Flight attendants improve the flying experience for passengers by ensuring their safety and providing for their comfort. How did this role start? Who were some of the first flight attendants? Discover their stories.
A nurse from Iowa, Ellen Church wanted to become an airline pilot but realized that was not possible for a woman in her day. So in 1930, she approached Steve Simpson at Boeing Air Transport with the novel idea of placing nurses aboard airliners. She convinced him that the presence of women nurses would help relieve the traveling public's fear of flying. Church developed the job description and training program for the first flight attendants.
Church first flew as a flight attendant between Oakland and Chicago. She had only served for 18 months when an automobile accident grounded her. After her recovery, she completed her college degree and returned to nursing.
Jean Harman became Trans World Airline (TWA)'s first flight attendant in 1934. She joined TWA after graduating from Bethany Hospital School of Nursing and teaching government classes in home hygiene and care of the sick. Harman was hired by TWA to design a hostess program. She assisted in interviewing the first registered nurses who became the first class of TWA flight attendant, and she aided in the selection of the first uniforms. Prior to flight attendants, copilots performed double duty: flying in the cockpit and assisting the passengers in the cabin. Hiring women as flight attendants enabled copilots to remain in the flight deck. Passengers may also have been more comfortable with women in this role because women primarily performed caretaking and hospitality work in American society. Harman later became a regional chief hostess and flight instructor. She was a founder and vice-president of Clipped Wings International, an organization for former TWA hostesses. Harman's career began in a 14-seat Douglas DC-2 and finished in the jets of the 1960s.
Ruth Carol Taylor
Ruth Carol Taylor served as a flight attendant for Mohawk Airlines in 1958; she was the first African American flight attendant.
Taylor graduated from the Bellevue School of Nursing in 1955. She was interested in using her training and skills as a flight attendant and she applied for a job at Trans World Airlines (TWA). At the time, TWA only employed white women as flight attendants, and they rejected her job application. Mohawk Airlines, however, "expressed interest in hiring minority flight attendants,” explains BlackPast. Taylor was selected from among 800 candidates.
Six months into her aviation career, Taylor married and was forced to resign due to a sexist policy that required flight attendants remain single.
Taylor went on to a career as an activist, founding the Institute for Inter Racial Harmony in 1977 and publishing The Little Black Book: Black Male Survival in America in 1985.
This content was migrated from an earlier online exhibit, Women in Aviation and Space History, which shared the stories of the women featured in the Museum in early 2000s.