September 12, 1967: Feminists and Labor Unions Take On Sexist Airline Industry

Founding Feminists is FMF’s daily herstory column.


Are being quite young, very attractive, and an unmarried woman “bona fide occupational qualifications” for being a stewardess?

According to the airline industry, the answer is “yes,” but two unions and feminist Betty Friedan disagree. Today a hearing was held by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (E.E.O.C.), to hear from both sides so that it can make a ruling on whether the airlines are in violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or whether their biased standards can be justified and permitted to continue.

Betty Friedan, author of "The Feminine Mystique," and NOW's first, and so far only, president.
Betty Friedan, author of “The Feminine Mystique,” and NOW’s first, and so far only, president.

Friedan, president of the 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.” She also said: “While the airlines talk about these pretty girls and the service they give, the sexuality of the girls is a necessary factor for the job.” She called their policies “the most flagrant kind of sex discrimination” because male airline employees are not 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 and grooming requirements.

None of the airline executives disputed the fact that they have unique and far more restrictive age standards for stewardesses than for any of the jobs done by men, but tried to show why they were needed. According to Walter Rauscher, vice-president of American Airlines: “We must have a glamorous product that is wanted and needed by people.” He resented any comparisons between stewardesses and Playboy bunnies. But he didn’t say what the difference was between a woman being “glamorous” vs. a “sex symbol,” or what part of the job’s duties 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 Playboy Club comparisons: “I resent the implication that stewardesses are sex symbols. They are not. 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 and marital status requirements.

The Air Transport Association, consisting of 55 airlines, sent attorney Jesse Friedin to tell the E.E.O.C. that they didn’t even have the authority to rule on discrimination based on age and marital status. 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 truly necessary.

Protests against discriminatory practices by the airlines date back to April 17, 1963, when eight stewardesses 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, at the time. The Civil Rights Act was signed 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 bona fide occupational qualification reasonably necessary to the normal operation of that particular business or enterprise.” Congress began taking testimony on the issue on September 2, 1965, when Colleen Boland and several other stewardesses testified about the unfairness of the rules.

The present controversy dates back to November, 1965, when charges of sex discrimination by the airlines began to come to the E.E.O.C. The vast majority of complaints have been from women, though one was from a man who wanted to be a airline steward but was told that only women could apply for that type of work.

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 that ruling. The airlines’ main argument was that Aileen Hernandez, one of the Commissioners, was active in the newborn National Organization for Women, and couldn’t have been “objective” about sex bias when the Commission vote was taken. A few months after Hernandez resigned from the E.E.O.C., the judge made the injunction permanent and said the Commission would have to either drop the issue or hold a new hearing, and that’s what took place today.

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