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VOL. 46 | NO. 19 | Friday, May 13, 2022

Flight attendants, teamsters and a fight for equality

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Your backside barely fits. There’s not much wiggle room, but you’re grateful for the seat.

You also could use more leg room, but the inconvenience is worth it to see the world again. You were welcomed aboard, you don’t even mind the loud-talker in the seat in front of you and you’ll be taking off soon so now’s the time: Get “The Great Stewardess Rebellion” by Nell McShane Wulfhart from your carry-on and buckle in.

Patt Gibbs’ parents had given their children an interesting life. They’d traveled, owned retail businesses and restaurants, and each of the children worked with the circus at one time or another. So when Patt was 19 and ready for change again, her cousin suggested she apply to be a stewardess with American Airlines. It seemed like a good idea.

That was in 1961 and Patt moved to the “charm farm” to learn to walk in high heels, style her hair identical to that of her co-workers, wear the ultra-strict underwear-to-outerwear uniform, and to cater to businessmen on the short flights she was assigned.

It wasn’t until she accidentally became a member of the stewardess union – a time that coincided with the Women’s Movement – that she and other women began to question those and other stringent rules.

“The Great Stewardess Rebellion: How Women Launched a Workplace Revolution at 30,000 Feet”

By Nell McShane Wulfhart

c.2022, Doubleday Books

$30

320 pages

The government had just passed the Equal Opportunity Act, so why didn’t women have access to better jobs with the airlines? Why was the pay different for men and women, for the same work? Why were men’s work-rules more relaxed? Stewardesses began to file grievances, which led to lawsuits on behalf of a growing number of women in an industry that was itself growing. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission went to work. The Teamster’s Union was briefly involved. Every time they were denied better and equal working conditions, the stewardesses found other ways to fight...

From the beginning in 1930, when Ellen Church became the first “stewardess,” female flight attendants labored under interesting and often chafing rules. So what happened? As the author explains, there were a variety of pressures from inside and out.

Primarily, though, the reason for change and for this book were the women who worked side-by-side with a burgeoning awareness of inequality. In Wulfhart’s stories, their predicaments seem, at first, merely old-fashioned, like the girdle-and-bubble-hairdos they’re forced to wear.

But as times change inside this book, so will readers’ minds. Outrage expands then, and Wulfhart acts as a teacher of culture, showing how American society altered the way women worked and vice versa.

That part of the story touches upon more than just white women’s rights, and it’s almost made for Hollywood.

What happened 50 years ago might bring to mind the issues flight attendants can have on today’s flights, which makes this book all the more relevant, astounding, cringey and cheer-worthy, and you’ll admire your attendant doubly if you’re flying this summer. Whether you’re in business-class or not, “The Great Stewardess Rebellion” is a book that’ll fit your cravings.

• For a peek inside the cockpit, you’ll also want to read “This is Your Captain Speaking: Stories from the Flight Deck” by Captain Doug Morris (ECW Press, $17.95). This book answers your questions about how planes operate, what those scary noises mean, how pilots manage to avoid one another in the air and other head-scratchers you’re eager to understand. It’s funny, interesting and perfect for white-knucklers, too.

Terri Schlichenmeyer’s reviews of business books are read in more than 260 publications in the U.S. and Canada.

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