Ann Hood and Nell McShane Wulfhart Examine the Plight of Flight Attendants: NPR


Fly Girl and the Great Air Hostess Rebellion.  Cover images from WW Norton and Doubleday.

Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR

Fly Girl and the Great Air Hostess Rebellion.  Cover images from WW Norton and Doubleday.

Meghan Collins Sullivan/NPR

Imagine a job where women were routinely fired for putting on a few pounds, getting married, getting pregnant – or just turning 32.

Imagine a workplace where supervisors routinely patted employees to make sure they wore girdles and had a dress code that didn’t allow glasses — but dictated false eyelashes, 3 inches. heels, polished nails of a specific color, regulation hairstyles and uniforms ranging from tight-fitting skirt suits to revealing mini-skirts, paper dresses and hot pants.

Additional requirements: a smiling and calm demeanor, even under duress, even when ogled, insulted or proposed. And all for a fraction of the salary paid to men in similar positions.

What would motivate you to accept this position?

In The Great Hostess Rebellion, travel writer Nell McShane Wulfhart writes, “It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that in the 1960s the airplane cabin was the most sexist workplace in America.” Yet, drawn by the wanderlust, the promise of glamor and adventure, and the possibility of finding a wealthy husband, she writes, thousands of young, single women applied to become flight attendants. The position, established in 1930, was touted in the second half of the 20th century as having a lower acceptance rate than Harvard. And every woman who been accepted had to complete a grueling six-week course during which they were trained in safety procedures, emergency training, first aid, meal service, conduct, decorum – as well as how to handle aggressive, drunk or sick passengers, hijackings and forced landings, among other topics.

Wulfhart focuses primarily on the inspiring story of how flight attendants in the 1960s and 1970s, emboldened by the women’s movement, banded together to push back against the airlines’ blatantly misogynistic working conditions. She wisely structures her engaging (if sadly clichéd) narrative around three key women in the fight to have flight attendants treated like professionals. These tenacity profiles are particularly striking when viewed in the context of offensive airline advertisements that promote “stewardesses” as sex objects, such as Continental’s 1974 campaign, “We Really Move Our Tails for You”. In response to National Airlines’ “Fly Me” campaign, members of Stewardesses For Women’s Rights responded “Fly Yourself” and printed bumper stickers declaring “National, your flight is open”. Needless to say, none of these ads would fly today.

Among the three trailblazers on Wulfhart’s profile are two American Airlines flight attendants and a lawyer who fought for the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Patt Gibbs, who fought run away from her family circus act (really) to join American Airlines in 1961, is the most alive character. She wasn’t your typical image of a flight attendant: neither skinny nor demure Barbie doll, she ended up coming out as a lesbian. As an active and outspoken member of the Airline Stewards and Stewardesses Association, which eventually joined the Transport Workers Union, she learned to deftly file grievances against unfair suspensions, including one for removing her white gloves on a stuffy bus from Dallas. Later, she was instrumental in breaking away from the male-dominated TWU to form an independent union, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants – a battle Wulfhart delves deeper into than some readers would like.

One of the beneficiaries of these battles was novelist Ann Hood. His fourth memoir, fly girl, draws a living picture of the eight years (between 1978 and 1986) that she spent criss-crossing America and the world as a TWA flight attendant.

Hood is a generous and experienced storyteller, and she enlivens her memories with entertaining stories about grumpy passengers and her own gaffes. Fresh out of college, Hood knew she wanted to be a writer. But, first, she wanted to see more of the world than she had known growing up in Rhode Island. Much to her friends’ horror, she applied for a job as what they considered a glorified waitress.

By the time she joined TWA, Hood’s salary and benefits were good, there was no longer an age cap or marriage ban, and her job title was “flight attendant.” non-sexist. But she did serve thousands of meals, and she still endured the ignominy of weigh-ins (often preceded by diuretics, diet pills, and saunas) to meet increasingly draconian weight requirements, which never were lifted only in 1991.

Hood’s employment at TWA coincided with the government’s deregulation of airlines in 1978, which dramatically reduced fares, opening up air travel to hordes of non-professional passengers. To accommodate them, jets got bigger and flying became less luxurious. Financially troubled airlines moved from direct point-to-point connections to the less convenient hub-and-spoke system used today, often requiring multiple connections. In-flight meals have largely been replaced by packaged snacks. Yet between 1978 and 2001, seven major airlines went bankrupt, in addition to more than 100 smaller companies.

Yet Hood still loved his job. She loved the Ralph Lauren uniforms, including the flippant scarf tied like this, and she loved Eero Saarinen’s iconic TWA terminal at JFK. She loved meeting interesting people and she loved the free flight coupons, which allowed her to fly to London for a weekend – and take her parents all over the world.

Hood loved her job even when she had to deal with difficult passengers – like the man who had to be held back after blowing the whistle for not having his meal of choice (lasagna). She performed CPR on a businessman who did not survive a heart attack and held the hand of another who did. During unpaid time off, she took jobs as a waitress and bookstore to support herself, but still came back when TWA called.

Why did she love flying so much? “Life happens on airplanes,” Hood writes. She met people going to funerals, weddings, job interviews. fly girl is all about gaining independence and confidence by learning to navigate difficult circumstances and navigate foreign cities alone. These qualities served Hood well in the literary career she launched with her best-selling 1987 novel, Somewhere off the coast of Maine, partly written on the jump seat of a 747 while the passengers slept.

Hood finally broke down in 1986, following the unsuccessful 75-day strike against TWA’s insulting contract, which cut wages while increasing workloads. By the time Hood was offered his position three years later, his literary career was well established.

Both fly girl and The Great Hostess Rebellion tell of journeys to self-respect and empowerment. It is a trip worth taking.

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