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Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants

Young, white, educated, and pretty: these were the most essential job criteria early flight attendants (then called “stewardesses”) were required to meet. As a selective few catering to the affluent traveler, flight attendants in the early days of aviation held a seemingly glamorous job, one that was coveted in an era when a white women’s work often extended only to the front door of her home. In Femininity in Flight, Kathleen M. Barry examines the rise of flight attendants from their initial inception in aviation in the 1920s through second-wave feminism in the 1970s. Through a feminist lens, Barry discusses the unique position of women whose job entails essential knowledge of flight safety, but whose image has long been constructed, first as a “bride-in-waiting” and, later, as a sexual playmate.

Barry spends considerable time examining the progression of flight attendant unions throughout the decades, and her thoroughness is a challenge for non-historians, not as a matter of accessibility, but as one of length. However, laboring through the pages on the relationship between flight attendants and the labor movement pays-off. Barry successfully relates a sympathetic portrait of flight attendants while tactfully maintaining an objective analysis of their particular position within aviation. Her comprehensive portrait of flight attendants as safety professionals taken for granted by abusive passengers, exploited by air carriers with an eye on the bottom line and subjected to standards of appearance (including weight control, former age caps and marriage bans) makes the reader care about them and their long history for recognition and change within the profession, even when one picks up the book unenthusiastically (as I initially did).

The greatest shortfall is Barry’s decision to subsume the changing job expectations and job description flight attendants face after September 11th when security standards and tighter federal regulations have created new complexities for a work force that still remains predominately female, and was only granted federal safety certification (despite a nearly fifty year struggle) after 9/11. Despite this, Barry aptly exposes the conflicted status of flight attendants as both women of privilege and woman whose exploitation traditionally has been as high as the sky. While not a page-turner, Femininity in Flight is effective in handling the labor and feminist history of an individual group who are rarely given a second thought.

Written by: Lacey Dunham, May 2nd 2007

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