First, there was the domestication of the cabin. As air travel became more comfortable (e.g., pressurized cabins and quieter rides), airlines were looking to increase their customer base. Female “stewardesses” in the ’40s and ’50s were an opportunity to argue that an airplane was just like a comfortable living room, equally safe for women, children, and men alike. Marketing at the time presented the flight attendant as if she were a mother or wife:
Twenty years later, air travel was no longer scary, so airlines switched their tactics. They sexualized their flight attendants in order to appeal to businessmen, who still made up a majority of their customers. Here’s a ten-second Southwest commercial touting the fact that their stewardesses wear “hot pants”:
The intersection of the labor movement and women’s liberation in the ’60s and ’70s inspired women to fight for workplace rights. Flight attendants were among the first female workers to organize on behalf of their occupation and among the most successful to do so. Their work won both practical and symbolic victories, like the discursive move from “stewardess” to “flight attendant” that transformed women in the occupation from sex objects to workers. A quick Google Image search shows that the association — stewardess/sex object vs. flight attendant/worker — still applies. Notice that the search for “stewardess” includes more sexualized images, while the one for “flight attendant” shows more images of people actually working.
“Flight attendant”:My impression is that today’s marketing tends to feature flight attendants in all three roles — domestic, sex object, worker — echoing each stage of the transformation of the occupation in the public imagination.
We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in. Enjoy!
Flight attendants are not only friendly with their passengers, they’re also often super friendly with each other. This may be because especially gregarious people go into the profession, but it’s also an adaptation to a surprising structural feature of their job. It turns out that, on any given flight anywhere in the world, most flight attendants are meeting their co-workers for the very first time.
There are about 100,000 flight attendants in the U.S. alone and they get their flights through a process of bidding, one month at a time, one month ahead. Most really do “see the world,” as the old glamorized image of the intrepid stewardess suggests, instead of working the same route over and over again. As a result, explains Drew Whitelegg in Working the Skies, they rarely run into the same flight attendant twice.
This means that flight attendants must get to know one another quickly once they get on board. They need to do so to make food and beverage service efficient, to coordinate their actions in the tight galleys in which they work and, most importantly, so that they will trust one another if they are called upon to do what they are really there for: acting in an emergency, one that could theoretically happen within seconds of take-off. There’s no time to lose. “[F]rom the moment they board the plane,” writes Whitelegg, “these workers — even if complete strangers — begin constructing bonds.”
Image credit: National Library of Australia
Their instant bonding is facilitated by their shared experiences and their “peculiar identity,” Whitelegg explains — few people understand their job and the airline industry deliberately misportays it – and also by a culture of confession. The galley has its own rules to which new flight attendants are socialized. So, even though the workers are always new, the workplace is predictable. Whitlegg describes how galley conversations during downtime tend to be extremely, sometimes excruciatingly personal. ”The things you hear,” laughs Clare, a flight attendant for Continental, “I could write a book. The things you hear at 30,000 feet.” It’s the odd combination of a habit of bonding and the anonymity of strangers.
So, if you have the pleasure of taking a flight, spend a few minutes watching the surprising coordination of strangers who seem like old friends, and take a moment to appreciate the amazing way these workers have adapted to their very peculiar position.
We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in. Enjoy!
I have driven across the United States several different times. I always enjoy the experience. It reminds me of just how vast and diverse this country really is, in terms of both its nature and culture. Catching up with a friend after such a trip, I discovered that he’d never driven across the country and I insisted that he absolutely must. ”Lisa,” he said intensely, lowering his head, “not everyone is welcome in every small town in America.” My friend, you might guess, was Black.
It was a memorable lesson about my own white privilege.
This was in the 2000s, but I couldn’t help but think of it when I learned about the Green Book. A story on NPR about the book starts with the following summary:
In part, the Jim Crow era could be defined by the places African-Americans could go and the places they couldn’t. In the towns and cities where they lived, of course, blacks knew where they were welcome. On the road, though, who knew which restaurants and hotels, beauty shops and night clubs would slam doors in their faces?
The answer was ”The Negro Motorist Green Book.” First published in 1936, and revised and re-published for almost 30 years, it helped Black people travel across a hostile America.
Green wasn’t just the color. It was named after the book’s author — Victor Green — who was a postal worker. Most African Americans were familiar with where they could and couldn’t go in their own cities. So Green used his connections through the post office to collect lists from all over America, and even some other countries. These lists were invaluable to Black travelers.
Even in the depth of Jim Crow, however, Green dreamed of a better time. In the introduction he wrote (source):
There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal rights and privileges in the United States.
