The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon
As the apotheosis of feminine charm and American careerism, the stewardess subtly bucked traditional gender roles and paved the way for the women's movement.
Excerpted from The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon (footnotes omitted) by Victoria Vantoch. © University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher
Flying Nurses, Lady Pilots, and the Rise of Commercial Aviation
When Ellen Church was growing up in Iowa during the 1910s, her parents took her to county fairs to watch pioneer aviators swoop through the air. Mesmerized by the goggled pilots performing aerial acrobatics, Church let her imagination soar. She wanted to fly. But at the time, aviation was just a fledgling technology and flying was considered a soul-stirring, yet risky, venture for intrepid explorers. The vast majority of Americans had never been on an airplane. Church had no idea that she would come to play an important role in this intriguing new world of aviation, but she did know she was smitten.
Born in 1904, Ellen Church came of age during the unique era of early aviation and her fascination with flight was not uncommon. When Wilbur Wright demonstrated the airplane in the early 1900s, the Frenchman Frantz Reichel summed up his feelings about flight: “Nothing can give an idea of the emotion experienced and the impression felt, at this last flight, a flight of masterly assurance and incomparable elegance.” Europeans were so awe-struck by flight that, in the 1910s, a group of Italian artists called the Futurists declared the airplane the foundation of a new theory of literature —“aero-poetry”—which expressed all the “feelings, emotions and reactions unknown to those accustomed to crawl on the surface of the earth.”
Although this literary trend did not take off in the United States, the airplane did become an important cultural symbol in America. In the first decades of aviation, the American public imagined the airplane as more than a mark of technological progress: it was perceived as a catalyst for a new utopian society, democracy around the globe, and world peace. America was infatuated.
Young women were also part of the airplane craze. In fact, some were so eager to experience flying that they paid pilots at flying clubs and county fairs for airplane rides. One young girl, who later became a stewardess in 1939, recalled that her parents refused to give her the money for a plane ride because they considered it too dangerous—so she stole the fifty cents from her grandmother to pay for the ride.
At the time, women aerial enthusiasts could even earn a living as “barnstormers”—stunt pilots who traveled across the country performing treacherous aerial feats such as plane-to-plane transfers via hanging rope ladders. The illustrious Ruth Law, a particularly successful female aviator, for example, earned $9,000 per week performing airborne stunts. Law’s tour de force: climbing out of the cockpit onto the wing.
“I used to gape at Ruth Law and think that she was the most wonderful person I ever saw,” Ellen Church recalled. “I thought if there was any one thing I wanted to do it was to fly one of those machines just the way she did.”
Even though Ellen Church could not get aviation out of her mind, she chose a more practical route. Nursing was one of the few mainstream professions open to women at the time so Church attended the University of Minnesota’s nursing school and, in 1926, after graduating, she took a position at San Francisco’s French Hospital. But during her free time, she watched planes take off at the Oakland airport... and she pined for the sky. Church’s lofty dreams would become a reality a few years later, when she took flight as the world’s first airline stewardess.
Women in the Budding Aviation Industry
During the 1920s, the aviation industry’s future was yet unknown. Americans anticipated an era of mass-produced personal planes, akin to Ford’s Model T car (introduced in 1908). Media buzz forecast an airplane in every garage. In 1926, Ford announced a prototype of a personal plane; and, in 1933, Eugene Vidal, the director of the Bureau of Air Commerce, announced that the government would spend a million dollars to produce a “poor man’s airplane,” slated to cost $700.
Meanwhile, aerial entrepreneurs struggled to find revenue sources in the burgeoning industry. In 1918, the U.S. Postal Service opened an experimental airmail route between New York City and Washington, D.C. While some private entrepreneurs offered passenger flights as early as 1913, most aviation companies focused primarily on mail and relied on substantial government subsidies for airmail contracts as their bread and butter throughout the 1920s. Ford Air Services was the first airline to combine an airmail route with scheduled passenger service in 1926, but it was a bust financially.
