Flight attendants were some of the people at the forefront of the fight for equality in the 20th century. Read about some of these remarkable people below. 

Ruth Carol Taylor, a nurse, became the first African American flight attendant when she was hired by Mohawk Airlines in December 1957. Taylor had applied earlier for a job at TWA but was rejected. She filed a complaint with the New York State Commission Against Discrimination. Concurrently, New York State authorities persuaded Mohawk to hire women of color. Mohawk accepted 800 applications, from which Taylor was chosen. TWA, facing nine complaints, relented and hired Margaret Grant as their first African American flight attendant in 1958.

Further hires by airlines were few until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Taylor’s career was brief. She was let go after six months when she married—a casualty of the industry’s discrimination against marriage, which was still enforced. 

“It shall be an unlawful business practice for an employer...to discriminate against any individual with respect to his compensation, terms, conditions, or privileges of employment, because of such individual’s race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” –Title VII, Civil Rights Act of 1964

Flight attendants were one of the first groups to file a case under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which made biased hiring practices illegal. As social attitudes evolved, they challenged biased rules through the courts. They argued for their rights as women and against age, race, and marriage restrictions. By 1967, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) had ruled against all of the airlines’ discriminatory hiring practices. This opened airline career opportunities to all Americans.

Striking Down Marriage Restrictions 

In 1965 Betty Green Bateman won a landmark grievance against Braniff Airways that eventually made the industry’s no-marriage policy illegal. Bateman had been fired after she married but the decision was overturned by arbitration under Title VII. This set a critical precedent that opened the door to remove marriage restrictions from other airlines. 

While Betty Green Bateman's landmark case struck down marriage restrictions for flight attendants in 1965, it wasn't until the early 1990s that the first maternity uniform, issued by United, was offered by an airline for its female pilots. Captain Cynthia Berkeley wore the uniform shown above. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Removing Gender Bias  

In the 1950s and 60s, flight attendants were almost all women, as airlines saw attractive women as a marketing tool to attract male passengers. However, encouraged by Title VII, Celio Diaz, Jr., applied for a flight attendant job with Pan Am in 1967 but was rejected. Citing gender bias, he filed a lawsuit. Pan Am’s defense claimed that a woman’s femininity was a “bona fide occupational qualification” which excluded men. Diaz won his case after a difficult four-year fight. A U.S. court of appeals ruled that a flight attendant’s job was to provide passenger safety, and had nothing to do with gender, allowing men to reenter the profession. Ironically, Diaz was no longer eligible for the job because of age restrictions, which were not thrown out until the late 1970s.

Hoping to attract more passengers—of whom were mostly male—to their airlines, many airlines started hiring exclusively attractive young women as flight attendants. In this photo, a stewardess checks her appearance. Mirrors like this were hung in lounges and lavatories for image checks—to ensure they were always looking their best for the customer. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.

Advancing Gay Rights 

While pushing for gender equality, Diaz v. Pan Am also helped advance gay rights. During the 1930s, stewards were seen as stylish service professionals, many of whom were gay men. As flight attendants became mostly women in the 1950s, anti-gay attitudes reinforced restrictions that excluded gay men from the industry, fearing their presence would upset straight male passengers. The case Diaz v. Pan Am removed the hiring ban allowing thousands of straight and gay men to become flight attendants.

Flight attendants made several important strides toward equality—removing gender bias, marriage restrictions, and racial discrimination. Even before the passage of Title VII, aspiring flight attendants such as Ruth Carol Taylor called out airlines for their discriminatory practices. Once Title VII was law, the door was opened even wider for people to become flight attendants. 

It is now common to see flight attendants of all genders aboard airplanes. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.


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