His dream, I suppose, sort of did and sort of didn’t come true. The Green Book is out-of-print. Yet men and women like my friend still have good reason to feel uncomfortable showing their face in unfamiliar places.
by Adrianne Wadewitz PhD with Peter James, Nov 22, 2013, at 07:00 pm
This summer I went hiking several times in California’s Eastern Sierra. Each time I went I counted the number of male to female hikers and ended up with a 5:1 ratio. This reflects many women’s experience of the wilderness and outdoor sports such as rock climbing or mountaineering. These are male-dominated arenas.
One of the reasons for that is because these activities are advertised to women as an escape from their stressful lives, not as a sport meant to challenge their physical ability. Outdoors equipment marketed towards women, then, consistently focuses on comfort and style, in contrast to men’s marketing. Moreover, much of the gear that is produced for women assumes less of a desire to do activities that are as physically demanding as men — the gear is often less hardy and more decorative. The assumptions behind these marketing strategies reinforce stereotypical ideas of gender: that women are physically weak, that women are fascinated by fashion, that there is one specific female body type, and that women are “soft.”
Exhibit #1: Women’s backpacks
Osprey is generally acknowledged as the maker of the best backpacks for hiking and backpacking. Their top-of-the-line backpack for long multi-day backpack trips for men, the Xenith, can hold 105 L and between 60-80 lbs. The women’s pack, the Xena, on the other hand, can hold 85 L and between 50-70 lbs. This is because the women’s pack is shorter. Osprey is betting that most women have a shorter torso and thus need a shorter pack. While this might be true for some women, they could attempt to engineer another type of pack that would allow women to carry the same poundage as men. Moreover, it is unclear why these packs are labeled “men’s and women’s.” Plenty of women have longer torsos and men shorter ones. And, indeed, on backpacking forums on the internet, you constantly see stories of people buying gear of the “wrong sex” so that it actually fits.
Exhibit #2: Choose your sex!
Many hikers and backpackers buy gear online and oftentimes the structure of the websites of the major companies who sell gear reveals the companies’ assumptions about the interests of their consumers. Some, such as Arc’teryx, open their websites with gender distinctions. One must choose men’s or women’s products immediately upon going to their site. Other companies, such as REI, open their site with the opportunity to choose an activity, such as hiking, climbing, cycling, running, etc. or sex category, which is better. By so dividing their products, Arc’teryx is making it harder for those who need to buy gear from the “wrong” sex or to market unisex gear while REI is making consumers feel part of a larger community of climbers or backpackers or hikers.
Exhibit #3: Playful gear
The marketing of backpacking gear is itself highly gendered, with women’s gear being presented as comfortable and stylish. Oddly, it is not marketed with an eye towards serious wilderness excursions. Take, for example, the Yumalina pant manufactured by Mountain Hardwear. The men’s version is described as “Durable softshell seriously protects on the outside, while lightweight fleece on the inside keeps you warm on those chilly hikes” while the women’s version is described as “Serious on the outside and soft on fuzzy on the inside. Perfect for work or play during the winter.” The women’s pant is thus not seen as for someone who is serious about backpacking.
Exhibit #4: Decorative, sexy climbing
The naming and color palette of much women’s gear also reflects the idea in the backpacking industry that women needed to be treated delicately. Black Diamond, which manufactures popular rock climbing harnesses, has named their women’s harnesses “Primrose,” “Siren,” “Aura,” and “Lotus,” emphasizing the stereotypical connection between women and flowers and sexuality. Women are connected to passive agents. The harnesses themselves are typically in pastel colors as well. This is in contrast to the men’s harnesses, which are named “Chaos,” “Focus,” “Flight,” and “Momentum,” which are strikingly active words in comparison and are designed in bright, bold colors.
As Brendan Leonard points out in his post, Girly Girls and Manly Men, “No company feels like they have to do anything special to men’s gear, or ‘masculinize it’ it. Yoga is arguably maybe the most feminine (or just female-dominated) of any active pursuit, but you don’t see any companies making yoga mats with patterns on them that look like cascades of hammers or football helmets or beer mugs, to encourage men by saying, ‘It’s OK, dude. You can own one of these and still love Home Depot.’” Why do companies thus feel that women cannot be serious backpackers, hikers or climbers without feminized gear?
Adrianne Wadewitz, PhD is a Mellon Digital Scholarship Postdoctoral Fellow at Occidental College specializing in emerging media from the 18th-century to the present. Peter James is an avid outdoor photographer and wilderness traveler. You can follow them at @wadewitz and @PBJmaesPhoto.
“Next to being a Hollywood movie star, nothing was more glamorous.” This breathless statement, quoted in Femininity in Flight, was uttered by a flight attendant in 1945. At the time being a stewardess was quite glamorous. Like motion pictures do today, airlines trafficked in “the business of female spectacle.” They hired only women who they believed to represent ideal femininity. Chosen for their beauty and poise, and only from among the educated, and slender, they were as much of an icon as Miss America. And they were almost all White.