Passenger air travel faced several major hurdles. Even though flight evoked enormous enthusiasm, it was not easy to get Americans aloft. Trains were more comfortable and luxurious than airplanes, and flying was still very expensive. In the early 1930s, coast-to-coast roundtrip airfare cost between $260 and $440—about half the price of a new automobile. The same trip could cost as little as $64 on the train.
In addition to high prices, the public perception of flying was also marred by frequent, highly publicized crashes and fatalities. Pilots were also a PR nightmare for the budding airline industry. During World War I, pilots became known as daredevil hotshots, and by the 1920s aviation was seen as a daring form of entertainment for thrill seekers rather than a viable mode of travel. By the late 1920s, the airline industry had launched a major campaign to revamp this image of pilots and flying in general.
Women were integral to aviation’s image makeover. In order to make flying seem safer to the public and to counter the dangerous image of flying, aviation companies sponsored races, record-breaking flights, and other special events featuring female pilots. This strategy mimicked automobile publicity attempts in early car promotions. In the 1910s, car manufacturers sponsored women to drive across country to make cars look easy and safe to the American public; similarly, airline officials used women pilots to prove that flying was easy and safe.
Throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, the peculiar needs of the nascent aviation industry offered more opportunities for women pilots. Although the number of “girl aviators” and “lady pilots” was small, they received substantial national media attention for their aerial feats. The pilots Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols, Jacqueline Cochran, and others made headlines with their record-breaking flights. “Lady pilots” earned incomes through air race sponsorships, teaching, and selling airplanes in the private market. In 1929, women pilots founded the Ninety-Nines, an all-women international pilots’ organization with ninety-nine original members, to further women’s aerial opportunities and to promote the visibility of women pilots.
“Girl aviators” also became popular in the 1920s because they resonated with broader American gender norms of this era. The 1920s was a time when mainstream American popular culture often portrayed women as self-reliant and independent. This was the era of the flapper, a new type of woman, who showcased her bold independence in various ways. After women gained the vote, the flapper surfaced as a potent symbol of women’s liberation—she wore short skirts, smoked cigarettes, and bucked conventional gender mores. Dominant gender stereotypes of the era, however, simultaneously catalogued women as more erratic, scatterbrained, and less technologically minded than men. These conflicting gender norms dovetailed with the needs of the budding aviation industry in ways that allowed air-minded women to carve out diverse positions for themselves in the industry throughout the 1920s. But women’s opportunities in aviation would soon shrivel as the industry moved in a new direction.
During the late 1920s, aviation began transforming in important ways. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight garnered international attention and amplified public enthusiasm about flying; at the same time, commercial aviation in the United States entered a substantial growth spurt. During this aviation boom, more than a hundred airlines in the United States carried passengers, mail, and cargo. Meanwhile, U.S. government officials tried to free the airline industry from government subsidies by encouraging airlines to shift focus from mail to passengers. In the wake of numerous mergers and bankruptcies, four major domestic airlines emerged in the early 1930s: United, American, Eastern, and TWA. Pan Am, which operated overseas routes exclusively, also surfaced as an industry leader. At the same time, passenger air travel was on the rise. In 1933, the four major domestic airlines would carry more than half a million passengers. These major aviation industry changes would pave the way for a new role for women.
A New Position for Air-Minded Women
Since early airlines were geared toward airmail rather than passenger travel, when they occasionally carried passengers, they offered no in-flight service. The copilots provided occasional assistance when passengers asked for it. The first flight attendants in the United States were white, male “aerial couriers” employed in 1926 on a route between Detroit and Grand Rapids operated by Stout Air Services. Other airlines began using male “couriers” to serve food, answer in-flight questions, and handle baggage.
But in 1930, when Steve Stimpson, the division traffic agent at Boeing Air Transport (which later became United Airlines), began preparing for the inauguration of Boeing’s new twenty-eight-hour coast-to-coast air service, he considered his options carefully. Charged with orchestrating passenger service details and increasing the airline’s passenger traffic, Stimpson mulled over in-flight lunch menus and prospective cabin service.
That year, twenty-six-year-old Ellen Church was working as a nurse and taking flying lessons at the Oakland airport on her days off. According to aviation lore, she stopped by the Boeing Air Transport office located at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco, where she met Steve Stimpson. Church ended up telling him that she could fly a plane and they talked for hours.
