By Stella Lee
United Airlines was looking for young women with an interest in flying the nation’s airways as a stewardess, according to an advertisement published in The Utah Chronicle on January 10, 1946. There were some qualifications that applicants needed to meet. The women had to be between 21 and 26 years of age, stand between 5’2” and 5’6”, weigh no more than 125 pounds, be unmarried and in good health, have good vision, be a United States citizen, and have completed two years of college or be a registered nurse. The title of stewardess, or flight attendant, is a job aimed at airplane passengers’ comfort and safety. In the middle of the 1900s, people preferred the description flight attendant rather than stewardess because the latter had a negative connotation and meant “flying waitresses.” (Bean-Mellinger)
The first flight attendant had appeared when passenger air travel began in the early 1920s. At the beginning, they were generally the sons of businessmen who had financed the airlines. However, as airplanes became public transportation, airlines needed official employees as flight attendants for passenger safety and service. Ellen Church, who was the first female stewardess hired in 1930 by United Airlines, opened the door for women stewardesses even though the atmosphere in 1930 was not favorable for women flight attendants because the ability of women was always in question. (Latson)
However, working as a stewardess—despite the pay, prestige, and adventure—was actually not as great as it seemed because the women were strictly controlled. (Harris) For example, they were not allowed to marry and most airlines had strict criteria for their height, weight and appearance. Victoria Vantoch, author of The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon, writes that applicants had to meet draconian airline beauty requirements, which embodied America’s mainstream ideal of beauty.
This naturally led to beauty-based gender inequality, sexism and increased gender bias. Some stewardesses were not hired, even when their ability was outstanding, due to appearance. Airlines also discriminated against Black women. Ruth Carol Taylor, a journalist and registered nurse, broke the color barrier in 1957 after filing suit against Trans World Airline. (Van Houten)
Fifteen years later, two White Eastern Airlines flight attendants took the company to court on charges of discriminatory weight and grooming regulations. The organization Stewardesses for Women’s Rights was subsequently founded to address gender discrimination and advocated for reform until 1976.
Due to these efforts, problems with gender-based inequality were moderated and regulations were put in place. Nowadays, gender bias for flight attendants is mostly resolved, but society still requires our attention.
Stella Lee graduated in December 2018 with a Bachelor of Science in Strategic Communication from the University of Utah.
Advertisement for United Airlines stewardesses, Utah Chronicle, January 10, 1946, 3.
Latson, Jennifer. “Hired for Their Looks, Promoted for Their Heroism: The First Flight Attendants,” Time, May 15, 2015.
Harris, Tom. “How Airline Crews Work,” HowStuffWorks.com.
Bean-Mellinger, Barbara. “What Is the Difference Between a Stewardess and a Flight Attendant?” Chron.com, June 29, 2018.
Van Houten, Matt. “Taylor, Ruth Carol,” BlackPast.org.
“Women in the Skies: The birth of the Stewardess”,Ms.blog, September 16, 2014. 1-2
Vantoch, Victoria. The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.