Glamour, travel, sexism: when the flight attendants fought back

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In 1958, when Mary Pat Laffey Inman became a stewardess (as they were called then) for Northwest Airlines, she was 20 years old and the clock was already ticking. At 32 years old she would be forced to retire. That is, if she didn't get married, she didn't get pregnant or even she didn't gain too much weight before that: all were grounds for dismissal. It was the golden age of aviation for everyone except, perhaps, the women who served in-flight meals to elegantly dressed passengers.

Six years later, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin, and flight attendants began joining forces against sexism.

In 1970, Ms. Laffey Inman, a union leader and Northwest's first flight attendant (the chief stewardess of a flight) led a class action lawsuit, Laffey v. Northwest Airlines Inc., which resulted in the airline paying more than $30 million in damages and back wages in 1985. It also set the precedent for non-discriminatory hiring of flight attendants throughout the industry. But even then, not everything changed: Flight attendants on some airlines were still subject to “weighings” well into the 1990s. (Northwest merged with Delta Air Lines in 2008.)

Now, decades after the historic decision, Laffey Inman, 86, is one of several former flight attendants featured in “Fly With Me,” an “American Experience” documentary that chronicles how women fought to overcome discrimination. in the airline industry. It premieres on PBS on February 20. The New York Times spoke with Laffey Inman about how she made history. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

He was working at Montefiore Hospital in Pittsburgh. He always wanted to travel, since he was a child. As a flight attendant, he could travel all expenses paid. I thought it was wonderful. Other flight attendants and I laughed at how lucky we were to be in the industry at that time. We would offer three-day stopovers in Paris, London, Amsterdam and Tokyo. A limousine would be there to pick you up and take you to the hotel.

The flight attendants had a six-week session where we learned about the airline and received emergency and safety training. We learned the commands to use in case of emergency. And we had grooming classes: women would come and teach us how to do our makeup and polish our nails.

When I started, older flight attendants were talking about younger men being hired to be in charge of the plane and crew, bypassing flight attendants who had been flying for quite some time. They talked about this in a low voice or sometimes under their breath. He was always a bone of contention. Men were elected to positions that controlled the union and they were the ones who negotiated. Stewardesses couldn't really consider the job as a career because we had to quit when we got married or when we were 32. That was always in the back of your mind.

In 1968, Northwest hired four men off the street to be flight attendants. I called the director of labor relations and said, “You need to post this job!” When they did, a lot of women were intimidated, but I applied and got the job.

We had to work with military air contracts. In times of emergency, the US military has the right to control aircraft to be used for military purposes. We flew to Vietnam quite frequently during the Tet Offensive in 1968. I was a flight attendant, but I was new and had no seniority, so I was assigned to those flights. We would take 165 soldiers to Okinawa, then transport them to Vietnam and bring 165 back, hopefully. We got in and out of Vietnam as quickly as possible because there were missiles coming and going.

We had no legal basis until the Civil Rights Act, which included discrimination based on gender. That was our rebirth.

In 1967, I became head of Northwest's union and negotiated the airline's first nondiscriminatory contract. We could demonstrate that flight attendants had the same skills and responsibilities. That's when we brought back the flight attendants who were fired because they were over 32, or because they were overweight, or because they were married.

In 1969 negotiations began for the next contract. The negotiating committee was dominated by men. He hoped for changes, but Northwest refused to include language that treated female flight attendants the same as men. I spoke to an employment lawyer, who said we had a case. In the end, 70 percent of the union signed. The airline dragged it out for 15 years: it took it to the Supreme Court twice, but the case was returned to the Federal District Court of Appeals, where Ruthie Bader Ginsburg was the judge who wrote the opinion in our favor.

No, I was just looking for equal pay. She wasn't thinking 40 or 50 years ahead. I simply hoped that every step up the judicial ladder would be in our favor.

I wish someone would pass a law to expand seating. That's one of the reasons there's so much tension.


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