Women’s Roles in the Flight Attendant Profession and APFA
The APFA, as the world’s largest independent union representing Flight Attendants, has over 27,000 male and female members. But, historically, women were the first Flight Attendants and the leaders in bringing change to the profession.
In the 1930s, the first stewardesses were hired by Boeing to assist passengers, and the fact that the female work force was a source of cheap labor helped to secure the trend for years to come. American hired its first four stewardesses – all nurses – in 1933 with starting pay of $100 and an expected schedule of 100 hours monthly.
Although the job required long hours, low pay, and little time off, the job of a stewardess was thought of as glamorous and exciting. By the mid 1930s, airlines began to require that stewardesses remain unmarried. In 1953, American became the first airline to require that stewardesses retire at age 32. Airlines defended the age 32 rule, referencing the need to maintain the young, attractive image of the stewardess. However, union leaders suspected that economics was the underlying reason. By the 1990s, these work rules, along with the pregnancy and weight restrictions, were gone – all changed with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and years of litigation.
The first stewardess union, The Air Line Stewardess Association (ALSA), was certified by the National Mediation Board in 1945. In 1946, the Air Line Stewards and Stewardesses Association (ALLSA) was organized by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and represented the American Airlines stewardesses. However, ALLSA members were not allowed to vote or run for office in their union – only the pilots had those rights. Finally, in 1953, an Eastern Airlines steward was elected president and in 1959 ALSSA disaffiliated with ALPA.
Former Stewardess and APFA member, Dusty Roads, was an active ALSSA legislative representative. Connected to Michigan Congresswoman, Martha W. Griffiths, by a longtime friend who served as the office’s administrative assistant, Dusty was able to communicate the sex and age discrimination imposed upon stewardesses at the time. Many credit Dusty and Martha with changing the face of the profession and the industry.
Martha Griffiths remained a steadfast supporter of stewardess rights and was determined to end discrimination in the profession. Once, during a Congressional session, an airline executive argued that a stewardess must be young, single and attractive. Martha’s reply, “Are you running an airline or a whorehouse?” resides in the Congressional Record of the proceedings. Many credit Martha with the fact that “sex” was included in the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
By the 1960s & 70s the airlines had long dropped the images of stewardesses as nurses onboard for the protection and nurturing of passengers. They marketed stewardesses as sex objects with slogans like, “We Really Move Our Tail for You,” “Air Strip,” and American’s own mini-skirted stewardess ad with the caption, “Think of Her as Your Mother.” By 1971 a group called Stewardesses for Women’s Rights (SFWR) formed with the goal of addressing the sexism in airline marketing and encouraging stewardesses to become active in their unions.
By 1974, ALSSA was dissolved and the American Airlines Flight Attendants became affiliated with the TWU of AFL-CIO, known as the Local 552. Achieved during the 1975 negotiations and 1976 contract were single rooms, “F” time, jumpseat passes, night pay, reserve guarantee, and the four and one-half hour day.
By 1976, American Flight Attendants began to pursue the independence of their own union. The Founding Board included Patt Gibbs, Kathy Knoop, Karen Chenault, Colleen Brenner, Ardell Callas, and Ross Montgomery. APFA was certified on May 16, 1977 as the bargaining agent for the American Airlines Flight Attendants by a vote of almost two to one.