Home / General / Book Review: Victoria Vantoch, The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon

Book Review: Victoria Vantoch, The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon

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Victoria Vanoch’s history of flight attendants and beauty is a highly readable and enjoyable history of one of the most unique sets of workers in the twentieth century United States. The Jet Sex follows how airline stewardesses became symbols of beauty, modernity, and Americanness in the mid-twentieth century, how those images became part of the Cold War ideological battlefield, and how women challenged the limitations of these standards, eventually transforming the industry.

In a nation where women had few well-paid or prestigious career options, the creation of the stewardess with the first commercial airlines in the 1930s provided opportunities. Soon this became a desirable profession that offered glamor and an opportunity to travel that was all too rare for Americans during these years. Women, including Vanoch’s own mother, greatly enjoyed the job. But the airlines quickly placed restrictions upon these employees that they hoped would ensure both a pliant labor force and the standard of beauty it was developing. Not surprisingly, this work became defined by women’s work as part of the airlines’ attempt to keep their planes union-free. Women were seen as more pliant and craft unions did not accept women, so giving these jobs to women would forestall unionization, or so the airlines hoped. Airlines also ensured frequent turnover by banning married stewardesses from the job. Defining the job as a step between school and marriage, this rule prevented long-term workers and created frequent turnover, both reinforcing the control over this labor force.

Early stewardesses had to be trained nurses but with the rise of international jet travel (which went far to reduce the air sickness and turbulence of the low-flying, non-pressurized cabin), beauty and glamor replaced first aid as the defining characteristic of the job. Part of this was airlines advertising itself to men as a space where men were men and women were women. Men could be served and women would quietly serve while looking great. So the airlines placed severe height and weight restrictions upon attendants, constantly evaluated them for their flaws, and trained them on serving men. In 1960, Pan Am gave stewardesses 27 hours of training on personal grooming and 20 on first aid. Vantoch points out that airlines streamlined the commodity of the woman’s body as much as they did the airplanes themselves. The vast majority of Pan Am hies were between 5’4″ and 5’7″. Weight was constantly monitored. Bosses made sure women were wearing girdles. The supervisor handbook for American Airlines stated, “The first fundamental is appearance. A stewardess must be attractive. We can sometimes pretend a person is attractive, if we admire them for some other reason. This should be avoided.” (112).

The airlines’ standard of beauty was meant to reinforce mainstream notions of beauty. As slim women became fashionable after World War II, the airlines began to desire this as well. Before World War II, 34 percent of Pan Am stewardesses had a BMI over 21. By 1958, that number was 3.4 percent. Slim, naturally colored hair (until Marilyn Monroe and others made this acceptable within mainstream America), and wholesome was the desired image. By the 1960s, this began to change as the increasingly open sexuality of the period forced the airlines to abandon the wholesome girl image and turn to the portraying stewardesses as sex kittens. It was during these years that the idea of the stewardess as a sexually promiscuous woman began to develop and Vantoch points to several pornographic films of the period that reinforced this. TWA even forced its stewardesses to wear paper uniforms that were easily torn.

As the Cold War developed, these standards of beauty took on additional importance. The Soviets defined the ideal woman as an economically productive member of society. This became a joke in a 50s America that defined the ideal woman as an attractive homemaker. Even growing up in the 80s, I remember commercials of Soviet women being portrayed as masculine. Stewardesses became a sign of the superiority of American gender roles, American beauty, and American consumerism. Vantoch got a bit of access to Russian archives, finding Soviet training manuals for its flight attendants. In the USSR, professional dress, efficient service and political appropriateness ruled (especially given the USSR’s travel restrictions), but as Aeroflot began flying internationally more often, American standards of beauty eventually began to transform those workers as well. Like for American airlines, Aeroflot stewardesses began to sell the experience of flying, as opposed to providing expert service.

Women soon challenged these standards of beauty, marriage, and race. African-American women were among the first, as the airlines’ kept the skies segregated. By the mid-1950s, black women were demanding equal access to the airlines. Like everything else in the civil rights movement, this would be a long, slow struggle. The airlines didn’t explicitly segregate. They just said that kinky hair (or hooked noses) meant women couldn’t work for them. Thus, no blacks or Jews. Lawsuits eventually forced the doors open in the 1960s, but even then, stewardesses had to stay in segregated hotels in southern cities, faced hostility from fellow workers, and still faced very long odds to being hired.

