Life On board: Interviews
dUSTY rOADS: lEADING THE bATTLE
Barbara "Dusty" Roads is a former American Airlines flight attendant who was instrumental in the fight against sexism in the air. She was among the first to take the issue up with the EEOC and was heavily involved in her union. We were fortunate to have a telephone interview with Dusty and her biographer, Elaine Rock. (Makers, 2012)
"[Dusty] Roads was Airline Stewards and Stewardesses Association's official, if unpaid, lobbyist."
"Q: Do you believe that female flight attendants were looked up to during the sixties and seventies as icons of subservient femininity or do you think people saw them as positive examples of what a modern working woman should look like?
Dusty: Oh, I think you hit it right on the head on the last thing because at that time, we were ninety percent college graduates, and it was a big thing. We were admired second to movie stars with the admiration for airline stewardesses and the passengers treated us very, very well.
Elaine: Also, in the sixties, when [National Organization for Women] was formed, they were on the side of the airline attendants as well.
D: But we started [second wave feminism].
E: The airline attendants started it.
Q: We read many quotes stating how flight attendants regarded themselves as part of the second wave feminism movement before there was much of a movement at all. Would you agree with that?
D: We were, but we didn't know it. We started something, but we did not know it, we just knew we were fighting a cause of unfair treatment.
Q: At the time, did you feel like you were doing something radical or just doing something that was the right thing to do?
D: Well, I'm from the Midwest, and my parents brought me up to believe in fair play, and I just thought it was very unfair to hire somebody when they were basically at their best. A flight attendant at the age thirty-two has had someone that has had a stroke, maybe had a gunman that wanted to take her to Cuba, whereas the brand new girls didn't. And that's very important when judging sixty people in an aluminum tube.
Q: Did flight attendants at the time think of their uniforms and job requirements, such as personal appearance and marital status, as degrading and objectifying or as modern, functional, and professional?... Does your answer change at all when discussing the more degrading uniforms such as the "Air Strip" by Braniff?
D: And by Delta. We, thank God, did not have that, but it wasn't degrading to us, it was degrading to management, because they were the ones who picked it. We thought it was degrading to them, not to us, but to them, and to the concept of responsible business women.
E: I remember PSA doing that with the hot-pants, when I was about eighteen or twenty years old, right at college, and I thought it was appalling. I thought it was degrading to women.
D: And degrading to the job.
E: It was degrading to the job. And to the profession. To the whole status of women altogether. You know, I remember looking at them coming down the aisle and thinking that's just too provocative.
Q: We know you were never subject to the degrading uniforms, however, did you view them as diminishing of the job of a flight attendant and undermining the work they do as a safety professional?
D: You can only be degraded if you let yourself be degraded. I never felt degraded. I was in charge of that airplane and I knew the passengers were going to have a good trip, and more importantly it was going to be a safe trip. It was my responsibility. It was very serious that we had to know the contents and locations of the first aid kits, the use and location of carbon dioxide bottles, water bottles, we had to know how to give mouth to mouth and CPR, the old way not the new way.
Q: We were very surprised to learn that one of the first cases brought before the newly formed Equal Employment Opportunities Commission was brought by the female flight attendants, and we would like to hear about the origins of the idea to bring this case and your opinion of the way the case was handled by the EEOC.
D: Well, first of all, Jean Montague, a very good friend of mine, and I were the first people to enter the doors of the building for the EEOC, and they couldn't believe it. The EEOC and the civil rights act was passed mostly for blacks, and they could not understand how white women were being handled badly. We went there and these black women, there were all black women lawyers, and they hadn't even unpacked the typewriters, and we were in full uniforms, knocked out, looking great, and so they said, 'What are you doing here? You're free, white, and twenty-one,' and both of us were blonde, and I said sit down, I've got a story to tell you. So I told her the story that they don't fire pilots at thirty-two, they don't fire mechanics at thirty-two, they don't fire cabin-cleaners at thirty-two, they don't fire food services at thirty-two, but they fire us at thirty-two, and it was wonderful because they couldn't believe it. And of course, it's economics. If they fire thirty-two year old stewardesses that means they will never get a pension, they will no longer get medical care, and it was much cheaper because we got extra vacation time than the brand new girls did, we made more money than they did, and so it was economics. Money, money, money.
