The Grit Among the Glitter

As glamorous and exciting as the world of female flight attendants was perceived, it was also very volatile. Working conditions weren't easy as stewardesses had to deal with long hours, mechanical and weather delays, difficult passengers and dangerous situations.

Flight Attendants on Stairs

They also were under the sexist standards put in place to maintain the glamorous stewardess image. Women had to adhere to strict height and weight regulations (some of which weren't disposed of until the 1990s), were not allowed to be married and were forced to resign if they became pregnant or when they turned 32 years old.

The first union for flight attendants was created by United Airlines stewardess Ada Brown in 1944 as a response to growing unrest. In many cases, wages had barely increased since the Original Eight stewardesses of 1930. There was no cap on the number of hours a stewardess could work per week and they often spent layovers in crowded, bunk-house style accommodations.

After decades of restructuring, the union would one day develop into the Association of Flight Attendants, which currently represents over 55,000 flight attendants in the U.S. Within the Union, flight attendants were able to negotiate for better pay, reasonable working hours and better job security.

When women organized into unions, they finally had the strength to make successful conciliations on several labor issues such as safety and worker's compensation. But it wasn't until the passing of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that discriminatory practices were seriously brought to light. Over the following decade, issues such as the no-marriage and the no-pregnancy requirements were, at least partially, resolved.

The 1970s saw several major changes to the world of stewardesses. Socially, the term stewardess was generally replaced by the more politically correct flight attendant. Legislatively, the Airline Deregulation Act of 1978 turned the world of commercial aviation upside down. Exposure to the now competitive industry took a toll on airlines as most posted hiring moratoriums and thousands of flight attendants were laid off.

Despite the upheaval of the 1970s, female flight attendants endured and continue to be an alluring, though more respected, component of the aviation industry.