Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants (Radical Perspectives)

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“In her new chic outfit, she looks like anything but a stewardess working. But work she does. Hard, too. And you hardly know it.” So read the text of a 1969 newspaper advertisement for Delta Airlines featuring a picture of a brightly smiling blond stewardess striding confidently down the aisle of an airplane cabin to deliver a meal.

From the moment the first stewardesses took flight in 1930, flight attendants became glamorous icons of femininity. For decades, airlines hired only young, attractive, unmarried white women. They marketed passenger service aloft as an essentially feminine exercise in exuding charm, looking fabulous, and providing comfort. The actual work that flight attendants did—ensuring passenger safety, assuaging fears, serving food and drinks, all while conforming to airlines’ strict rules about appearance—was supposed to appear effortless; the better that stewardesses performed by airline standards, the more hidden were their skills and labor. Yet today flight attendants are acknowledged safety experts; they have their own unions. Gone are the no-marriage rules, the mandates to retire by thirty-two. In Femininity in Flight, Kathleen M. Barry tells the history of flight attendants, tracing the evolution of their glamorized image as ideal women and their activism as trade unionists and feminists.

Barry argues that largely because their glamour obscured their labor, flight attendants unionized in the late 1940s and 1950s to demand recognition and respect as workers and self-styled professionals. In the 1960s and 1970s, flight attendants were one of the first groups to take advantage of new laws prohibiting sex discrimination. Their challenges to airlines’ restrictive employment policies and exploitive marketing practices (involving skimpy uniforms and provocative slogans such as “fly me”) made them high-profile critics of the cultural mystification and economic devaluing of “women’s work.” Barry combines attention to the political economy and technology of the airline industry with perceptive readings of popular culture, newspapers, industry publications, and first-person accounts. In so doing, she provides a potent mix of social and cultural history and a major contribution to the history of women’s work and working women’s activism.

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From the Publisher:

"Femininity in Flight is outstanding. It is the most thoroughly presented book on femininity, work, and pink-collar activism to date. It expands the contours of the women's rights movement and complicates the grounds on which women make demands for better working conditions."-- Eileen Boris, author of Home to Work: Motherhood and the Politics of Industrial Homework in the United States

"Femininity in Flight is the first book that tells the story of the flight attendant occupation as a whole and gives us the history of the occupation in so compelling and rich a fashion. Kathleen M. Barry offers us an entertaining and witty account of how flight attendants embodied changing notions of femininity, and then she boldly challenges conventional wisdom by arguing that it was those very cultural constraints that in part spurred flight attendant activism."-- Dorothy Sue Cobble, author of The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America

From the Back Cover:

""Femininity in Flight" is the first book that tells the story of the flight attendant occupation as a whole and gives us the history of the occupation in so compelling and rich a fashion. Kathleen M. Barry offers us an entertaining and witty account of how flight attendants embodied changing notions of femininity, and then she boldly challenges conventional wisdom by arguing that it was those very cultural constraints that in part spurred flight attendant activism."-- Dorothy Sue Cobble, author of "The Other Women's Movement: Workplace Justice and Social Rights in Modern America"

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