While the flight attendant might be a quintessentially feminized occupation today, the first “stewardess” was, in fact, a “steward.” Pan American had an all-male steward workforce — and a ban on hiring women — for 16 years. It was forced to integrate during the male labor shortage of World War II, when female flight attendants were considered as revolutionary as “Rosie” riveters and welders. By 1958, their ban on hiring women would be reversed. There was now a ban on hiring men. This is just some of the fascinating history in Phil Tiemeyer‘s new book, Plane Queer, a history of the male flight attendant.
By the 1950s women dominated the aisles in the sky. Airlines accepted this. Women (1) were cheaper to employ, (2) domesticated the cabin, making commercial travel seem suitable for women and children, and (3) sexualized the experience for the business men who still made up the bulk of travelers.
By the time Celio Diaz Jr. invoked the 1964 Civil Rights Act and sued Pan Am on the basis of gender discrimination, white male flight attendants were seen as downright queer. Servile behavior — the cooking, serving, nurturing, and aiding behavior characteristic of the job at the time — was both gendered and racialized. When black men or white women performed domestic duties, it was seen as natural. (The gender dimension might seem obvious but, from slavery to the early 1900s, black men were also concentrated in domestic occupations: coachmen, waiters, footmen, butlers, valets etc.)
So, when white men served others — but not black men or white women — it challenged the supposedly natural order on which both hierarchies were founded. This is why male flight attendants caused such a stir. The airlines wouldn’t hire black men or women, so they hired white men and women. The men, as a result, were suspected of being not-quite-heterosexual from the get-go and have suffered the ups and downs of homophobia ever since.
The double-definition of servile behavior as simultaneously racialized and gendered absolutely leapt out at me when I saw a commercial for Virgin Atlantic, sent in by Grace P. It captures both the race and gender dimension of a segregated workforce. The two women and single black man play the role of service worker, while the two white men are a pilot and an engineer. Each is framed as being literally born to do these jobs, thus the insistent and troubling naturalization of these hierarchical roles.Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.