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Femininity in FlightFemininity in Flight

A History of Flight Attendants

Kathleen P. Barry

Narrated by Caroline Miller

Available from Audible

Book published by Duke University Press

“In her new chic outfit, she looks like anything but a stewardess working. But work she does. Hard, too. And you hardly know it.” So read the text of a 1969 newspaper advertisement for Delta Airlines featuring a picture of a brightly smiling blond stewardess striding confidently down the aisle of an airplane cabin to deliver a meal.

From the moment the first stewardesses took flight in 1930, flight attendants became glamorous icons of femininity. For decades, airlines hired only young, attractive, unmarried white women. They marketed passenger service aloft as an essentially feminine exercise in exuding charm, looking fabulous, and providing comfort. The actual work that flight attendants did—ensuring passenger safety, assuaging fears, serving food and drinks, all while conforming to airlines’ strict rules about appearance—was supposed to appear effortless; the better that stewardesses performed by airline standards, the more hidden were their skills and labor. Yet today flight attendants are acknowledged safety experts; they have their own unions. Gone are the no-marriage rules, the mandates to retire by thirty-two. In Femininity in Flight, Kathleen M. Barry tells the history of flight attendants, tracing the evolution of their glamorized image as ideal women and their activism as trade unionists and feminists.

Barry argues that largely because their glamour obscured their labor, flight attendants unionized in the late 1940s and 1950s to demand recognition and respect as workers and self-styled professionals. In the 1960s and 1970s, flight attendants were one of the first groups to take advantage of new laws prohibiting sex discrimination. Their challenges to airlines’ restrictive employment policies and exploitive marketing practices (involving skimpy uniforms and provocative slogans such as “fly me”) made them high-profile critics of the cultural mystification and economic devaluing of “women’s work.” Barry combines attention to the political economy and technology of the airline industry with perceptive readings of popular culture, newspapers, industry publications, and first-person accounts. In so doing, she provides a potent mix of social and cultural history and a major contribution to the history of women’s work and working women’s activism.

Kathleen P. Barry has a doctorate in history from New York University. She has taught American history at NYU and the University of Cambridge.


Femininity in Flight combines all the strengths of a scholarly monograph—extensive archival research, a solid historiographical framework—with the kind of stylish layout and eye-catching illustration more common in books for the general reader. And Barry writes with clarity and wit. She tells a complicated story, but engrossingly.”

American Heritage

“A well-documented history.... One of its strengths is a demonstration that cultural history does not have to be impressionistic, and that economic imperatives and consciousness-raising can be as entertaining to read about as exploitation movies.”

Times Literary Supplement

“Barry provides an entertaining study of American flight attendants since the 1930s, filling a major void in scholarship on labour history, women’s history, and tourism. Drawing particularly on memoirs, union records, and industry publications, Barry convincingly argues that stewardesses and their allies were vital to the advancement of second-wave feminism and the modern labour movement.”

Canadian Journal of History

“Readers get a comprehensive, scholarly look at an occupation originally based almost entirely on cultural expectations of early 20th-century white, middle-class femininity-beauty, charm, domesticity, and concern for the comfort of others-yet requiring a great deal of courage, resourcefulness, and hard work mainly hidden from public view.... This thoroughly researched work will suit both academic and lay readers. Recommended for all history and women's studies collections. ”

Library Journal

“It is good to have such work as Kathleen Barry’s to enrich our knowledge of the often-overlooked influence of a strong pink-collar industry. Femininity in Flight provides useful material for labor history, union history, social movement theory and history, or gender role analysis in upper-level high school or lower-division college courses.... The book thus has rich potential for stimulating student discussion or further research, particularly regarding gender role expectations.”

The History Teacher

“Exhaustively researched, rich in insight, and written in a brisk, lively style, this is the definitive historical study of flight attendants in the United States.”

American Historical Review

“Barry’s feminist analysis is clever and somewhat poignant, for it sees that in the role of the air hostess a vision of female selfhood and freedom has been forced to rub, rather uncomfortably, against a rather ogling set of corporate requirements.”

London Review of Books

“One of the great strengths of Femininity in Flight is the broad context within which Barry views flight attendants' struggles, in terms of women's work, union organisation and second-wave feminism. By contextualising her study so well and drawing out the parallels between stewardesses and other pink-collar workers, Barry has produced a book with wide appeal and relevance to many interested in labour history, the women's movement, and the growth of service work.”

Times Higher Education Supplement

“Well written and carefully documented, Barry's book is a valuable addition to literature on gender and labor history.”

Journal of American History

“This well-researched book traces the evolution of flight attendants from glamorous sky queens to cabin safety experts and members of trade unions.”

Air & Space

Femininity in Flight makes a significant contribution to our understanding of labor feminism, joining a body of work that challenges the notion that feminism was essentially a white middle-class movement.... A great read; it will keep you enlightened and entertained through even a lengthy flight delay.”

Labor History

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University Press Audiobooks