From Stewardess to Flight Attendant: 80 Years of Sophistication and Sexism

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1930s

The world’s first female flight attendant was registered nurse Ellen Church, who began flying at age 25. Church originally wanted to be a pilot, but the manager of Boeing Air Transport in San Francisco, Steve Simpson, suggested she and her fellow nurses become flight attendants. (Initially, only registered nurses were hired.) In a letter to his boss, Simpson wrote, “Imagine the psychology of having young women as regular members of the crew. Imagine the tremendous effect it would have on the traveling public. Also imagine the value they would be to us in the neater and nicer method of serving food and looking out for passengers’ welfare.”

A 1989 article in the Los Angeles Times said the early responsibilities of flight attendants included keeping the clock wound, keeping an eye on the passengers to make sure they didn’t go through the emergency exit, and carrying a railroad timetable in case the plane was grounded. (Yes, really.) By the mid-1930s, there were between 200 and 300 flight attendants in airline service, and the average tenure was two to thre
e years, largely due to age and marriage restrictions.