How Flight Attendants Fought Back Against Sexism in the Airline Industry

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

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

In 1970, Ms. Laffey Inman, a union leader and Northwest’s first female purser — the lead attendant on a flight — spearheaded a class-action suit, Laffey v. Northwest Airlines Inc., that resulted in the airline paying more than $30 million in damages and back wages in 1985. It also set the precedent for nondiscriminatory hiring of flight attendants across the industry. But even then, not everything changed: Flight attendants on some airlines were still subjected to “weigh-ins” into the 1990s. (Northwest merged with Delta Air Lines in 2008.)

Now, decades after the landmark decision, Ms. 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 Feb. 20. The New York Times spoke to Ms. Laffey Inman about how she made history. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I was working at Montefiore Hospital, in Pittsburgh. I always wanted to travel, ever since I was a kid. As a flight attendant, I could travel — all expenses paid. I thought it was wonderful. Other stewardesses and I laugh about how lucky we were to be in the industry at that time. We would bid for three-day layovers in Paris, London, Amsterdam, Tokyo. A limo would be there to pick you up and take you to the hotel.

Flight attendants had a six-week session where we learned about the airline and had emergency and safety training. We learned the commands to use in case of emergency. And we had grooming classes — women came and taught us how to put on our makeup and polish our fingernails.

When I started, senior stewardesses talked about younger men being hired to be in charge of the aircraft and the crew, bypassing stewardesses who had been flying for quite a while. They discussed this in whispering tones, or sometimes not whisperings. It was always a bone of contention. Men were elected to positions that controlled the union, and they did the negotiating. Stewardesses could not really look at 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 pursers. I called the director of labor relations and said, “You must post this bid!” When they did, many women were intimidated, but I applied and got the job.

We had to work with military air contracts. In times of emergency, the U.S. military has a right to commandeer aircraft to be used on a military basis. We flew to Vietnam quite often during the Tet offensive in 1968. I was a purser, but I was new and didn’t have any seniority, so I was assigned to those flights. We’d bring 165 soldiers to Okinawa, then shuttle them to Vietnam and bring 165 back — hopefully. We got in and out of Vietnam as quickly as possible because there were missiles going back and forth.

We didn’t have a leg to stand on legally until the Civil Rights Act, which included discrimination based on gender. That was our renaissance.

In 1967, I became the head of the union at Northwest, and negotiated the first nondiscriminatory contract with the airline. We could prove women flight attendants had equal skills and responsibilities. That’s when we brought back the stewardesses who were fired because they were over 32, or because they were overweight or because they were married.

In 1969, negotiations for the next contract commenced. The negotiating committee was dominated by men. I had expected changes, but Northwest refused to include language that would treat women pursers the same way as male pursers. I talked to a labor lawyer, who said we had a case. Ultimately, 70 percent of the union signed on. The airline dragged it out for 15 years — took it to the Supreme Court twice, but the case was remanded back to the Federal District Court of Appeals, where Ruthie Bader Ginsburg was the judge who’d written the opinion in our favor.

No, I was just looking for equality in pay. I wasn’t thinking 40 or 50 years ahead. I was simply hoping every step on the judicial ladder would go our way.

I’d like someone to pass a law to widen the seats. That’s one of the reasons there’s so much tension.

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