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'Fly Girl' and 'The Great Stewardess Rebellion' recount journeys toward empowerment

Meghan Collins Sullivan

Imagine a job from which women were routinely fired for gaining a few pounds, getting married, becoming pregnant — or simply turning 32.

Picture a workplace in which supervisors routinely patted female employees to make sure they were wearing girdles, and had a dress code that didn't allow eyeglasses — but dictated false eyelashes, 3-in. heels, nails polished a specific color, regulation hairdos, and uniforms that ranged from severely tailored skirt suits to revealing mini-skirts, paper dresses, and hot pants.

Additional requirements: a smiling, calm demeanor, even under duress, even when ogled, insulted, or propositioned. And all this for a fraction of the salary paid to men in similar positions.

What would induce you to take this job?

In The Great Stewardess Rebellion, travel writer Nell McShane Wulfhart writes, "It wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that in the 1960s the airplane cabin was the most sexist workplace in America." Yet, lured by wanderlust, the promise of glamour and adventure, and the possibility of finding a rich husband, she writes, thousands of single young women applied to become stewardesses. The position, created in 1930, was touted in the second half of the 20th century as having an acceptance rate lower than Harvard's. And every woman who was accepted had to make it through a grueling six-week course in which they were drilled in safety procedures, emergency training, first aid, meal service, deportment, decorum — plus how to deal with aggressive, drunk, or sick passengers, hijackings, and crash landings, among other subjects.

Wulfhart's principal focus is on the inspirational history of how flight attendants in the 1960s and 1970s, emboldened by the women's movement, banded together to push back against the airlines' egregiously misogynist work conditions. She wisely structures her engaging (if unfortunately cliché-ridden) narrative around three key women in the struggle for stewardesses to be treated as professionals. These profiles in tenacity are particularly striking when viewed against the backdrop of offensive airline advertisements that promoted "air hostesses" as sex objects, such as Continental's 1974 campaign, "We Really Move Our Tails for You." In response to National Airlines' "Fly Me" campaign, members of Stewardesses For Women's Rights responded, "Fly Yourself," and printed bumper stickers that declared, "National, your fly is open." Needless to say, none of these ads would fly today.

Among the three female trailblazers Wulfhart profiles are two American Airlines flight attendants and a lawyer who fought for the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Patt Gibbs, who ran away from her family circus act (really) to join American Airlines in 1961, is the most vivid character. She was not your typical image of a stewardess: neither Barbie doll-slim nor demure, she eventually came out as a lesbian. As an active, outspoken member of the Airline Stewards and Stewardesses Association, which eventually joined the Transport Workers Union, she learned to adeptly file grievances against unfair suspensions — including one for removing her white gloves on a sweltering Dallas bus. Later, she was instrumental in breaking away from the male-dominated TWU to form an independent union, the Association of Professional Flight Attendants — a battle that Wulfhart delves into more deeply than some readers might want.

One of the beneficiaries of these battles was novelist Ann Hood. Her fourth memoir, Fly Girl, paints a vivid picture of the eight years (between 1978 and 1986) she spent criss-crossing America and the world as a TWA flight attendant.

Hood is a generous, practiced storyteller, and she enlivens her reminiscences with entertaining stories about grumpy passengers and her own gaffes. Fresh out of college, Hood knew she wanted to become a writer. But, first, she wanted to see more of the world than she had experienced growing up in Rhode Island. To the horror of her friends, she applied for a job as what they viewed as a glorified waitress.

By the time she joined TWA, Hood's salary and benefits were good, there was no longer an age ceiling or prohibition against marriage, and her job title was the gender-neutral "flight attendant." But she did indeed serve thousands of meals, and she still suffered the ignominy of weigh-ins (often preceded by diuretics, diet pills, and saunas) to meet increasingly draconian weight requirements, which were not lifted until 1991.

Hood's employment at TWA coincided with the government's deregulation of the airlines in 1978, which drastically reduced fares, thereby opening up air travel to hordes of non-business passengers. To accommodate them, jets became larger and flying became less luxurious. The financially strapped airlines changed from direct point-to-point routes to the less convenient hub-and-spoke system used today, often requiring multiple connections. In-flight meals were largely replaced by packaged snacks. Even so, between 1978 and 2001, seven major airlines went bankrupt, in addition to more than 100 smaller companies.

Yet Hood still loved her job. She loved the Ralph Lauren uniforms, including the jaunty scarf tied just so, and she loved Eero Saarinen's iconic TWA terminal at JFK. She loved meeting interesting people, and she loved the free flight coupons, which enabled her to hop over to London for a weekend — and to fly her parents all over the world.

Hood loved her work even when she had to deal with difficult passengers — such as the man who had to be restrained after throwing a hissy-fit about not getting the meal of his choice (lasagna). She performed CPR on a businessman who did not survive a heart attack, and held the hand of another who did. During unpaid furloughs, she took waitressing and bookstore jobs to support herself, but still went back when TWA called.

Why did she love flying so much? "Life unfolds on airplanes," Hood writes. She met people flying to funerals, weddings, job interviews. Fly Girl is above all about gaining independence and confidence by learning to work through trying circumstances and to navigate foreign cities on her own. These qualities have served Hood well in the literary career she launched with her 1987 bestselling novel, Somewhere Off the Coast of Maine, partly written in the jumpseat of a 747 while passengers slept.

Hood finally grounded herself in 1986, following the unsuccessful 75-day strike against TWA's insulting contract, which slashed salaries while increasing workloads. By the time Hood was offered her job back three years later, her literary career was well-established.

Both Fly Girl and The Great Stewardess Rebellion recount journeys towards self-respect and empowerment. They're a trip worth taking.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.