Liberation at 30,000 Feet: On the Freedom of Early Airline Stewardesses

Sarah Menkedick Examines the False Choice Between Femininity and Power

Part nurse, part waitress, part savior, part seductress, the airline stewardess was both a character conjured from male fantasy and an avatar of an era of unprecedented female freedom. As Julia Cooke describes in her recently released book Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am, most stewards in the early days of air travel were men, but as the jet age bloomed in the mid-20th century, airline executives grasped and advertised the appeal of a certain type of young woman who could emit an alchemical mix of glamour, cosmopolitanism, know-how, and adventure. Cooke quotes Pan Am’s chief executive, Najeeb Halaby, on the company’s efforts to outdazzle its rapidly multiplying competition: “We must add to [our excellence] ‘a new dimension’–that is, emphasis on what pleases people. And I know of nothing that pleases people more… than female people.”

These “female people” were designed, down to the length of their bobs, the arc of their eyebrows, and the very shade of their lipstick (“lavender, purple, orange, insipid pink, iridescent or flesh color” were not permitted, since, psychiatrists explained in a memo, outrageous makeup signaled emotional disturbance) to attract wealthy men. They were made into props and enticements—objects, to such an extent that National Airlines actually ran an ad campaign in the 1970s announcing “Fly Me” with a photo of a smiling stewardess, as if she herself were the plane.

But of course, as Cooke depicts with elegance and intricacy and nuance, these women were not objects; they were complicated individuals and ironic figureheads of a new era of women’s liberation. Yes, some starved themselves for weeks with canned tuna and boiled eggs to make “weight checks”; yes, they dealt with harassment and couldn’t choose their own color of nail polish. But during an era when single women were refused service at mainstream establishments in major US cities, when two-thirds of women were married by age 24, when many girls grew up forbidden from wearing pants, stewardesses were roaming the world, traveling together to Himalayan glaciers; dancing all night at bars in Nairobi; exploring Mexican markets and Parisian arrondissements, living by themselves or with other single women, and by golly, wearing jeans. Cooke profiles one stewardess who, wretched with heartbreak, agrees at the spur of the moment to crew a ragged boat across the Pacific.

Another, one of a small number of Black stewardesses—who had to fight for equal treatment from the airlines, and who were the targets of frequent acts of racism from both their colleagues and their institutions—develops an unlikely love for Moscow, going to the Bolshoi Ballet, accompanying scouts to circuses, wandering the city in cowboy boots. One stewardess named Lynne, a biology major deeply skeptical of what she perceives as the superficiality and frivolity of stewardess work, ends up getting hired and discovers she loves it; in a scene Cooke details in the latter half of the book, Lynne finds herself defending the profession to a male passenger. He sees her reading Scientific American and remarks, “Wouldn’t Vogue be a better magazine for you to read?” to which she replies that she studied biology in college and speaks multiple languages. Cooke points out that in the 1960s, only six to eight percent of American women graduated from college, but ten percent of Pan Am stewardesses had attended graduate school.

These statistics clearly startled the male passenger in the 1960s, but they also startled me today. What does that say about the way I think about what we now call “flight attendants”? Now, they are a much more diverse group, in race and gender, but they are arguably still strongly associated with their stereotype: a particular female representation of servitude and (tame, quasi-maternal) sexiness. I could see reading the book that I’d had this default notion in mind, even though the first person to inspire me to travel was in fact a female flight attendant. We’d worked together at a coffee shop in Madison, Wisconsin, where she told me about hitchhiking all over Indonesia and meeting her husband, who was selling friendship bracelets on the beach. She lived in his beachside house for nine months before they moved back to the US together, where they’d eventually start a highly successful Indonesian food cart. When I traveled to South America and later South Africa, our paths coincided: we smoked cigarettes on a park bench in Lima at midnight and hiked along a rugged stretch of coastline near the Cape of Good Hope. She was the wildest woman I knew; she took that South Africa trip with advanced breast cancer, knowing she would die, choosing to travel rather than spend her last days in a hospital. I never thought of her as a flight attendant. But she loved that work. It had made her who she was.

What does it mean to be both female and empowered in a society that sees femininity as opposed to power?

Cooke’s book interweaves narrative, history, and commentary on changing gender norms and politics, and it comes at a moment when we seem to be reckoning, once again, with female representation. How should a woman be? More importantly, how should a free woman be?

