What’s missing here? Back in 1972, nothing at all — this set of photographs of flight attendants simply illustrated the range of uniforms to be found across the skies. Five decades later, though, it’s what’s not there that we notice — no men. That was about to change.
It is a slight irony that the very first flight attendant was a man. Heinrich Kubis was appointed attendant to the passengers on the Zeppelin Schwaben, in 1912. A quarter-century later, he was also an attendant on the Hindenburg and, when it was destroyed in flames, he survived by leaping from a window.
As a male attendant, Kubis was not alone — until 1930, flight attendants were exclusively men. But that pattern was broken in 1930 when United Airlines hired the first female flight attendant — Ellen Church, a registered nurse. And in an extraordinary and complete reversal, by the end of the 1930s there were no male attendants at all. All were exclusively women under the age of 25.
With a sad and depressing inevitability, the very first complainants to the American Equal Employment Opportunity Commission were all women employed as flight attendants. This was not a subjective perception of discrimination — every airline fired its flight attendants after the age of 35, fired them if they weighed more than a specified amount, and, yes, fired them if they got married.
All these practices were ruled illegal in 1968 and, in 1971, so was the practice of hiring only women. The timing of which possibly explains why no men were featured in this photographic shoot, a matter of months after the law was changed.
Still — the requirement to be single was still very much in place through the 1970s and into the 1980s, and, most shockingly of all, weight restrictions were still the norm well into the 1990s. Not only that, but today more than two thirds of flight attendants — of any gender — say they’ve experienced sexual harrasment. Many don’t report it, for fear of their claim being ignored by the airline.