One of my E-mail handles is email@example.com. It harkens back to my days of high-flying freedom when the world was my personal playground and my life flew by on the wings of a Pan Am Clipper. It’s tempting to linger in this privileged past — last year I had ample reason to do so.
With the launch of the TV series “Pan Am” I was inundated with media calls and requests for interviews with the more than 100 members of World Wings International, the organization of former Pan Am flight attendants. Our campaign, “The Real Women of Pan Am,” garnered global media coverage and a coveted Gold Adrian Award for PR Excellence. I hope that it also helped to counter the inaccurate and sometimes negative images projected by the TV show and popular culture.
I was also interviewed by Victoria Vantoch for her new book, “The Jet Sex — Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon.” I helped the author find images for her Facebook page, searching for vintage airline ads and old grooming regulations to post.
However, this book is about much more than girdle checks and glamour. It’s a wonderful account of an era and an icon that is gone, but should not be forgotten. “The Jet Sex” recalled many of the less magical moments of my career, when an imaginary Bimbo Buzzer sounded, designed to send proud, independent women scurrying back to the galley or strutting salacious style in the aisle.
My story follows.
#b#The Bimbo Buzzer Sounds#/b#
‘All this stewardess crap has to come off your resume.” It’s 1981 and I have just been laid off from my job in the public relations department of Pan American World Airways, the company where I spent the first 17 years of my working life, starting as a stewardess and finally, by the grace of God and Affirmative Action, landing a position in middle management.
The young male headhunter is not impressed. Eleven years spent traveling to more than 40 countries, living in London and Hong Kong, flying in and out of war zones, appearing at special events, speaking fluent French, and dealing with every culture, race, and religion on the planet didn’t matter.
Neither did my college degree, published writing, work as a trainer, a union rep, and an in-flight director aboard the 747 in charge of 350 passengers and crew. That I was able to evacuate said aircraft in 90 seconds, deal with hijackers and put out fires, literally and figuratively, counted for nothing. The Bimbo Buzzer had sounded, and 11 years of international experience and achievement is reduced to a stereotype of Coffee, Tea or Me.
And what was I supposed to tell a prospective employer that I had done for those 11 years? “Say you were married and living in the suburbs,” he replied. As I walked out in a huff, he hit on me.
Fortunately for this chauvinistic sleazebag, flight attendants of my era were not trained in judo. Nor did my complaint to his boss carry any weight. In those days, sexual harassment was a perk, not a deal breaker.
Despite this, I never felt compelled to downplay or hide my years aloft. Because my public relations career is largely focused on promoting travel, my experience proved an advantage. But I understand why many former flight attendants do downplay it, in order to avoid this kind of stereotyping. Nancy Hult Ganis, the producer of such highly regarded films as “Akeelah and The Bee,” never told her film industry colleagues she had worked as a Pan Am stewardess.
But Ganis had a dream — to create a TV series that showed Pan Am stewardesses as proto-feminists — educated, independent women, traveling the world at a time when feminine career options were limited and poorly paid. She also hoped to recreate the sophistication and luxury of the Golden Age of Air Travel, when the journey was as exotic and exciting as the destination, and not a latter-day version of the Bataan Death March. Set in the early 1960s, at the peak of the American Century, the series, Pan Am, mixed history, politics, exotic locales, retro “Mad Men” glamour and sex.
Pan Am — the television show — could and should have taken off, but it crashed and burned, taken over by clueless network executives and a staff of young writers who twisted the original concept into a hot mess of characters, so neurotic, whiny, and just plain dumb they would have been pushed out the door by their fellow crew members at 35,000 feet. The Bimbo Buzzer had been reactivated and the public and the media were buying in at a rapid rate.
TV critics expressed surprise that a stewardess would know anything about Marx and Hegel as did the mutinous, self-serving Maggie, played by Christina Ricci. Actress Kelli Garner was cast as Kate, recruited by the CIA. That was rejected as implausible but in fact, the CIA did indeed find multi-lingual, college graduates with international mobility to be effective agents.