Even before feminism became a political force, white women were already challenging the standards of 50s gender norms because they were career oriented as well as being glamorous and feminine, which is one of Vantoch’s central points. When second-wave feminism rose in the 60s, stewardesses had a complex relationship with it. Because flight attendant organizations embraced rather than challenged the beauty of their members, there was a lot of discomfort with the more radical aspects of the feminist movement. On the other hand, Gloria Steinem, who received no small amount of criticism herself from some for her own conventional beauty, was someone many of these women could relate to. Despite the industry’s desire to keep the skies union-free, the rise of the first flight attendant unions after World War II eventually successfully challenged the beauty standards, as well conducted a long fight to end the marriage restriction. This was a good job and the evidence suggests less sexual harassment from pilots and airline management than you’d might think, with passengers being evicted from planes for bad behavior toward stewardesses. But without worker power on the job, they still faced all sorts of discrimination. The unions couldn’t really do much about that however until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically Title VII, opened up gender discrimination to federal lawsuits, finally forcing the airlines to cave on any number of issues and creating the more gender, age, weight, and height diverse flight attendant labor force of today.

If I have to criticize anything, I guess I’d like to see the last 30 years receive a chapter of its own. Certainly the opening of the job to men, to older women, to women with a greater variety of heights and weights, etc., would have interesting insights on gender and beauty as well. It would also be interesting to know more about the Jewish side of the story. The hooked nose restriction is mentioned, but then dropped. When did Jews start becoming stewardesses? These are minor critiques however.

The Jet Sex is not only a fun and well-researched history, but is also excellent for the classroom. I would have no reservation in assigning it to courses in gender or labor history.

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  • EvanHarper

    The Civil Rights Act of 1964, specifically Title VII, opened up gender discrimination to federal lawsuits, finally forcing the airlines to cave on any number of issues and creating the more gender, age, weight, and height diverse flight attendant labor force of today.

    This is basically not at all what the book’s conclusion actually says. It says that Title VII was largely ineffective in ending the whole “sexy stewardess” culture; but that airline deregulation and attendant capitalist competition quickly torpedoed it.

    • Brett

      I could see that. Once airplane travel shifted to “cheap at all costs”, there’s no reason to rely so much on shit like sexy stewardesses or “special service” – most passengers certainly won’t pay extra for it, as the insolvency of Virgin Airlines shows.

      Still seems to be in some foreign airlines, though. Especially Singapore Air.

  • j_kay

    Though the ‘thin’ part would be important for fitting atall in the thin passageways.

    I’m decidedly pudgy, and have always left trails of hit and maimed as I move around on planes.

    • JL

      Planes used to have fewer seats crammed in, right?

      If a BMI of 21 was a sort of cut-off, with women over it rarely able to get jobs as stewardesses, that means that a 5’4″ woman who weighed 125 lbs was too big. Plus, the airlines changed how big was too big after WWII, so unless the aisles shrank during that time too, the change in weight standards was about beauty standards.

  • I forgot which airline it was back in the 70s, might have been Air Cal, that made the flight attendants wear hot-pants.

    • The Dark Avenger

      It was PSA, MK, as you can see here.

      • kerFuFFler

        Wow, those short uniforms look like they’re right out of the original Star Trek show——like something Lt. Uhura would have worn.

      • Emily68

        The PSA uniforms in pink and orange. In the 9th grade (1964 or 65), I had a pink and orange outfit, and I felt SO COOL when I wore it.

      • UncleEbeneezer

        Thanking you (for a friend) for this.

    • Kathleen

      Braniff hired Pucci to design uniforms in the mid to late 60’s.

      Here is a link to Braniff Hostess Requirements as of 1972:

      http://www.braniffpages.com/hostess1972.pdf

    • marijane
      • That’s who I was thinking of. Thanks.

  • kerFuFFler

    My gorgeous sister-in-law worked as a flight attendant for many years before she married my brother-in-law in the mid 90’s. At the reception, one very attractive co-worker of hers was asked by a clueless guy (very feebly trying to strike up a conversation….) if she called herself a stewardess or a flight attendant. Her response was golden:

    “I call myself a pilot!”

    • hylen

      My gorgeous sister-in-law worked as a flight attendant for many years before she married my brother-in-law . . .

      How does that work? ;)

      • Simple: she was married to kerFuFFer’s brother, divorced him, and then married kerFuFFer’s sister’s ex-husband.

        • hylen

          I thought it must be something like that.

    • Lee Rudolph

      I call myself a pilot

      but you can call me Kong. Major Kong.

      • Me, I’m more of a Buck Turgison type.

  • Joshua

    Asian and Middle Eastern airlines very much have adopted these standards for their flight attendants, and it’s very easy to notice that while using these airlines. It’s almost as if beautiful stewardesses are a way for these countries to project their culture for the rest of the world.

    • Bruce Vail

      Yes, Singapore Airlines is notable in this regard. Although I haven’t looked at their advertising recently, they were selling their air service with the image of the beautiful, sexy and eager-to-please stewardess into the early 2000s.