Q: Did civil rights, like different races becoming flight attendants, ever play a part in the flight attendants' battle for rights or was that a completely separate struggle?
D: Oh that's definitely civil rights. I thought it was just the stewardesses. And then I thought it was just for airline personnel, and then I realized it was a national problem, and it was civil rights. It was even worse because it was during the sixties. And you know what was going on in the south during the sixties. We didn't have any black stewardesses, and as a result of finally winning a case with the EEOC, we have women in the cockpit and men in the cabin.
E: And they hired black stewardesses.
Q: How did flight attendants' encounters with the law inspire other women to fight for their respect in the workplace?
D: Recently, we've been getting a lot of attention but I don't know why everyone is so interested in it now. I really don't. But I think once one thing happened, women could no longer stay in the home. You needed two incomes to have a decent living in this country and it was a damn good job and we got time off. It was a fabulous job, it was the greatest job in the world...
E: It's not that way anymore for flight attendants.
D: Their time off has been but, their vacation has been cut, and the overseas pay has been cut. everything went bad after 9/11. And deregulation.
Q: I guess it is now viewed as a job for safety officials rather than one of a glamorous girl in the air.
D: Exactly. You have to look at you passengers and think, 'Is that a gun or is that just a fat shoe'...
Q: A lot of stewardesses in the mid 1900's loved their job and they knew how great of an opportunity it was, so they didn't take action against the age thirty-two limit because they were in fear of being replaced. However, you, obviously, did not accept that ending to your career. What made you do that?
D: Well, first of all, I wasn't covered by it. I was lucky. I was hired in 1950, and all the gals that were hired after 1953 under the new contract were affected by it. I wasn't fighting for my job, I was fighting for the job of my fellow flight attendants who I respected their seniority. I respected the times that we had to handle emergencies...
Q: Do you think that flight attendants could have accomplished what they did without unionizing?
D: No. No way. Absolutely not. When I was first union chairman and I would talk on board, there would be one in four of us that belonged to a union. That's twenty-five percent. Let's face it, if you're going to get all the benefits, there's a lot of people that say 'Why should I pay union dues? I have the same contract as the girl who pays dues'. It's called fair share.
E: Dusty fought for a number of years to make sure that they got a union agreement with the company.
D: The union members voted on whether to accept contracts or not and before we didn't have that. And the pilots didn't want us to have that because if we voted down a contract and decided to go on strike the pilots would have to honor our picket line, and no pilot is not going to not cross the picket line of a stewardess...
Q: Was it very common for a mainly female career to unionize at the time of was that unheard of?
D: Very unheard of. First of all, daddy didn't want his little girl to join a union and the unions had a very bad reputation. ...I don't even know if teachers or nurses were unionized then. One of the reasons we really had to have a union more than anyone working nine to five is that we didn't work nine to five. You could go to work at midnight and then still be on the job at eight in the morning and then they'd say 'Oh, you have to go to St. Louis.' So we had to have unions to get us decent hours and working conditions.
Q: Would you say the success of your union inspired other women in the workplace to unionize and fight for their rights?
D: Oh, I definitely think so because now, these glamorous stewardesses are in a union. Wow. I definitely think so and then of course NOW came along and the EEOC was very negligent in making a decision on this but when they finally did that was important.
E: I just read a book called Good Girls Revolt and it was about the women that worked at Newsweek magazine and it was 1963 that they decided to organize with an EEOC lawyer to protest the fact that as college graduates and writers that were relegated to the research they could not get promoted to be actual writers on the magazine because it was all men and there was a decided male opinion that women shouldn't be writers. Now they never unionized, but it's the same thing that Dusty and her union did essentially by getting the EEOC office involved...
Everything came together at that point to make change happen.
D:Also, in the 1950's, most women when they got married didn't work. When women had to work, wait a minute, what if your husband died? What if you aren't married? A lot of women had to support the whole family.
E: If women don't get married, what are they going to do without benefits?
Q: When women began working it gave them freedom. They didn't need men anymore.