Church still fantasized about becoming a pilot. But while female pilots had been able to earn a living as flying instructors, stunt pilots, and airplane salespeople during the 1920s, female pilots were having a harder time finding paid positions in the cockpit by the early 1930s. Since fledgling airlines did not hire female pilots to fly passengers or mail, Ellen Church did not have many options.
In spite of narrowing opportunities for women in aviation, many young women dreamed about aviation careers. These women found encouragement in “career novels,” a popular edutainment genre for teen girls during the 1930s, which featured young female protagonists making their way in careers. Generally ending with marriage proposals, career novels often presented Nancy Drew-like adventure stories with airborne heroines or focused on young women pursuing their dreams of becoming pilots. The Sky Girl (1930), for example, chronicled one young woman’s ambition to become a pilot. Her father, a former wartime flying ace, initially thwarted her efforts but ultimately permitted her to fulfill her dream and train as a pilot.
Like the heroines in career novels, Ellen Church was determined to find her way into the sky. When she met Steve Stimpson at the Boeing office, she pitched him the idea of hiring female nurses as cabin attendants. Stimpson had been contemplating hiring men. Boeing could have followed other airlines by employing white male attendants. Alternatively, Boeing could have hired African American male attendants, who were typically employed as railroad porters, or young Filipino men, who usually worked as waiters and attendants on ocean liners and in hotels at the time. On February 24, 1930, Stimpson sent a memo on “couriers” to A. G. Kinsman, the passenger traffic manager at Boeing, stating that he had a bunch of “good prospects lined up.” Stimpson considered the position so important that he had interviewed some of the prospective cabin attendants six times before deeming them “good men.”
However, the same day, apparently enthralled with Ellen Church, Stimpson sent another memo to Kinsman proposing women attendants. Although Stimpson’s original memo has been lost, a transcript of it has been photocopied and quoted ad nauseam as the stewardess origination story for airline publicity ever since. In the famous memo, Stimpson clarified that he would not hire “the flapper type of girl,” but nurses with “horse sense” who had “seen enough of men to not be inclined to chase them around the block at every opportunity.” “You know nurses as well as I do, and you know that they are not given to flightiness—I mean in the head. The average graduate nurse is a girl with some horse sense and is very practical,” Stimpson wrote.
Mr. Humphries, a vice president of Boeing, and other higher-ups at Boeing nixed the idea. William Patterson, Boeing’s assistant to the president (who would soon become the company’s president), originally wanted to hire young boys. Patterson’s wife and children, who always got horribly air sick, however, convinced him to reconsider. “My mother and I didn’t want young boys holding our hair when we got sick—no customer wanted that—so we told my dad to hire women instead,” recalled Patterson’s daughter, Patricia. Patterson gave the go-ahead for a three- month trial for women attendants.
Boeing executives also had compelling financial incentives for hiring women attendants. In the first place, women employees were cheaper than male employees. In 1931, female airline ground personnel earned $24.50 per week, compared to male ground personnel who earned $31.04 per week. Also, as the public lost faith in corporate leaders during the Depression, the political climate was turning in favor of labor over management and unions were gaining momentum and power.
Within this context, airline officials hired women partly as an attempt to forestall cabin attendant unionization. Women were considered more pliable than men and executives considered them less likely to unionize. In addition, craft unions in the early twentieth century often excluded women. While some women in service industries, such as waitresses, had started their own unions during this era, female clerical and retail workers had limited success during the organizing heyday of the 1930s. When Boeing decided to hire female nurses, nurses had not yet unionized.
Airline executives’ apprehension about unions intensified when transportation unions garnered more muscle with the Railway Labor Act (RLA) of 1926, which granted the government power to force employers to negotiate with unions and instituted elaborate mechanisms for government intervention to forestall interruptions in transportation. Airline executives suspected—and feared—that airlines soon would be covered under the RLA. Sure enough, these premonitions would come true in 1935, when the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) successfully lobbied Congress for an amendment to the RLA, which placed airlines under its authority.