Victoria Vantoch tells the story of the first African American flight attendants in a chapter of her new book, The Jet Sex. Patricia Banks was one of the first Black women to sue an airline for racial discrimination. She graduated from flight attendant training school at the top of her class and applied to several airlines. But it was 1956 and the U.S. airlines had never hired a Black woman. After 10 months of trying, an airline recruiter pulled her aside and admitted that it was because of her race. Which, of course, it was; airlines disqualified any applicants that had broad noses, full lips, coarse hair, or a “hook nose” (to weed out Jews).
Banks sued. After four years of litigation, Capital Airlines was forced to hire her. She postponed her marriage and took the job (airlines only hired single women as flight attendants). When she put on her uniform for the first time, she said:
After all I had gone through, I couldn’t believe I was finally wearing the uniform. I had made it. I was going to fly. It was such an accomplishment.
Individual women weren’t the only ones pushing to integrate the flight attendants corps. International surveys showed that citizens of other countries knew that America had a “race problem” and this was a problem for then-President John F. Kennedy and Vice President Lyndon Johnson. They needed to do something flashy and they turned to flight attendants to do it. If they could make Black women the face of such an iconic and high-profile occupation, they thought, it would help restore America’s reputation. According to Vantoch, Johnson “made stewardess integration his personal cause.”
That was 1961; in 1964 Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act mandating equal treatment in the workplace. The following year, in response to even more lawsuits, approximately 50 Black women were hired by airlines. This would make them 0.33% of the workforce.
Patricia Banks and her fellow first African American flight attendants, including Mary Tiller and Marlene White, would continue to face racism, now from co-workers, passengers, and supervisors. Banks would quit after one year, citing exhaustion in the face of emotionally draining feminine work and a constant onslaught of racism. She was a great flight attendant, though, and proud to show the world that a Black woman could shine in the occupation.
When the airline industry first tried to go commercial after World War I, it needed to convince skeptical customers that air travel was safe. One strategy was to make passengers feel that the entire crew was able and willing to see to their safety. This included the stewards, the all-male precursors to the stewardess. But which men to hire?
The default employee should have been an African American. Ocean liners and train cars, air travel’s main competitors and the model on which they built their business, largely employed Black porters and stewards. But the airlines believed that the overwhelmingly White passengers would not have felt comfortable placing their lives in the hands of Black men. So they hired White men instead. Kathleen Barry, who discusses this in her book Femininity in Flight, explains:
Equanimity on aircraft circa 1930 was a tall order for anyone, but stereotypes dictated that it would most likely come from white male attendants. With uniforms that echoed the naval-style garb of pilots, stewards reassured passengers that the white men in the cabin as well as the cockpit were competent and in control.
If stewards were so capable and appreciated, why not offer one’s appreciation in cash? The answer is, in short, because tips were for Black people. Black porters on trains and boats were tipped as a matter of course but, according to Barry, tipping a White person would have been equivalent to an insult. A journalist, writing in 1902, captured the thinking of the time when he expressed shock and dismay that “any native-born American could consent” to accepting a tip. ”Tips go with servility,” he said. Accepting one was equivalent to affirming “I am less than you.” This interpretation of the meaning of a gratuity, alongside airlines’ need to inspire confidence and simple racism, is why we don’t tip flight attendants today.
There’s a gem of an observation in Arlie Hochschild’s classic book, The Managed Heart. She observes that, at the same time that airlines try to ensure that planes take off with every last seat occupied, advertising for air travel typically does not depict fully booked flights. Frequent passengers covet the flight with an empty seat to their left or right, so marketers make sure that ads and commercials suggest that they might get lucky.
Here’s how American Airlines depicts the experience of flying (from a Google Image search of “cabin” on aa.com):
What a great example of not-quite-truth in advertising.
The world’s first flight attendant was a man. He was a German named Heinrich Kubis and he was a steward on LZ-10 Schwaben zeppelin, a rigid blimp like aircraft that began ferrying passengers in 1912. Here’s Kubis at work:
The first flight attendant to serve on an airplane was a 14-year-old boy named Jack Sanderson. It was 1922 and he was hired by The Daimler Airway (later part of British Airways):
When commercial airlines took to the sky in the U.S., it was with an all-male staff. A 19-year-old Cuban American named Amaury Sanchez was the steward for Pan American’s inaugural flight in 1928. Pan Am maintained an all-male steward workforce for 16 years.
Like Kubis’ suit and bow tie, Sanderson’s military-style jacket, and our anonymous steward’s white coat reveal, the steward role was taken very seriously: they played an important role in an elite world. This would change with the democratization of air travel and the introduction of the female flight attendant during World War II. By the ’50s, many airlines would only hire women and the occupation would become increasingly feminized and trivialized, just like the once all-male activity of cheerleading.