Femininity in flight : a history of flight attendants / Kathleen M. Barry.

by Barry, Kathleen M. (Kathleen Morgan)Looking glass.

Series: Radical perspectives: Publisher: Durham : Duke University Press, 2007.Description: xv, 304 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.ISBN: 9780822339342; 9780822339465.Subject(s): Feminism -- United StatesLooking glass | Flight attendants -- Labor unions -- United States | Flight attendants -- United States -- HistoryNote: Includes bibliographical references and index.
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Enhanced descriptions from Syndetics:

"In her new chic outfit, she looks like anything but a stewardess working. But work she does. Hard, too. And you hardly know it. " So read the text of a 1969 newspaper advertisement for Delta Airlines featuring a picture of a brightly smiling blond stewardess striding confidently down the aisle of an airplane cabin to deliver a meal.

From the moment the first stewardesses took flight in 1930, flight attendants became glamorous icons of femininity. For decades, airlines hired only young, attractive, unmarried white women. They marketed passenger service aloft as an essentially feminine exercise in exuding charm, looking fabulous, and providing comfort. The actual work that flight attendants did--ensuring passenger safety, assuaging fears, serving food and drinks, all while conforming to airlines' strict rules about appearance--was supposed to appear effortless; the better that stewardesses performed by airline standards, the more hidden were their skills and labor. Yet today flight attendants are acknowledged safety experts; they have their own unions. Gone are the no-marriage rules, the mandates to retire by thirty-two. In Femininity in Flight , Kathleen M. Barry tells the history of flight attendants, tracing the evolution of their glamorized image as ideal women and their activism as trade unionists and feminists.

Barry argues that largely because their glamour obscured their labor, flight attendants unionized in the late 1940s and 1950s to demand recognition and respect as workers and self-styled professionals. In the 1960s and 1970s, flight attendants were one of the first groups to take advantage of new laws prohibiting sex discrimination. Their challenges to airlines' restrictive employment policies and exploitive marketing practices (involving skimpy uniforms and provocative slogans such as "fly me") made them high-profile critics of the cultural mystification and economic devaluing of "women's work." Barry combines attention to the political economy and technology of the airline industry with perceptive readings of popular culture, newspapers, industry publications, and first-person accounts. In so doing, she provides a potent mix of social and cultural history and a major contribution to the history of women's work and working women's activism.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

Table of contents provided by Syndetics

  • List of Illustrations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1 "Psychological Punch": Nurse-Stewardesses in the 1930s
  • 2 "Glamour Girls of the Air": The Postwar Stewardess Mystique
  • 3 "Labor's Loveliest": Postwar Union Struggles
  • 4 "Nothing But an Airborne Waitress": The Jet Age
  • 5 "Do I Look Like an Old Bag?": Glamour and Women's Rights in the Mid-1960s
  • 6 "You're White, You're Free and You're 21-What Is It?": Title VII
  • 7 "Fly Me? Go Fly Yourself!": Stewardess Liberation in the 1970s
  • Epilogue: After Title VII and Deregulation
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Reviews provided by Syndetics

Library Journal Review

Although these two new works draw on many of the same sources, their approaches are strikingly different. In her cultural and labor history, historian Barry traces the development of the occupation of flight attendant, beginning with the hiring of the first stewardesses in the 1930s. Readers get a comprehensive, scholarly look at an occupation originally based almost entirely on cultural expectations of early 20th-century white, middle-class femininity-beauty, charm, domesticity, and concern for the comfort of others-yet requiring a great deal of courage, resourcefulness, and hard work mainly hidden from public view. In the spirit of Georgia Panter Nielsen's From Sky Girl to Flight Attendant, Barry devotes much attention to the efforts of flight attendants to organize into labor unions, chronicling their fight to be taken seriously as laborers as opposed to glamorous "airborne waitresses" onboard merely for the amusement of (predominantly male) passengers. This thoroughly researched work will suit both academic and lay readers. Recommended for all history and women's studies collections. While also providing some history, Whitelegg (director, special projects, Ctr. for Myth & Ritual in America) mostly takes a contemporary look at the lives of flight attendants, drawn from interviews with over 60 current and former flight attendants and other airline workers. The author's concepts of the "space-out" (the ability of flight attendants to expand their personal autonomy) and the "squeeze-in" (the constricting of their personal autonomy by competing forces) provide themes for the book, which is structured according to a flight attendant's typical journey, from briefing to debriefing. He also takes note of the effects that 9/11 has had upon a flight attendant's work. Whitelegg's observations and use of candid, day-in-the-life snapshots are interesting, though this work's scholarly value may be somewhat weakened by its conversational tone and breadth of scope. Suitable for larger social science collections.-Elizabeth L. Winter, Georgia Inst. of Technology, Atlanta (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Barry (Cambridge) tells the story of flight attendants from their origins as nurse-stewardesses in the 1930s through their union struggles after WW II to their women's rights and women's liberation organizing during the 1960s and 1970s. This model history of a pink-collar occupation integrates into one coherent story about the growth of the service sector, demographic patterns of women's employment, airline marketing strategies, and the collective mobilization of women for labor rights and professional respect. Sparkling prose, informative visuals, and keen analysis bring alive the story of women's flight service. Airlines marketed flight service as a glamorous job for young, single, physically attractive, white women. Enamored with their public image, stewardesses nonetheless unionized for better wages and working conditions in the two decades after WW II. Then, when married women's employment and civil rights activism surged, a numerical minority of these so-called glamour girls launched public campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s against sexual harassment, age discrimination, and marital and appearance restrictions. Prodigiously researched, this book adds to a small group of first-rate histories of women's service work. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above. M. Greenwald University of Pittsburgh

Author notes provided by Syndetics

Kathleen M. Barry has taught American history at NYU and the University of Cambridge