The answers to these questions aren’t merely individual choices: the way a woman chooses to represent herself in relationship to her femininity and potential freedom (two categories very much at odds) ultimately implicates, validates, or threatens the choices of all other women. There are many ways to show up as a man, and it often seems all of them—even the most hideous pussy-grabbing iterations—are equally valid. Yet more than a half-century after Cooke’s stewardesses were weighed and outfitted and manicured for male desire, a woman is offered a stark choice between femininity and freedom—that choice is often false, for the freedom is never truly such and the femininity can in fact be freeing, but it will almost always be damning. Despite the ways in which her “female” roles may overlap with ones that we might consider more “liberated,” despite the complications of liberation being defined almost exclusively in male terms and the female being perpetually marginalized as trivial, she will still be forced to side more with one than the other, and to accept the subsequent judgment.

In April of 2017, I wrote an op-ed in which I argued that birth should be a subject of major literary significance; that is, instead of dismissing women who write about motherhood as insignificant or precious or fringe, and shelving their books in the children’s section, we should approach birth with the fascination and complexity and reverence with which we study, say, war.

I received many emails from women who said they’d long felt too afraid to create work about motherhood and appreciated the encouragement to push back against the double standard in which men writing about family life can be celebrated as artistic lions while women are promptly ushered into the literary dead zone of the feminine and marginal.

Yet I also received one email that stood out. It was written by a woman—from her husband’s email account. This woman ranted at me for taking women “back to the stone age,” and harangued me for assuming all women wanted to give birth. In my advocacy for motherhood as a vital subject she saw a single mandate for being a woman, and she fought back against that mandate. It did not occur to her that we can acknowledge birth as relevant to everyone in our society, as deeply transformational and powerful and important, without having to see all women as mothers, or without having to think of all mothers as having given birth. In her purview, you chose birth, or you chose liberated womanhood. And what you did implicated all the women watching you.

I forgot about this for a long time, until my husband and I sat down the other night to watch Hillary. By the time we were halfway in, I realized it wasn’t so much about Hillary Clinton as it was about female identity: and particularly, how female identity can never not be female. Men are the universal standard, the given. One man’s life, work, behavior doesn’t establish what all men can or can’t do. A man may be aggressive, gentle, domestic, soldierly, warm, stern, fatherly, aloof—he may have many moods, faces, iterations, but he is not assumed to represent all of manhood. He is not an emblem of his gender as he chooses a tie or shakes a hand.

But a woman is always deciding what kind of woman she is going to be. This is not a choice without context: there exist, and always have existed, types, and women can only choose among them. Cooke writes about how, until several stewardesses filed discrimination lawsuits, all stewardesses were required to quit immediately upon getting married. This was meant to ensure the women were the right age—early twenties—and to avoid, as the executives justified it, the problem of angry husbands calling the airline to check up on their wives. Cooke quotes one personnel manager saying that if a stewardess ever worked more than 35 months, “we’re getting the wrong kind of girl. She’s not getting married.” There was the girl who believed in marriage and set her sights on it as a goal, and then there was the other: the wrong kind.

Of course, many stewardesses both wanted to marry and wanted to keep working. In framing their campaign for this right, however, they had to appeal to the types: they had to make the case that they could still be sexy at 30, that they were still playing by the rules. They had to paint themselves as the right kind of girls. The stewardesses were judged for this framing by some feminists, who dismissed them as mere sex objects. No matter what position they took, they couldn’t win. The game was rigged.

The more power a woman has, the more intensely she will be seen to validate or oppress the choices of other women. The story of Hillary Clinton is the story of a woman trying to live her life and do the work she wants to do while constantly having to position and reposition herself, before ultimately learning the lesson that there is no correct position: that as a woman, she is always misrepresenting her gender by being a complete and complex human being. When Hillary erred on the side of rejecting womanhood—“I could’ve stayed home and baked cookies”—the response from women was so negative that she was forced to do penance decorating the White House Christmas tree and serving, yes, cookies, to the White House press corps. But when she erred on the side of embracing it, of refusing to appear angry and reprimand Donald Trump for leering behind her or threatening her, of proudly touting “the woman card,” she fared no better.

To watch Hillary is to finally grasp the illusion that any woman can ever get it right: smile just enough, dress just right, possess just the right amount of verve and power combined with care and compassion, set her ambition to just the right degree, remain unthreatening and yet inspiring, embody a perfect motherhood and relationship that doesn’t make any mother or wife feel bad about her own motherhood or relationship, and do it all at just the right historical moment.