But critics and viewers alike totally bought into the Dumb Blonde played by Margo Robbie, by far the most irritating character in a crew that in no way resembled the people who created the iconic airline.
Stewardesses who flew in the 1960s were carefully selected for their personalities, people skills, and education. Pan Am required a college degree in most cases and yes, good looks mattered. The airlines could afford to be selective. They offered travel, excitement, independence and a good salary. For most of my Pan Am career, I earned more money than most of the women in my college graduating class. There were trade-offs, of course — onerous, discriminatory regulations, long hours and very hard work. Still the cosmopolitan lifestyle had much allure. Then, in the late ’60s, that idealized airborne image began to lose altitude.
As journalist Victoria Vantoch notes in her new book, “The Jet Sex — Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon,” stewardesses had been promoted as personable care givers, goodwill ambassadors for the United States and as a marketing tool for the airlines. But the free and easy vibe of the ’60s paved the way for a more sexy — and sexist — approach.
Suddenly the skies were more than friendly, they were downright salacious. Madison Avenue introduced an array of ads where stewardesses promised to “Really Move Our Tails for You,” invited passengers to “Fly Me,” and appeared in ads for Braniff doing the Air Strip in uniforms designed by Emilio Pucci.
A tacky tell-all, “Coffee Tea Or Me,” all about lust on the flight line, hit the bestseller list, purportedly written by two United stewardesses but actually written by a male ghost writer.
Sedate suits gave way to hot pants and micro skirts that could go right from the runway to the gynecologist’s table. PSA’s cabin crews were outfitted to look like San Diego car hops. All you needed to complete the Southwest ensemble of hot pants and high boots was a whip. Carefully coiffed hair suddenly exploded into messy manes or towering beehives. The All-American stewardess, once a symbol of graciousness and class, turned into a sexually available seductress. Stewardesses were promoted as sex objects to be ogled in the air and bedded on the ground.
Although Pan Am did not get on board this Bimbo Bandwagon, its stewardesses found their carefully cultivated, cosmopolitan image threatened by the rise of a new brand of stewardess that Victoria Vantoch calls “tawdry temptresses.” International flying demanded far more than pushing a bar cart between Fresno and Oakland in a micro skirt and go-go boots, but the American public, provincial then and now, did not get the difference. The job remained prestigious in Europe and Asia, where cultural norms were less flexible and, presumably, the taste level higher.
These developments were more than sleazy examples of Madison Avenue exploitation or a more liberated attitude towards sex in puritanical America. They were strong cultural forces that pulled the iconic American stewardess off her pedestal and down to earth with a thud. Vantoch: “The iconic stewardess served as the perfect lens for exploring broader questions about the origins of the women’s movement, the relationship between popular culture and social change, and the role of beauty in activism.”
Indeed, although scorned by the feminists of the 1960s and ’70s, flight attendants had been in the vanguard of women’s rights, well before Betty Friedan issued her manifesto, “The Feminine Mystique,” in 1963. As early as the 1950s stewardesses were forming their own unions, fighting for equal pay and promotional opportunities, and protesting sexist and oppressive employment policies.
African-American women were up against double discrimination — most airlines simply did not hire “Negroes” as stewardesses. Vantoch devotes an entire chapter to the struggles of young African-American women to break the color barrier.
As Vantoch notes in great detail, stewardesses were hired and trained to be independent and enjoyed a greater level of freedom than other young American women of that era. But they endured more, not less, discrimination. Most airlines required them to quit upon marriage or reaching the age of 30 or 32. Maternity leave was out of the question, and the endless weight checks and supervisor harassment took their toll.
But some of us who turned to the new women’s movement for support were bitterly disappointed. I told Vantoch in an interview last year how disrespectful and rude some of the members of the San Francisco NOW chapter were to me and the other Pan Am women I brought into the group. I ran for office in the chapter — and won — but not before enduring questions about whether I had finished high school and if sleeping with the pilots was a requirement of the job. The Bimbo Buzzer was sounding in the most surprising places! I was floored a few years later when Patricia Ireland was elected NOW’s president. Ireland left Pan Am to become a lawyer, and she has never tried to hide her flying background. I wonder what would have happened if she had joined San Francisco NOW. Feminism might have lost a great leader.
