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Are being quite young, very attractive, and an unmarried woman “bona fide occupational qualifications” for being a flight attendant ? According to the airline industry, the answer is “yes,” but two unions and feminist Betty Friedan strongly disagree. Today a hearing was held by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission so it could listen to both sides, then make a ruling on whether the airlines are in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or whether their biased standards are justified and should be permitted to continue.

Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique” and president of the almost 11-month-old National Organization for Women, noted the similarity between the job requirements of the airlines and those of a Playboy Club, and said that the airlines were “transforming stewardesses into bunnies of the air.”

“While the airlines talk about these pretty girls and the service they give,” she said, “the sexuality of the girls is a necessary factor in the job.” She called the airlines’ policies “the most flagrant kind of sex discrimination” because male airline employees are never required to resign or take other jobs upon reaching age 32 (or 35 in some cases), nor when they marry, and do not have the same ultra-strict weight requirements.

Friedan (second from the left) at an early NOW meeting. via Wikimedia.

Friedan (second from the left) at an early NOW meeting. via Wikimedia.

None of the airline executives disputed the fact that they have unique and far more restrictive age standards for female flight attendants than for any of the jobs done by men, but tried to show why these rules were needed. According to Walter Rauscher, vice-president of American Airlines: “We must have a glamorous product that is wanted and needed by people,” and he resented the comparison between his company’s employees and Playboy bunnies. But he didn’t say what the difference was between being “glamorous” vs. being a “sex symbol,” or which of the many duties of a flight attendant could not be performed by a married woman, someone over 32, or a man.

Robert E. Johnson, vice-president of United Air Lines, also objected to the “airborne bunny” comparison. “I resent the implication that stewardesses are sex symbols. They are not,” he said. “They perform a quality service. I resent characterizing them as ‘bunnies.’ That is unwarranted on the basis of their conduct, breeding and behavior.” He then said that it was United’s stewardesses who kept the ” ‘friendly skies’ of United friendly,” apparently adding an ever-smiling, compliant attitude to the strict age, height, weight, beauty, grooming and marital status requirements.

The Air Transport Association, consisting of 55 airlines, sent attorney Jesse Friedin to tell the E.E.O.C. that discrimination based on age and marital status wasn’t an issue on which the Commission was even empowered to rule. But those testifying for the Transport Workers Union and the Air Line Pilots Association disagreed, and then went on to point out that not all airlines have such restrictions, so they must be arbitrary, rather than objectively necessary.

Protests against these policies date back to April 17, 1963, when eight flight attendants held a press conference to denounce the American Airlines policy of forced retirement at 32. “Do I look like an old bag ?” asked 35-year-old Barbara “Dusty” Roads. (She was able to work past the deadline because all those employed at the time the new policy went into effect in November, 1953, were given exemptions.)

The Civil Rights Act was signed into law on July 2, 1964, and the E.E.O.C. began its work a year later, charged with interpreting and implementing Title VII. However, the Act permits bias in “those certain instances where religion, sex, or national origin is a bone fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise.” Congress began taking testimony on the issue of discrimination against flight attendants on September 2, 1965, when Colleen Boland and several other women testified about the unfairness of the rules.

The present controversy began in November, 1965, when charges of sex bias by the airlines began to come to the E.E.O.C. Women have filed all but one of the complaints, the exception being from a man who wanted to be a steward, but was told that only women could apply for such positions at that particular airline. (Only about 5% of flight attendants are men.)

The E.E.O.C. held a five-hour public hearing on May 10, 1966, with representatives of both sides present. On November 9, 1966, the Commission voted on a ruling, but some of the airlines went to court and got a preliminary injunction to prevent the E.E.O.C. from publicly issuing its decision. Their main argument was that Aileen Hernandez, one of the Commissioners, was active in the newborn National Organization for Women, and therefore couldn’t have been “objective” about sex bias when the Commission vote was taken. A few months after her resignation from the Commission, the judge made his injunction permanent and said the E.E.O.C. would have to either drop the issue or hold a new hearing. They chose the latter, and that’s what took place today.

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David Dismore

David became a lifelong admirer of the suffragists after briefly encountering them in a high school textbook in the early 1960s. Though missing out on that first part of the struggle for equality, he became active in "second wave" feminism through LA NOW in 1974 and has been a full-time feminist, TV news archivist, and women's history researcher at the Feminist Majority Foundation since its creation.