The fact that women are always other, always women first and people second, always representative of their gender, both generates and impedes a powerful solidarity.

Throughout the documentary, other women comment on Hillary’s decisions. One recurrent theme is that Hillary was always either one step ahead of or one step behind the current moment’s definition of an acceptable woman: too liberal, bold, aggressive during her husband’s time as governor and then President, but too tame in 2016, even though, as one commentator remarks with tragic irony, the anger that became widely acceptable and even encouraged among women after 2016 would not actually have been well-received during the election. The movie’s biggest takeaway might be that women who are trailblazers ultimately become martyrs to the cause of womanhood—only by criticizing them for what they should have done when they couldn’t have done it do we move forward to embrace a new female ideal.

A strategist for the Clinton campaign offers what for me was the film’s most devastating and revealing anecdote. She talks about a focus group in which women, mostly upper-middle-class suburban women from New York, unleashed their vitriol for Hillary Clinton. Why? Because she’d stayed with her husband. They loathed her for this. Eventually the strategist coaxes out of one of them that her husband, too, had cheated on her, and she’d stayed. This opens the floodgates of emotion and what ensues is a “consciousness-raising,” in which these women explore their own self-loathing reflected in Hillary’s womanhood.

The fact that women are always other, always women first and people second, always representative of their gender, both generates and impedes a powerful solidarity. We may identify with each other as women in ways that liberate us and unite us, but we may also tear each other down when our decisions don’t align, or align in ways that we don’t want to acknowledge, that position us not as the women of our ideals but as the women we’d rather not be. Our bodies, our lives, our choices, speak for each other, and this is both a gift and a terrible burden.

This dynamic is particularly fraught around the question of how a woman exploits, lacks, or denies conventional beauty. The stewardesses can weaponize their beauty; they discover the power in it. Cooke focuses a large portion of the book on the war in Vietnam, reframing this period of American history from a female, airborne perspective. The stewardesses escorted soldiers into the war, knowing many were being delivered to their deaths. They also flew the soldiers out for R&R to Hong Kong or Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur, occasionally turning right around from an R&R flight to deliver new draftees into the mess. They witnessed the wrenching horror of war, first from the soldiers—Cooke describes one stewardess tying a towel around a man’s belly to keep his intestines from spilling out—then from planeloads of orphaned Vietnamese children. The stewardesses often used their beauty as a balm, a distraction, and a form of hope in a place where their planes were shot at and where the fighting sometimes wound up inside the cabin. Tori, one of the book’s main characters, plays a joke on a plane full of soldiers, promising them if they behave, coffee will be served topless. When they obey, the flight engineer and second pilot—both men—rip off their shirts and fulfill the promise. One crew of stewardesses crafted a banner reading “Kisses $1,” which they hung in the rear galley.

Many stewardesses were sexually free at a time when single women still couldn’t obtain their own birth control. They wielded their beauty for power, for fun, for freedom—but of course, this wasn’t an option for women who weren’t, as Cooke points out, naturally endowed with Pan Am’s perfect faces and figures. Cooke does not explore this quandary in depth, focusing as she does on the stewardesses’ lives and their historical roles, but it remains central today: for women, beauty is always a quality to be navigated, always a defining feature or lack thereof. It is yet another crucial choice, and it implicates other women.

In imagining the stewardesses living in Hong Kong and swimming at midnight in Monrovia, I think of my years in Oaxaca, Mexico. I think of how, when I was twenty-three, twenty-four, twenty-five, I played into a culture of what I’ll call “the muses.” The muses are all women, of course, and they’re all traditionally attractive women, young and thin and wide-eyed and with an artistic bent. They’re romantic and they’re wispy and they gravitate toward men who want to photograph them looking romantic and wispy in fields of cempazuchitl. I cringe now thinking of how I posed for black-and-white film photos beside rocky creeks in the mountains, and simpered over mezcal, and smoked cigarettes on velvet couches. It wasn’t until I was 35 or 36, the mother of a small child with a career of my own, that I started noticing and then resenting the muses: not predominately for their beauty, or for their youth, but for the fact that they seemed to cede the realm of art and intellect to men.

