Flight Attendants and Sex Discrimination

A Short History of Airlines, the EEOC and Stewardess Discrimination Complaints

Flight attendant in 1960s attire
Flight attendant in 1960s attire. Stephen Swintek / Getty Images

Workplace Discrimination and Female Flight Attendants

Flight attendants in the U.S. were among the first to file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission during the 1960s. The EEOC was responsible for enforcing Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The flight attendants - called stewardesses - were female and were required by airlines to be single, young, thin and pretty. Were the airlines' flight attendant discrimination policies actually illegal sex discrimination?

Bona Fide Occupational Qualifications?

Or were any of those attributes bona fide occupational qualifications of the job? The airlines thought so - or at least wanted the public to think so. In response to flight attendants' complaints, the airlines asked the commission to officially rule that being female was in fact a BFOQ.

The BFOQ decision process took a while. It involved several EEOC hearings at which employees and airline executives testified about flight attendant discrimination. The EEOC was prevented from issuing its first ruling that sex was not a BFOQ when the airlines managed to successfully accuse the commission of feminist bias. Eventually, on February 24, 1968, the EEOC ruled that being female was not a BFOQ for being a flight attendant.

The ruling established a guideline for the EEOC in dealing with complaints about various stewardess requirements, such as being unmarried and being under a certain age - usually 32 or 35, depending on the airline.

Also, the door was opened to male flight attendants, and the days of stewardess discrimination were on the wane.

Were Airline Policies Sexist…

Airlines at that time made a point of hiring only stewardesses. Airline executives said they had to appeal to businessmen, the primary airline customers. The implicit sexism of this business model aside, the airlines also required that the stewardesses be single, very young and pretty - a fairly explicit sexism.

Most airlines terminated or grounded their flight attendants if they got married or once the women reached age 32 or age 35.

…or Just Greedy?

However, even the sexism of the airlines may have been a smokescreen. Betty Friedan and other feminists accused the airlines of using an "appeal-to-male-businessmen" excuse while actually substantially benefitting financially. If they forced women out of stewardess jobs by age 35 or earlier, then the airlines would not have to pay for pensions or for as many years of benefits. The flight attendants would lose their jobs before they could accumulate a lot of paid vacation time or earn many years' raises.

Aileen Hernandez and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission

Aileen Hernandez, who later became a president of the National Organization for Women, was part of the commission at the time of the EEOC's first flight attendant ruling. In 1965, the EEOC found reasonable cause that the airlines had discriminated by having a marriage ban for stewardesses but no marriage ban for male employees.

The next year, the EEOC was prevented from issuing its initial ruling that being female was not a BFOQ because the airlines challenged Aileen Hernandez' presence as a voting commissioner.

When it was announced that she would soon be one of the first officers of NOW, the airlines accused the EEOC of bias. They insisted she could not make a fair decision about stewardess complaints, even though other commissioners and EEOC legal experts had also concluded that the airline flight attendant discrimination policies were flawed.

Finally, after more challenges and commissioner changes, in 1968 the EEOC issued the ruling that being female was not a BFOQ of the flight attendant job. The policy of hiring and keeping only young, single stewardesses would come to an end.