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Tracing a profession from adventurous "sky girls", to sixties "glamour puss", to jet-age "trolly dolly".

Book Review: Femininity in Flight – A History of Flight Attendants by Kathleen M. Barry

In the early 1970s, when I was at primary school, an aura of glamour and excitement still clung, at least in childish minds, and the school library books that we read, to the "profession" of "air hostess". It meant flying around the world, meeting lots of people, and always looking like they did in the airline adverts. Our parents, however, already knew better – "trolley dollies" were merely "flying waitresses", they told their girls (for it was of course the girls who recited this dream – boys wanted to fly far higher, to be astronauts).

In this case mother did know best, for as Kathleen M. Barry writes in Feminity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants, there had been a transition in the sixties, with the arrival of the jet age. She begins, however, at the beginning, with the interesting comparison of rail and air travel in America at the dawning of the age of the latter. (This book is entirely US in focus, but it was America that seems to have set the model for much of the airline industry.)

The early commercial flights were competing with luxury rail travel, where travelers, mostly men, could expect attentive service from black Pullman porters (and some maids, who served female travelers).

Racist custom and the Pullman Company's own advertising, though eager to portray attendants' competence, invited white rail passengers to expect racial dominance as part of the service they purchased. Yet … the commercial basis of this unequal relationship was explicit: passengers were expected to tip and had to pay for meals, drinks and the use of pillows. In fact, part of the "George" stereotype was his shameless pursuit of tips…

The airlines distinguished themselves from this by making flying an entirely "white" experience. (Barry says they tried to even stop black passengers buying tickets.) Initially it was young white professional men, forbidden from taking tips, who acted as stewards, but then on February 12, 1930 Ellen Church, a nurse and trained pilot (who of course had no hope of employment as such) approached Boeing Air Transport (a predecessor of United), which was considering using young Filipino men for stewarding, and persuaded a manager that nurses would make ideal cabin crew. He was convinced, seeing the public relations potential, plus "the value they would be to us not only in the neater and nicer method of serving food and looking out for the passengers' welfare, but also in an emergency". (Although the airlines shouldn't advertise they were trained nurses, since that would suggest danger.)

The suggestion was at first turned down, but then Church, and seven other young nurses she chose, were given a three-month trial, and the idea took off. By 1933 Boeing employed more than 50 and other airlines quickly followed suit. "Sky girls" were still few, but were widely reported and featured by Hollywood. And, it seems, passengers loved them, sometimes literally… they were regarded as the most marriageable young women in the US.

The stewardess's race and respectability made her an appropriate companion – a 'friend' who legitimated the risky business of flying for the middle and upper classes. And a stewardess, instead of a steward, presumably made the plane seem even safer, for she suggested that masculine technological savvy was unnecessary outside the cockpit. As a writer for Atlantic Monthly explained in 1933 of the stewardess's soothing role on a rough-weather flight, 'The passengers relax. If a mere girl isn't worried, why should they be?'

As the industry grew, and the requirement for medical training was dropped, the Barbie doll aspect grew. (Beware, some aspects of this may raise your blood pressure):

The makeover typically meant a haircut – airlines required "neat" collar-length hairstyles – and application of makeup, followed up by tutoring in how to reproduce the same effects with approved products and techniques. Betty Turner Hines, a former flight attendant from Pennsylvania Central, recalled the shock during their training in 1943: 'When we got back from out 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!"

And this was "training" for which the women had to pay themselves, with no guarantee of a job at the end of it. Their wages, while decent compared to many other "women's jobs", were much less than those of ground workers, and when they married, as they usually did at this time within a couple of years of starting work, they automatically lost their jobs.

Barry explains that this made them unpromising material for unionisation, but unionise they did – as she explains in exhaustive, and rather dull details. (The reader senses origins in an academic thesis here perhaps – as is also suggested by the prosaic overall prose style.)

As a reader I skipped through much of this alphabet soup of union politics, but did get a general sense of how feminism and increasingly militant unionism did, slowly, force the airlines to start to change policies – letting in women of colour, eventually dropping the marriage bar (although only after it had gone in most of the rest of society.) But this was also accompanied by a new sexualisation of society that saw these professional women stuffed into hot pants, miniskirts, catsuits, which gave them entirely predictable problems in the air.

But the industry was changing – becoming mass market, and the glamour was disappearing fast, and with it the hope of real improvements in wages and conditions. I hope that the young girls at school today dream of bigger, more rewarding lives – perhaps now they all want to be supermodels, which is no improvement – but it would seem the 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.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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