      • Ruviana

        They may not have the same jingle but they’re still selling submissive Asian beauty. Korea Air does it too. Drives me nuts even if I’m not their target market.

        • LeeEsq

          Does anybody have any statistics how many Jews are flight attendants outside of Israeli airlines? Considering the socio-economics and politics of Jewish Americans in the mid to late 20th century, flight attendant would seem like an unusual career for Jewish American women to embrace.

          • Lee Rudolph

            “Are”, no idea. As to “were”, the book under review has a footnote saying “In 1965, a stewardess union president said she only knew of one Jewish stewardess” and backing it up with a citation to Aviation Weekly, September 3, 1965.

            • LeeEsq

              Flight attendant seems like a really weird job choice for a Jewish American baby boomer without even considering the feminist movement. It just doesn’t fit the demographic profile. Most American Jews were college and profession bound by this time. The default career choice would have been a teacher.

              • The Dark Avenger

                The 60s were against following expectations and doing your own thing. If, in 1965, you told me that 4 years later I would be strolliing down a street in Berkeley, CA, on a summer evening and seeing a fair % of young women who were not wearing bras pass by, Imwouldn’t have found that credible.

                These were women who went against expectations that they were raised do in. Some of them may have been Jewish, but many of them were undoubtedly Christian and some Catholic, I would think.

                And if a woman wanted to travel some, it may have been more attractive than teaching.

                The 60s were a bit different, and besides, no Jewish stewardesses would’ve left the Jewish men who flew at the mercies of the shiksas at 30,000 feet.

      • Mike G

        At Singapore Air they still have all the restrictions that have gone by the wayside in the US — tight restrictions on age, marital status, height, weight, appearance, etc. and they are hired only for five-year contracts. Few get renewed after five years unless they are tracked for supervisor positions.

    • UncleEbeneezer

      There’s an Air Emirates commercial that runs non-stop, every year during the BNP Paribas Open on the Tennis Channel. It shows rich men kicking back in luxurious seats being waited upon by some very attractive attendants. It looks like something straight out of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce.

    • The Emirates crews use the same hotel in NYC that we do.

      Their flight attendants are all perfectly beautiful and have surprisingly attractive uniforms for a middle eastern airline.

      My wife, who was there with me, even commented on how attractive their uniforms were.

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  • Barry Freed

    There used to be specialized schools for stewardesses akin to secretarial schools. Last summer a group of 4 former stewardesses now in their 70s came in to my place of work to find the school they went to together on a contemporary NYC property map (many businesses can often be found by name on these maps). It was remarkable that they had bonded so tightly as a result of that experience that they had remained good friends after more than 50 years.

  • ChrisTS

    A family friend – very lovely – went to air stewardess school after high school, sometime in the early sixties. She was a very quiet, fairly submissive person (abusive dad, abusive brothers, abusive boyfriend) but she could not hack the mind-control the airline expected of her. I always figured that indicated how awful the training and expectations were.

    • Hogan

      “I’m afraid you’re not broken enough to work for Pan Am.”

  • cdevine

    Oh does this bring back memories! My mother was a stewardess for AA from about 1955-1957. She took the job because it paid better than her bookkeeping job in the NYC garment district. She HATED flying (more so now that’s she has an assortment of stories of wings catching fire, etc. and getting lost looking for the gate at O’Hare when it first opened) But she remembers the weight checks, girdles and mandatory nail polish.

    And she was secretly married for a while in 1957 before she quit – and she was making more money than my father, a New York City firefigther.

    I’m sending my mother the link to the book. She’s looking forward to it.

    • cdevine

      I forgot – she almost was rejected as a stewardess because she had a scar on her forehead from a fall, but the powers that be decided the hat would cover it.

  • Origami Isopod

    The one-star review for the book turns out to be an MRA anally leaking his opinions on Amazon.

    • Vance Maverick

      Hmm, the leakage is so concentrated, rapidly spraying so many familiar targets (Jews, gays) that I suspect a Poe.

    • Shocking. How dare that woman even write, not to mention write about other women!

    • Barry Freed

      Wow:

      If you know anything about aircraft and especially heavy aircraft, you know that in a crash (I have been in several) a hundred and ten pound dolly-queen is NOT going to save your *ss in a catastrophic situation! On the carriers I have flown, I was shocked to realize that even male stewards were homosexual! None of these people could help you in a crash situation!

      They really live in an entirely different planet – inside their own heads.

      I added my down vote to that review.

  • partisan

    Can we expect a review of “Empire of Cotton,” or is that too far from your field?

    • I tend to review more obscure books but who can tell. If the publisher wants to send me a copy to review, I’ll review it.

  • That which is Below corresponds to that which is Above, and that which is Above corresponds to that which is Below.

    • Lee Rudolph

      Shorter: “The carpets match the drapes.”

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