How Flight Attendants Fought Again Towards Sexism within the Airline Business


In 1958, when Mary Pat Laffey Inman grew to become a stewardess — as they have been then referred to as — for Northwest Airways, she was 20 years previous and the clock was already ticking. At 32, she could be compelled to retire. That’s, if she didn’t marry, get pregnant and even acquire an excessive amount of weight earlier than that: All have been grounds for termination. It was the golden age of aviation for everybody besides, maybe, the ladies serving in-flight meals to the nattily dressed passengers.

Six years later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination primarily based on race, shade, faith, intercourse or nationwide origin, and feminine flight attendants started to affix forces towards sexism.

In 1970, Ms. Laffey Inman, a union chief and Northwest’s first feminine purser — the lead attendant on a flight — spearheaded a class-action swimsuit, Laffey v. Northwest Airways Inc., that resulted within the airline paying greater than $30 million in damages and again wages in 1985. It additionally set the precedent for nondiscriminatory hiring of flight attendants throughout the trade. However even then, not every little thing modified: Flight attendants on some airways have been nonetheless subjected to “weigh-ins” into the Nineteen Nineties. (Northwest merged with Delta Air Strains in 2008.)

Now, many years after the landmark choice, Ms. Laffey Inman, 86, is one in all a number of former flight attendants featured in “Fly With Me,” an “American Expertise” documentary that chronicles how ladies fought to beat discrimination within the airline trade. It premieres on PBS on Feb. 20. The New York Occasions spoke to Ms. Laffey Inman about how she made historical past. This interview has been edited for size and readability.

I used to be working at Montefiore Hospital, in Pittsburgh. I all the time wished to journey, ever since I used to be a child. As a flight attendant, I may journey — all bills paid. I believed it was fantastic. Different stewardesses and I snort about how fortunate we have been to be within the trade at the moment. We’d bid for three-day layovers in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Tokyo. A limo could be there to select you up and take you to the lodge.

Flight attendants had a six-week session the place we discovered concerning the airline and had emergency and security coaching. We discovered the instructions to make use of in case of emergency. And we had grooming courses — ladies got here and taught us how you can placed on our make-up and polish our fingernails.

After I began, senior stewardesses talked about youthful males being employed to be answerable for the plane and the crew, bypassing stewardesses who had been flying for fairly some time. They mentioned this in whispering tones, or typically not whisperings. It was all the time a bone of competition. Males have been elected to positions that managed the union, and so they did the negotiating. Stewardesses may not likely take a look at the job as a profession as a result of we needed to stop after we obtained married or after we have been 32. That was all the time behind your thoughts.

In 1968, Northwest employed 4 males off the road to be pursers. I referred to as the director of labor relations and stated, “You should put up this bid!” Once they did, many ladies have been intimidated, however I utilized and obtained the job.

We needed to work with navy air contracts. In occasions of emergency, the U.S. navy has a proper to commandeer plane for use on a navy foundation. We flew to Vietnam very often in the course of the Tet offensive in 1968. I used to be a purser, however I used to be new and didn’t have any seniority, so I used to be assigned to these flights. We’d carry 165 troopers to Okinawa, then shuttle them to Vietnam and convey 165 again — hopefully. We obtained out and in of Vietnam as shortly as doable as a result of there have been missiles going forwards and backwards.

We didn’t have a leg to face on legally till the Civil Rights Act, which included discrimination primarily based on gender. That was our renaissance.

In 1967, I grew to become the pinnacle of the union at Northwest, and negotiated the primary nondiscriminatory contract with the airline. We may show ladies flight attendants had equal abilities and tasks. That’s after we introduced again the stewardesses who have been fired as a result of they have been over 32, or as a result of they have been obese or as a result of they have been married.

In 1969, negotiations for the subsequent contract commenced. The negotiating committee was dominated by males. I had anticipated modifications, however Northwest refused to incorporate language that might deal with ladies pursers the identical method as male pursers. I talked to a labor lawyer, who stated we had a case. Finally, 70 p.c of the union signed on. The airline dragged it out for 15 years — took it to the Supreme Courtroom twice, however the case was remanded again to the Federal District Courtroom of Appeals, the place Ruthie Bader Ginsburg was the decide who’d written the opinion in our favor.

No, I used to be simply searching for equality in pay. I wasn’t pondering 40 or 50 years forward. I used to be merely hoping each step on the judicial ladder would go our method.

I’d like somebody to go a legislation to widen the seats. That’s one of many causes there’s a lot stress.


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