Unionization efforts were also brewing elsewhere in the aviation industry. Early airmail pilots had organized strikes to protest being forced to fly in bad weather and had organized the Air Mail Pilots of America in 1920, which advocated better conditions and higher salaries. In the late 1920s, most pilots were members of the National Air Pilots Association (NAPA), which tried ineffectively to negotiate with airline officials, but most pilots remained dissatisfied with their salaries and conditions. In 1930, the same year that Boeing officials decided to hire women cabin attendants, Boeing pilots were organizing a new union, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which was officially formed in 1931 and would go on to become a fiercely powerful force in the airline industry.
Regardless of Boeing’s motives for hiring her, Ellen Church carved out a new role for women in aviation and she would be widely credited as the world’s first female flight attendant. Church in turn was charged with hiring seven other nurse-stewardesses. Stimpson sent a memo to the Boeing vice president Mr. Humphries on April 8, 1930 reporting on Church’s progress finding candidates: “She says that they are all of the very highest type, well educated, all between 25 and 30 years of age, thoroughly accustomed to discipline, and of the wholesome type. They are also all very enthusiastic, and anxious to tackle the job.” The first stewardesses were required to be registered nurses. They had to be no more than 5 ́4 ̋ tall (to accommodate low airplane ceilings), between the ages of 20 and 26, weighing less than 118 pounds, and unmarried.
On May 15, 1930, outfitted in matching dark green wool capes with green berets, the original eight stewardesses began service on Boeing’s ten- passenger airplanes serving the San Francisco–Chicago route. The trip took twenty hours and made thirteen stops—in favorable weather. One stewardess flew the leg from San Francisco to Cheyenne; a different stewardess took over for the leg from Cheyenne to Chicago. Lunch was served between San Francisco and Cheyenne. While planes were changed in Cheyenne, passengers received a hot meal at Boeing’s airport café, and then another meal aloft between Cheyenne and Chicago. The lunches, according to Ellen Church, were equipped with “lovely china decorated with blue-green modernistic design, dainty silverware and Irish linen napkins.” The meals were prepared in advance and served cold. They typically included sandwiches, cold fried chicken, potato chips, cake, cookies, olives, coffee, and lemonade.
Boeing issued a brief stewardess training manual in 1931 that outlined stewardesses’ duties, including cleaning cabins, heating coffee, completing reports on passengers and equipment, collecting tickets, caring for airsick passengers, and furnishing pillows, reading materials, cigarettes, and gum. Stewardesses also helped load baggage, refuel the planes, and roll planes into hangars. They adjusted the altimeters so passengers could watch the altitude changes. They were expected to learn each passenger’s name, point out interesting geographic features along the way, and answer questions about how the aircraft operated. At times, stewardesses were even called upon to walk onto the wing to help mechanics start the bulky engine.
During the early years of passenger travel, the actual experience of flying was more of a white-knuckled adventure than an easy, pleasant experience. In the early 1930s, the Ford Tri-motor, nicknamed the “Tin Goose” after its corrugated metal exterior, was commonly used for commercial passenger travel. It was not insulated and had no air conditioning. To make matters worse, the interior reeked of hot oil and the disinfectant used to clean up after airsick passengers because it had no circulation system. Another popular plane of the era, the Boeing 80, was slightly more comfortable with forced-air ventilation and hot running water.
Pressurized cabins had not been invented yet, so planes had to fly at low altitudes, rather than above the clouds, through inclement weather. Turbulence was standard fare as planes bounced in wind and weather. Airsickness was common. These early ten-to-twelve seat airplanes were also designed for mail service, rather than for passengers, so they had cramped interiors with low ceilings. Plus, planes were so loud and rattly that stewardesses often had to communicate with passengers by speaking through small megaphones. The typical Ford Tri-motor engine roared at nearly 120 decibels during takeoff—loud enough to cause permanent hearing loss.
Victoria Vantoch is a journalist and historian whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, U.S. News and World Report, and the Los Angeles Times. She is the author of The Threesome Handbook and has a doctorate in history from the University of Southern California.