamour of the skies’ is gone for good. Barry does a good job of charting that final change, as she does overall in describing the massive changes an industry still less than a century old has undergone.” — Natalie Bennett, Blogcritics Magazine

“Barry provides an entertaining study of American flight attendants since the 1930s, filling a major void in scholarship on labour history, women’s history, and tourism. Drawing particularly on memoirs, union records, and industry publications, Barry convincingly argues that stewardesses and their allies were vital to the advancement of second-wave feminism and the modern labour movement.” — Anthony J. Stanonis, Canadian Journal of History

“Barry provides us with an insightful history of this transformation from hot pants to khakis, from individualized customer care to efficient assembly line beverage service, and from glamorous stewardesses to no-nonsense flight attendants. Barry places this story in the context of the history of air travel, the gendering of technology and work, the organized labor movement in the postwar period, and, most importantly, the simultaneous growth of pink-collar work, the demand for civil rights in the workplace, and second-wave feminism.” — Julie Kimmel, Enterprise & Society

“Barry shows how ‘pink-collar’ activists among the ranks of flight attendants worked to improve the status of their profession. . . . Barry argues that the struggle to win professional respect was made particularly difficult by the conflict between the effortless glamour that attendants were expected to project and the tedium and difficulty of their actual responsibilities.” — The New Yorker

“Barry successfully relates a sympathetic portrait of flight attendants while tactfully maintaining an objective analysis of their particular position within aviation. Her comprehensive portrait of flight attendants as safety professionals taken for granted by abusive passengers, exploited by air carriers with an eye on the bottom line and subjected to standards of appearance (including weight control, former age caps and marriage bans) makes the reader care about them and their long history for recognition and change within the profession. . . .” — Lacey Dunham, Feminist Review blog

“Barry tells a fascinating story about the history of flight attendants and their success challenging deeply rooted gendered stereotypes that were largely invented by the airline industry to maximize profit and then exploited by air travelers and the public at large. . . . [E]ssential reading for historians and students of the twentieth century.” — Lisa Phillips, Labour/Le Travail

“Barry’s feminist analysis is clever and somewhat poignant, for it sees that in the role of the air hostess a vision of female selfhood and freedom has been forced to rub, rather uncomfortably, against a rather ogling set of corporate requirements.” — Andrew O’Hagan, London Review of Books

“Exhaustively researched, rich in insight, and written in a brisk, lively style, this is the definitive historical study of flight attendants in the United States.” — Ruth Milkman, American Historical Review

“It is good to have such work as Kathleen Barry’s to enrich our knowledge of the often-overlooked influence of a strong pink-collar industry. Femininity in Flight provides useful material for labor history, union history, social movement theory and history, or gender role analysis in upper-level high school or lower-division college courses. . . . The book thus has rich potential for stimulating student discussion or further research, particularly regarding gender role expectations.” — Gayle A. Davis, The History Teacher

“Readers get a comprehensive, scholarly look at an occupation originally based almost entirely on cultural expectations of early 20th-century white, middle-class femininity-beauty, charm, domesticity, and concern for the comfort of others-yet requiring a great deal of courage, resourcefulness, and hard work mainly hidden from public view. . . . This thoroughly researched work will suit both academic and lay readers. Recommended for all history and women's studies collections.” — Library Journal

“Soar through the pleasures and plights of females in flight with this highly informative read. . . . With a no nonsense writing style, well-documented evidence, and telling photos (marvel at the hot pants uniform on page 183), Barry demonstrates how flight attendants’ long history of organizing and fighting for their rights made them crusaders for all women and key contributors to second-wave feminism. After reading this you’ll step on a plane wanting to salute any veteran attendants for their journey as you embark on your own.” — Paula Wehmeyer, Bust

“Sparkling prose, informative visuals, and keen analysis bring alive the story of women’s flight service. . . . Prodigiously researched, this book adds to a small group of first-rate histories of women’s service work. Highly recommended.” — M. Greenwald, Choice

“This is an excellent book. . . . [A] well written, engaging, and thought-provoking contribution to the literature on gender, women, work, and culture.” — Janet F. Davidson, Journal of Social History

“This well-researched book traces the evolution of flight attendants from glamorous sky queens to cabin safety experts and members of trade unions.” — Air & Space

“Well written and carefully documented, Barry's book is a valuable addition to literature on gender and labor history.” — Jane Marcellus, Journal of American History

"One of the great strengths of Femininity in Flight is the broad context within which Barry views flight attendants' struggles, in terms of women's work, union organisation and second-wave feminism. By contextualising her study so well and drawing out the parallels between stewardesses and other pink-collar workers, Barry has produced a book with wide appeal and relevance to many interested in labour history, the women's movement, and the growth of service work." — Rosie Cox, Times Higher Education

Femininity in Flight is outstanding. It is the most thoroughly presented book on femininity, work, and pink-collar activism to date. It expands the contours of the women’s rights movement and complicates the grounds on which women make demands for better working conditions.” — Eileen Boris, author of Home to Work: Motherhood and the Politics of Industrial Homework in the United States

Femininity in Flight is the first book that tells the story of the flight attendant occupation as a whole and gives us the history of the occupation in so compelling and rich a fashion. Kathleen M. Barry offers us an entertaining and witty account of how flight attendants embodied changing notions of femininity, and then she boldly challenges conventional wisdom by arguing that it was those very cultural constraints that in part spurred flight attendant activism.” — Dorothy Sue Cobble, author of The Other Women’s Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Kathleen M. Barry has a doctorate in history from New York University. She has taught American history at NYU and the University of Cambridge.

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Introduction 1

1. “Psychological Punch”: Nurse-Stewardesses in the 1930s 11

2. “Glamour Girls of the Air”: The Postwar Stewardess Mystique 36

3. “Labor’s Loveliest”: Postwar Union Struggles 60

4. “Nothing But an Airborne Waitress”: The Jet Age 96

5. “Do I Look Like an Old Bag?”: Glamour and Women’s Rights in the Mid-1960s 122

6. “You’re White, You’re Free and You’re 21-What Is It?”: Title VII 144

7. “Fly Me? Go Fly Yourself!”: Stewardess Liberation in the 1970s 174

Epilogue: After Title VII and Deregulation 211

Notes 223

Bibliography 271

Index 293
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3946-5 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3934-2
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