- Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants
Kathleen M. Barry's monograph on flight attendants explores the history of unionization and the cultural contexts of working the skies. This well written and interesting text explores life in the air. Using a wide range of sources, Barry examines flight attendants from the 1930s through the 1970s. During the course of the time under study, life in the skies changed significantly. When women were first hired as stewardesses, many companies hired nurses to reassure passengers that flight was safe. By the end of the 1970s, glamorized and hyper-sexualized representations of stewardesses circulated widely in popular culture.
Barry's book tries to understand how women experienced the changing work-place and a changing culture. Part labor history, part gender history, part legal history, and part study in popular culture, Femininity in Flight creates a compelling argument for why understanding so-called pink collar work is critical to understanding work in the 20th century. According to Barry, "the history of flight attendants in the United States is a story in which glamorization and organization, and femininity and feminism, uniquely shaped the efforts of a cultural elite among working women to claim greater respect in an archetypal 'women's job.'"(1)
Although women are often considered unorganizable, Barry's work explores a highly unionized female workforce. As she does so, she builds on the work of other labor historians. Femininity in Flight draws on the insights of historians such as Dorothy Sue Cobble and Stephen Norwood. At the same time, Barry deftly uses the currency that historians of sexuality have given historians of work who want to explore the "intangibles" of workplace gendering. Femininity in Flight deals with the issues that stereotypes about their glamour and sexuality and youth created for flight attendants.
Over the course of seven chapters, Femininity in Flight tracks the changing scope of the work, and female employees' successful unionization efforts. Barry identifies and explores the glamorous mystique that clung to stewardesses. She tracks the way that ideal changed, especially in response to social changes in the 1960s and 1970s. She explores how ideas about glamour affected who was hired to be a flight attendant, and what kinds of expectations airlines had of the [End Page 197] women who worked for them. Barry juxtaposes changing ideas of glamour with the successfully struggles of flight attendants to unionize. She looks beyond the mystique into the actual challenges and content of the work of flight attendants, most notable showing that flight attendants suffered a massive speed-up in the jet age.
The first two chapters (60 of 220 pages) focus on laying out the ways in which glamour helped create the flight attendant's work place culture. According to Barry, airlines originally hired women to work in the cabin to create a sense of cultural calm around the idea of flight. As well as acting as a lure for the overwhelmingly male passengers, early female flight attendants (who were often trained nurses) reassured passengers that flight was safe. Using an argument reminiscent of Virginia Scharff's take on women drivers, Barry shows that women attendants signified that flight must be safe: if a young single woman was not afraid of flying, then surely no man should be.
As flying became a more mundane and common activity after World War II, Barry argues that charm and glamour became more important job prerequisites. Femininity in Flight explores how the idea of a stewardess as a glamorous hostess was deployed both by airlines and attendants, with mixed results for the women who worked in the industry. Barry takes the "feminine" part of the stewardesses' job seriously, giving thought and attention to the ways in which ideas about glamour were conveyed, naturalized, and produced. Her argument that glamour was a double edged sword for women, giving them satisfaction even as it played down the idea that being a flight attendant was "real" work, is especially enlightening.
Barry begins to explore the story of unionization in chapter three. She examines the role...