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“Next to being a Hollywood movie star, nothing was more glamorous.” This breathless statement, quoted in Femininity in Flight, was uttered by a flight attendant in 1945. At the time being a stewardess was quite glamorous. Like motion pictures do today, airlines trafficked in “the business of female spectacle.” They hired only women who they believed to represent ideal femininity. Chosen for their beauty and poise, and only from among the educated, and slender, they were as much of an icon as Miss America. And they were almost all White.What do you think?
Victoria Vantoch tells the story of the first African American flight attendants in a chapter of her new book, The Jet Sex. Patricia Banks was one of the first Black women to sue an airline for racial discrimination. She graduated from flight attendant training school at the top of her class and applied to several airlines. But it was 1956 and the U.S. airlines had never hired a Black woman. After 10 months of trying, an airline recruiter pulled her aside and admitted that it was because of her race. Which, of course, it was; airlines disqualified any applicants that had broad noses, full lips, coarse hair, or a “hook nose” (to weed out Jews).
Banks sued. After four years of litigation, Capital Airlines was forced to hire her. She postponed her marriage and took the job (airlines only hired single women as flight attendants). When she put on her uniform for the first time, she said:
After all I had gone through, I couldn’t believe I was finally wearing the uniform. I had made it. I was going to fly. It was such an accomplishment.
Lisa Wade, Ph.D.; originally published at Sociological Images