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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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