I think of an experience from a few years ago, when my husband and daughter and I went back, as we do each year, to visit my husband’s family. We went out one evening with a group of friends, which included two young women—one a talented photographer, the other a talented curator—as well as an old, famous, grizzled male photographer who’d traveled the world and was somewhat of a legend in Oaxaca. We sat at a long table and drank and talked. The old photographer, a burly bear in demeanor and mannerisms, dominated from the center of the table. He leaned back in his chair, spread his arms, and held forth. The younger woman, long-haired and beautiful, in sandals and a traditional Oaxacan huipil, mostly giggled and dropped her chin. The other, in her early thirties, was quiet, serious, and occasionally bemused.

I got increasingly drunker and found myself watching them: the antics of the old bear were familiar at this point and nauseating—he referred to the women in his life as “las chicas”—but the silence of the women pulled me. Finally, I couldn’t stand it. I turned to the bear. I asked him if he could name any Mexican women photographers. He stumbled. He cited the two most famous Spanish women photographers every Mexican artist knows. “Really?” I asked. I could tell Jorge was starting to get irritated with me. But I couldn’t be a muse anymore. I was no longer young or beautiful enough, and I had my own career, my own interests and ambition. There is no role for me here, I kept thinking at that table. What is my role? I didn’t fit into the bear’s world, where women were either chicas or madres or utterly invisible. To try and muscle my way into that scene of artistic prestige and power I would have to shed my femininity entirely, or else embrace it full on, ethereal and wide-eyed. There was no room for me as an equal, and there was no room for me as an other. I felt an alienation I’d never before experienced.

Meanwhile, the muses prevail. Recently, in pandemic boredom, I have fixated on the Instagram account of a young woman married to a famous Mexican painter. The painter had been married for years to a gorgeous, arrogant French artist, with whom he had two daughters. The artist was the ultimate muse, and her daughters were her proteges. In photographs, both mother and girls are sultry, skinny, pouting; caressed by sun; unsmiling, their hair whirling in open-air transport; painfully, elegantly beautiful in stark Mexican landscapes. Once the girls were young adults, however, and the mother must have been entering her fifties, she and the painter separated. He married a woman nearly his daughters’ age, twenty or thirty years his junior: thin, doe-eyed, exquisite. They had another child. The Instagram of this painter’s young wife is the diary of a muse. In the market, she gazes solemnly into the middle distance, elbows on the table, long delicate fingers holding an empanada, bird-like bones made golden and sublime by the light. I hate-watch her like many women I know hate-watch influencers or mommy bloggers. But I can see that I have descended as unthinkingly into bitterness as I once descended into muse-hood. This woman’s positioning of her womanhood somehow invalidates mine. What in the hell am I doing in my sweatpants and Patagonia fleece, writing long windy essays about womanhood? Shouldn’t we be in some Oaxacan hacienda somewhere, where Elena and I could loll around atop a bed of dried hibiscus while Jorge photographs us?

On Twitter, I found the modern-day opposite of the muses. These American women, who had much in common with me—same age, same profession, similar background—intimidated me in a different way. They were relentlessly snarky, funny, meta. They were mothers but there was never a moment in their motherhood that was not ironically framed, wry, aware of all of its referents and their meaning. They may throw their children perfect birthday parties with adorable Instagrammable decorations and tea sandwiches but this self-aware snark made it all somehow okay, allowed them to both have their homemade confetti cake and their empowered feminist fuck-these-standards-of-motherhood stance too. They knew how to play their cards just right: by keeping any drop of earnestness or sincerity or—horror of horrors—sentimentality out of their posts, they could achieve a sort of 21st-century female authenticity. They could be mothers, they could even write about motherhood, they could be wives, they could even write about wifehood, but they could also be independent and empowered women hip to all the ways society was trying to undermine them.

Studying them, I learned that this was one way to exist in the world as both a Serious Intellectual Person and a Mother. In fact, it might be the only way. But I couldn’t do it. I grew up in the Midwest with a family who meditated before a two-foot-wide photograph of a guru and talked about “the mystery,” who went hiking and camping every weekend and made hemlock tea. I love Annie Dillard. I cry sometimes listening to On Being. I can do snark, but I can’t shed the part of myself that wants to find some ultimate human meaning in a toadstool. And I don’t want to shed this part of myself. But there seemed to be, once again, no space between the vapid drivel of sentimental motherhood and the snarky writer moms of Twitter—as in Oaxaca, drunk at three in the morning and afloat somewhere way out at sea while the muses and the bear flirted and parried, I was alienated from any available category.