D: I think that's partially true. I think we want men but we just didn't need them. When a woman is successful, is economically independent, we want a man, but we don't need one. There's a big difference there, and men don't like that very much.
Q: At what point in your life or career did you just stop and think, 'This kind of sexism is not fair.' Was this triggered by any specific event?
D: Well in 1953 the contract came out that they were going to fire us at age thirty-two but I wasn't affected by it. Some of my friends would be affected by it. I just thought, gosh, that's not fair. Why every other employment group in the airline can work. I don't think there was any age limit on any other career except us and I thought, 'What the hell is this all about?' It's money, honey.
E: When Dusty was a legislative representative in Washington D.C. she became good friends with a Congresswoman by the name of Martha Griffiths, and her assistant Ann Penning and they realized what women's rights was all about.
D: And Martha was the kind of woman that did so much. She was the one that got the word sex in the civil rights act... Through Ann I met Martha and I said Martha, they could fire us at age thirty-two, and she said, 'You're kidding, they pinch you in the butt, they do what? Oh, we got to find out more about this.' Martha said to the president of the United Airlines who was saying that the image of a stewardess is that of a young, single girl, and Martha said, 'Sir, what are you running, an airline or a whorehouse?'
So many women are amazed at what we went through. But the thing that amazes me is why have we accepted this for so long? Why did we think it was okay? And so many women did. Why did we accept being second-hand citizens? I'll never know.
Q: Stewardesses especially were instrumental in showing that, you know, you can still wear lipstick and be a feminist.
D: You got that right, honey. We didn't burn our bras, because we knew they were important.
Q: You are probably aware that in the earlier days of flight attendants they were known as hostesses or "sky girls". Today, there is the more professional name of flight attendants. Do you believe this change in name represents a change in image as well?
D: It wasn't as much of a change of image as it was a change of the times. Women are taken more seriously now than they were then...
Q: Do you think a women flying from a third-world country where women are still heavily oppressed could be inspired by seeing such a professional working woman in the air?
D: Oh I would definitely think so. If I were a woman from Iraq and I came over and saw it I would think, 'What the hell? Why can't we do that? I don't want to wear this thing over my head, I want to go swimming.'
Just remember, you can always be a pilot now."
-Telephone Interview with Dusty Roads and Elaine Rock
Our interviewees gave us insight into our topic that was invaluable to our arguments.
eYE-OPENING MOMENTS FROM Our INTERVIEWS
"When a woman is successful, is economically independent, we want a man, but we don't need one. There's a big difference there, and men don't like that very much."
"Some of the restrictions such as the no-marriage rule and weight restrictions ended a career. The same restrictions forced some to hide a marriage, living in fear of being found out and losing their job. The weight restrictions surely damaged the health and self esteem of thousands of young women."
"Do I believe flight attendants helped with the acceptance of women career professionals? Absolutely."
"Flight attendants as a group tended to be independent and they were eager to encourage and support other women in the workplace to fight for their own independence and respect."
"I saw [sexism] at a company recently. The secretaries were so beautiful. That does not ever go away. It is a man-ruled society to this day."
"Flight attendants were seen as the face and example of the American woman."
"[Flight attendants] were out in the world doing things themselves. They were in places that only men used to be - in hotels, figuring out how to get to and from the airport and in hotels where only business men were."
"Our wages were so low we qualified for food stamps."
"...many men thought that the flight attendants were part of the ticket price."
"Q: Were you or your co-workers ever harassed, felt threatened, or degraded by a customer, boss, or pilot?
"I feel that it is an equal playing field today."
"I remember PSA doing that with the hot-pants, when I was about eighteen or twenty years old, right at college, and I thought it was appalling. I thought it was degrading to women... It was degrading to the job. And to the profession. To the whole status of women altogether. You know, I remember looking at them coming down the aisle and thinking that's just too provocative."
"[Flight attendants] already having a public image that was admired by people allowed them to take subversive actions however small, i.e. wearing a pin that says
"It is striking to hear that they valued this glamorous lifestyle, although there were moments that were not so glamorous such as having to share rooms while the pilots had their own living spaces."