I also joined a group called Stewardesses for Women’s Rights and was able to snag Gloria Steinem to speak at our first convention. CBS News sent one of its few black and female reporters, Norma Quarles, to cover it. Steinem was extremely gracious and empathetic. She spoke about all the discriminatory policies, degrading advertising, and intrusive standards of appearance.
We were thrilled to see the piece aired nationally on the nightly news until Harry Reasoner, arguably the most sexist newscaster of the era, commented, “I think stewardesses should be like the clouds that float outside the window of the plane. Light and fluffy.” Reasoner is gone, and I doubt he is looking at any fluffy clouds, but he must have had the Bimbo Buzzer right on his news desk.
The women’s movement grew more and more radical and out of touch with mainstream women, minorities, and “pink collar” workers. Straight women were castigated for “sleeping with the enemy.” After a pregnant Erica Jong was booed off the stage at a poetry reading by militant lesbians, I decided to quit and take advantage of some of the new opportunities our efforts had won. I took a management job and eventually won a position in Pan Am’s public relations department. It wasn’t easy. I endured some hard times and sexual harassment, but to the company’s credit, they did something about it. I learned a great deal and I always felt valued. Three months after I was laid off after a massive downsizing, Pan Am took me back as a consultant.
At Pan Am my background was understood and respected. But outside “The Family” it clearly was not. My encounter with the headhunter had made me see that things were changing and that my hard-won skills and experience might not carry the weight they did in the past. The image was tarnished.
I would no longer be seen as cosmopolitan, independent, and well-versed in the world’s politics and cultures. My successful battles for gender equality would be unrecognized. The small-town girl whose dreams came true, who made the most of an amazing opportunity and represented her company and her country with grace and conviction, was replaced by pop tarts in hot pants. The Bimbo Buzzer was not only activated, it was drowning out much that I valued.
One of the most poignant aspects of “The Jet Sex” is Victoria Vantoch’s own realization that the iconic American stewardess was no more. Vantoch’s mother was a stewardess for Eastern Airlines — well educated and a fighter for civil rights in her youth. Vantoch was proud of her mother and enjoyed the perks of flying around the world through her travel benefits. But upon applying to a top private school, she found herself patronized by the admissions officer who told her she should “become a stewardess like your mother.” Once proud of her mother’s job, Vantoch now saw it as an insult and something not to be mentioned.
The Bimbo Buzzer was indeed sounding for Vantoch’s mother. She flew until Eastern Airlines went out of business in the early 1990s. At age 48 she tried desperately to find another airline position, and finally landed a job at American Airlines. But the stewardess career had lost its cachet.
Victoria Vantoch wrote “The Jet Sex” to answer a question that now haunts many of us who once soared. She asks how her mother, “a talented public speaker, near-fluent in Russian, and committed to women’s rights, chose a career that ultimately allowed her to be written off as a vapid sex object and ultimately a low status service worker.”
Vantoch interviewed dozens of former flight attendants to find the answer. The voices of the women ring true and clearly show their pride, professionalism, and longing for the adventure, freedom, and camaraderie they once prized. Her book is a brilliant study of popular culture, the struggle for women’s rights, exploitative advertising, and even Cold War conflicts as Pan Am and Aeroflot use their stewardesses as propaganda tools touting the superiority of one system over the other.
“The Jet Sex” is a serious book about a subject that has never been taken seriously. It is fitting that it has been written by an historian. Because the Golden Age of Air Travel and the women who shaped it, belong to another era, when so much in America seemed possible, and when brave, bright young women looked to the skies and claimed their dreams.
To order “The Jet Sex” go to www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/15075.html.
Anne Sweeney Public Relations, 3261 Cypress Court, Monmouth Junction 08852. 732-329-6629. firstname.lastname@example.org. www.annesweeneypr.com.