To be an airline stewardess — you know, what we call a flight attendant now — back in the early part of the jet age, you didn’t need technical skills, geography knowledge, safety know-how or travel experience. What the airlines were really looking for was simple: women who were pretty, slim, young and single.
Here’s a look at the some of the requirements and preferences that put you in the running for a coveted stewardess job back in the ’50s and ’60s. Some were grounded in reason — for instance, a woman shorter than 5’2″ probably couldn’t reach into the overhead storage area — but many of the job requirements were just plain sexism in action.
While not everything has changed since the sixties, some things have. For example, there’s more ethnic diversity now than ever, far fewer age restrictions, no issue with marriage… plus about a quarter of all flight attendants are now men. As a bonus, the job ads today don’t demand that you be attractive — nor do modern airline ads come right out and encourage businessmen to leer at the hostesses. It’s all progress, right?
Presenting the losers
“Sure, we want her to be pretty… don’t you? That’s why we look at her face, her makeup, her complexion, her figure, her weight, her legs, her grooming, her nails and her hair…”
(We somehow don’t think that model and actress Ali MacGraw — shown here front and center in this ad from 1967 — was actually trying to get a stewardess job in the years just before her big breakthrough.)
Unmarried, and with no children
To work as a stewardess, you had to be single — at least when you started. (Widows and divorcees were allowed in some situations as long as you were “unencumbered.”) For many years, if you got hitched, you’d have to trade your wings for a wedding ring. You could pick one: a husband or your job.
By the ’60s, many airlines would allow air hostesses to be married — if they started the job while single — mainly because there was a stewardess shortage. Still, bias remained. In 1965, United Airlines district sales manager Hugh Flynn said, “The job simply would not be compatible with married life. A wife would have to be gone days at a time, besides working long hours.”
Oddly enough, male pilots could somehow manage this nearly impossible challenge.
Cool with mandatory retirement rules
For a long time, getting older — as in, hitting your mid-thirties — meant getting fired.
“[TWA] grounds girls at 35. So does Southern Airways. At Northwest Orient and American, stewardesses are washed up at the doddering old age of 32.” *
“At a recent congressional hearing on job discrimination because of age, an airline executive whose company has a retirement rule was quoted as saying, ‘It’s the sex thing. You put a dog on an airplane, and 20 businessmen are sore [annoyed] for a month.'” *
Attractive — and no glasses
If you wanted to be paid to fly, good genes helped — “attractive” seemed to be one of the most important job requirements. But no matter how gorgeous you were, no airlines would allow glasses, and many would reject you even if you wore contact lenses.
Still, if you look at this ad, you’ll see that the people most in need of good eyesight were the male passengers. The plane’s generous seating was said to be handy because “you’ll be swiveling around a lot looking at the stewardesses.”
At least 20 years old, and 5-feet-2 to 5-feet-9 in height
No more than 135 pounds and/or “weight proportionate to height”
Do you ever see a fat stewardess? Or one that doesn’t smile? – If you had to smile for a living, you’d be more careful about your diet – 5 ways to be active and attractive
Immaculate uniform appearance
Not only did they used to have smoking onboard — they even offered the smokes! In this ad from 1952, stewardess Audrey Jones gives movie star Dale Robertson a pack of cigarettes to enjoy on his flight.
In 1966, testimony in a sex discrimination case said being female was a “bona fide occupational requirement.” They bolstered that claim by saying that three and a half decades of female flight attendants proved the job “is, indeed, a girl’s job.” And for one reason: “To present a pleasing public image… can be achieved only by an attractive girl.” (Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia – June 23, 1966)
To that end, TWA’s “Foreign Accent” flights in 1968 offered more than just the usual boredom-beaters: “Their ruffles, bows and minis, and sheer delight in being girls, as well as expert hostesses, makes something wonderful happen inside the plane.”
To qualify to fly, you had to be “attractive,” and with an “unblemished complexion.” Your hair had to be “immaculately groomed,” couldn’t be colored, and was allowed to be no more than shoulder-length.
It’s not like the flight attendants didn’t notice the disproportionate attention given to appearance. Some stewardesses “complain of inadequate training on safety procedures, with too much time devoted to smiling, makeup and poise.” *
Can handle the strain of flying
TWA allowed stewardesses to marry and continue their jobs — as long as they weren’t pregnant. If there was a baby on board, things were different. “Married stewardesses who find themselves pregnant must quit immediately. No advance notification of leaving is necessary… Why is it necessary to leave their jobs? This is dictated by medical reasons. The stress of flying would be too much in such cases.” (Dayton Daily News – September 30, 1965)
This one’s not a rule — just reality. Of an estimated 14,000 female flight attendants flying in 1965, approximately 50 were African-American. (That translates to about 0.004%.) The first “Negro stewardess” was hired in 1957 by Mohawk Airlines. Her name was Ruth Carol Taylor, and she was a 25-year-old from NYC. *
A personal pre-flight checklist
Stewardesses — is your hat straight? Makeup neat? Hair length correct? Blouse clean? Insignia on? Costume jewelry off? Uniform clean and pressed? Slip [not] showing? Hose seams straight? Shoes shined?
3 years public contact experience
“Having married stewardesses would take some of the fun out of the job for the single girls — and the male passengers,” said Esther Sievers, president of a Dayton, Ohio, chapter of retired airlines hostesses. (Dayton Daily News – September 30, 1965)
In between lectures, she took time to reveal a little about life as a stewardess and some hints for aspiring young gals.
Tips for aspiring stewardesses
“Any time you deal with the public, you’ll meet all sorts of people,” the pert blonde said. “You just have to keep your cool.”
The 24-year-old hostess said there is no special training a person can take to get a job with an airline.
“There is nothing you can do to prepare yourself,” she explained. “You have to sell yourself to the interviewer. There are so many girls who want to fly, they don’t take the average girl. You have to be vivacious, have to want to fly and deal with the public. You have to want to help people.”
Mrs Staples, a newlywed of four months, listed the qualifications for becoming a stewardess are 20 years old, 5-feet-2 to 5-feet-9 in height, single when applying, pleasantly attractive, no glasses, good physical health condition, high school graduate, prior sales and public contact.
The petite stewardess dispelled the myth about only single women become hostesses. “You have to be single when you start training, but can get married after six weeks.”
She said widows and divorcees are considered, “but I don’t think they like for you to have children.” Her new contract, however, has leave provisions for pregnant women.
The ups and downs of the job
One of the drawbacks of being a stewardess is the reserve system, Mrs Staples explained. At the beginning of each month, stewardesses “bid” for flights to fill their 69 hours flight time requirement.
Flights are awarded on a seniority basis. If a stewardess isn’t awarded enough hours, she is on reserve call for “no show” girls.
A stewardess for two and one-half years, Mrs Staples recently transferred bases from Atlanta to Miami. She said Eastern has six bases and some 3,500 stewardesses.
A girl training can pick her base by signing up for a class designated for a certain area.
What does her husband think of her flying?
“He doesn’t mind my flying,” she said. “But he doesn’t like my being away at night.”
Mrs Staples said she has not been on a hijacked plane and flavor had any close calls in the air.
She sais she worked in a bank for almost a year before applying to Eastern.
“There’s a lot of glory in flying,” Mrs Staples said, “but it is hard work.”
Eastern Airlines: Presenting the Losers (stewardess job TV ad from 1967)