When I was a teenager, a much younger cousin made a casual and brutal observation about me and my sister. “You’re the smart one,” she told me, “and Mary’s the pretty one.” I was in the full throes of early teenaged awkwardness, wearing tie-dyed overalls and sneakers, and my sister was a twenty-four-year-old aerobics instructor who rocked electric-purple leggings. I was also a proud uber-nerd, reading Lolita, while my sister had men leaving dozens of red roses on top of her old Buick. Never mind that I grew out of my overalls phase and got a decent haircut and took up marathon running and learned how to be conventionally pretty, or that my sister went to law school and took a prestigious position at a university: the categories stuck. My small cousin had grasped, well before puberty, that women existed in categories: you could be one, or the other, but not both. Angry, or gentle. Smart, or pretty. Rebellious, or conventional. Strong, or demure. Sometimes, often, the choice would be made for you. And then you might end up hating the other girls who got to be something else.

Come Fly the World illuminates a time just before the second wave of feminism—with its determination to fit women into a capitalist white man’s world, its rhetoric of home-as-prison-and-motherhood-as-drudgery—swept over American women. That wave remade a sense of the possible: Cooke’s stewardesses are exhilarating examples of a new generation of women getting the hell out of their podunk towns and building careers, identities, and lives for themselves around the world. But the wave stopped short of eradicating or remaking that old question of feminine otherness: what does it mean to be both female and empowered in a society that sees femininity as opposed to power?

When Hillary ended, we jumped into Mrs. America, the Hulu miniseries featuring Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, the right-wing activist who led the fight against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Blanchett’s Schlafly is a politician manqué: in one devastating scene, she tries to offer her hyper-informed opinion on Russia’s nuclear threat during a briefing with Barry Goldwater but is interrupted and asked if she can please just take notes. The series speculates that Schlafly’s embrace of traditional female roles was ironically motivated by her hunger for political protagonism, and in organizing housewives she found a power denied to her in male realms. In a scene in which Schlafly debates Betty Friedan, Friedan points out that Schlafly is traveling around the country giving speeches while simultaneously advocating for a “traditional” femininity that would have most women cooped up in the home. Schlafly demurs and deflects but comes back later to skewer Friedan as “the unhappiest woman I’ve ever met.” It works, sending Friedan into a spiral of fury—for Friedan, as the show depicts her, is deeply unhappy, bitter, unable to find a partner, the quintessential feminist old maid whose anger at men has made her unpalatable.

Gloria Steinem, meanwhile, makes a comment to the effect of: “There will always be people left behind in a revolution.” Those people are Schlafly’s housewives and eventually, Schlafly herself. The “libbers,” as the movie labels them, largely painted traditional female roles as a trap, a powerless void for those too weak or dull to liberate themselves. There was no room for the mother who enjoyed or found power in the domestic in this iteration of feminism. What makes the show interesting are the ways in which women in both camps—the libbers and Schlafly’s traditionalists—long for but repress parts of the other, or embrace them ironically without realizing it, as when Schlafly scrambles for male power by rallying around women’s roles as housewives, and Friedan reprimands her daughter for wearing a blouse that, Friedan implies, makes her look like a slut. Like Hillary, the show highlights the constraints of female identity, and the ways they contort women.

Come Fly The World fits right into this moment of reckoning with female identity, illuming the ways women are represented, then exploring how women betray or deny or elude these representations, from owning their sexuality to keeping pregnancies a secret to whispering forbidden counter-cultural messaging to soldiers. It shows how these women move toward what liberates them—for some women, it is connections to Africa or the Soviet Union; for some it is Hong Kong; for some it is the act of itinerance itself, inventing and reinventing their own lives. On the ground, at home in the US, many fight for pensions, for the ability to keep working when married and pregnant, for the right not to wear a “Fly Me” pin. But it’s in the air, Cooke suggests, in that rarefied sphere 30,000 feet above mountains and glaciers and deserts, where—even in uniform, even with a corporate smile—these women come into their own power: where they are in control, they are free, they can dream themselves into whomever they want to be.

Sarah Menkedick
Sarah Menkedick
Sarah Menkedick is the author of Ordinary Insanity: Fear and the Silent Crisis of Motherhood in America (Pantheon, 2020), and Homing Instincts: Early Motherhood on a Midwestern Farm.





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