A historian chronicles the stewardess’ trajectory from friendly nurse to sultry sex symbol during the “golden age” of flying, 1945–1970.
In our era of flight delays, overcrowded planes and pretzel packets, it’s easy to forget that air travel once held the promise of allure and sophistication, and that the attendants who staffed the aisles acted as role models for women who craved more than just suburban domesticity. Using archival materials and interviews with former stewardesses, Vantoch (The Threesome Handbook, 2007) demonstrates that these women strived to literally soar beyond the confines of the roles allotted to them in midcentury America. Aside from a brief, giddy phase in the 1920s when “lady pilots” performed at air shows, aviation was a man’s world—until airlines began promoting in-flight service as a way to woo travelers away from automobiles and trains. Who better to assist first-time fliers and businessmen than docile young women with medical training? With the 1940s came improvements to the airplanes (pressurized cabins, more headroom), resulting in less turbulence, and airlines dropped the nursing requirement for prospective stewardesses. By this time, the stewardess as icon embodied a dichotomy dear to the heart of Cold War–era Americans: the plucky, attractive woman who lived to serve even as she professed independence. Vantoch’s research illuminates the strict rules that airlines imposed to keep stewardesses in line, monitoring their weight, inspecting their hair and makeup, and insisting that they retire upon marriage, pregnancy or the age of 32. The revolutionary spirit of the 1960s, however, led many stewardesses to protest these increasingly irrelevant rules, as well as to challenge racial stereotyping in hiring policies and to rebel against sexualized ad campaigns.
At a time when women weren’t supposed to want to travel beyond their fenced yards, stewardesses set their sights on the sky; this book lovingly salutes them.