‘Coffee, Tea, or Me’—Airlines Sold Employees to Sell Flights
April 22, 2022
In the early 1970s, as the women’s movement was in full swing, its impact was being felt everywhere… but nowhere more than the airplane cabin. Stewardesses, though they might be feeling the thrill of women’s liberation in their everyday lives, entered a sort of time warp when they went to work. Bundled into uniforms of tiny miniskirts or hotpants, portrayed in airline ads as Playboy bunnies in the sky, and talked down to (not to mention groped) by passengers, supervisors, and pilots alike, they finally had enough. In 1972 they formed a new organization that would push back on all of this. They called it Stewardesses for Women’s Rights.
Stewardesses fighting for women’s rights? It was a compelling a news hook, and the media loved it. The Stewardesses For Women’s Rights’ safety campaign was covered by the Chicago Daily News and by CBS. The office-opening party made it into the New York Times. Columnists waded into the debate, opining on the nature of the stewardess job: who should do it, how they should look. SFWR’s campaign against sexist airline advertising earned column inches in the Chicago Tribune, the Christian Science Monitor, and the New York Daily News. One of the first stories about SFWR appeared in the L.A. Times, where Sandra [the organization’s founder] told the reporter she’d been “pinched, fondled, leered at, asked out on dates and propositioned” more times than she could remember. “The airlines gear you into being a sex object,” she said. “They brainwash you into accepting it and expecting it. You lose your self-respect. You become cynical. And you begin to hate people—while you’re smiling at them—because you know they don’t respect you. People don’t consider you a professional, so you don’t think of yourself as one.”
Sometimes the attention was the wrong kind. Joan Rivers made stewardesses the butt of joke after joke, referring to them as prostitutes, and calling them “tramps” on Hollywood Squares. She drove both Bobbi and Cindy [stewardesses at American Airlines] crazy, constantly promoting the very image of the stewardess that SFWR was trying to combat. They joined a massive letter-writing campaign to get her to apologize, which she eventually did. Harry Reasoner, host of the ABC News program The Reasoner Report, and one of the best-known anchors in America, mentioned SFWR on his show. “I don’t want a sex object in a narrow aisle,” he said. “But I don’t want a surly union member either. I want someone youthful and illusory who looks like she thought flying was fun even if she knows more about emergency evacuation of airplanes than I’d like to think about.” He quoted “another male chauvinist” on stewardesses: “They should remain patches of color in the business of flying. They should be there for a few years and then, like the clouds outside windows, be replaced with soft and fluffy new ones.”
SFWR went wild, blitzing ABC with letters and telegrams telling Reasoner in no uncertain terms where to get off. Dana, by this time the Northeast regional coordinator at SFWR, sat down and typed out a letter that she sent directly to Reasoner, telling him, “I certainly do not appreciate being referred to as non-human, non-thinking, soft, fluffy thing, which can and should be replaced, and I imagine anyone would be offended by such a reference. Such a statement is as ridiculous as suggesting that you are becoming too old for television broadcasting and should be terminated to make room for the younger, more attractive and virile looking men in your industry.” That was a trick she’d learned from Gloria Steinem and Florynce Kennedy, that when a sexist remark was made they should turn it around and fling it back at the offender. It worked—Reasoner went on the air and retracted his statement, mentioning Dana’s letter specifically and even conceding that she might have a point.
Celebrities denigrating their profession was bad enough, but soon Tommie, Dana, Bobbi, and the other SFWR members were watching in dismay as new, ever more outrageous ad campaigns were launched. “Fly Me,” it turned out, had only been the beginning. Airlines, which had previously been happy to portray the stewardesses as endlessly accommodating, always smiling wives-in-training, now went all in on the Playboy-bunnies-in-the-sky hard sell.
Pacific Southwest Airlines, Tommie decided, was one of the worst offenders, its ads making the most of the uniform: bright pink and orange dresses that barely covered the women’s bottoms. One ad read, “Pssst, Stewardess Watchers: P.S.A.’s new Lockheed 1011 TriStar jetliners will each carry 8 lovely stewardesses (and up to 300 happy passengers).” It noted, farther down, “And 2 wide aisles for watching the most beautiful girls in the sky go by.” A TV spot didn’t even pretend that beauty wasn’t the most important quality in a stewardess. The commercial showed nine women parading past an announcer, each wearing a pageant-style sash that identified her not by name, but by one of Pacific Southwest’s destinations: “Miss Long Beach,” “Miss Los Angeles,” “Miss San Diego.”
Domestic airlines didn’t have a monopoly on this new strategy. Air Jamaica debuted an ad in 1974 that illustrated its slogan, “We make you feel good all over,” with photos of stewardesses in bikinis and resort wear (along with copy that advertised “free Rum Bamboozles”). Air France asked with a wink, “Have You Ever Done It the French Way?” Finnair created print ads featuring a topless woman with the airline’s route map printed on her back; she looked over her shoulder at the camera with a smile on her face. The copy read, “Take a good look at Finnair’s summer routes (they’re not hard to take).”
Southwest was particularly egregious when it came to turning flying into flirting. The airline aired a commercial that was simple but effective: just three long-legged women, dressed in the uniform of hot pants and knee-high white boots, striding across the tarmac to board the plane. One turned just slightly toward the camera to ask, “Remember what it was like before Southwest Airlines? You didn’t have hostesses in hot pants. Remember?” That was the entire ad.
Southwest’s “Somebody Else Up There Who Loves You” campaign debuted in 1971 and ran for years. The airline operated from Love Field, the main airport in Dallas until DFW opened in 1974, and went all in on the “love” theme. It was a new airline, and its brash and unapologetically sexual approach included calling its ticket machines “love machines,” having stewardesses strip off their dresses to reveal bright orange hot pants once the plane took off, offering passengers “love potions” (cocktails) and “love stamps” (free drink coupons), and telling the stewardesses to wave passengers off the plane with a smile and a cheery “Don’t forget who loves you!” Southwest milked this campaign for all it was worth; even in 1979, it was still advertising its abundance of flights from Dallas with posters that blared, “We Make Love 80 Times a Day.” Southwest dug its heels in on hiring male flight attendants, too: its branding as the “love airline” necessitated young, female flight attendants, execs claimed. A federal court finally forced it to hire men in 1981.
Discussion of these ads at SFWR meetings had been fast and furious, and the members were already at the boiling point when word came of a new ad from National, which was already notorious among stewardesses for its universally hated “Fly Me” campaign. Now it was doubling down: the new ads, the airline proudly announced, would feature stewardesses in swimsuits, with the tagline “I’m going to fly you like you’ve never been flown before.”
SFWR snapped into action, calling their press contacts to register protests, which promptly appeared in papers from the Chicago Tribune and the Christian Science Monitor to the New York Daily News and the Detroit Free Press. Angry stewardesses always made for good copy. At SFWR headquarters, Tommie and her crew resuscitated the old slogans, making new buttons that read, “Don’t Fly Me. Fly Yourself” (Dana pinned hers on the underside of her uniform’s lapel so she could wear it at work), and producing bumper stickers that read, “National, your fly is open.” NOW joined forces with the stewardesses to file complaints with the Federal Communications Commission and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). They protested the offensiveness of the ads, but worked another, more technical angle at the same time: pointing out that the ads were misleading because the stewardesses were not in fact piloting the planes. The NAB agreed, and issued new requirements: the stewardesses would have to wear more than just bathing suits, and National would have to include other aviation employees in the ads.
It wasn’t hard to draw a line from advertising to an increase in the leering, groping, and heavy-handed flirting they’d encounter on the plane. Stewardesses constantly struggled with maintaining authority. Bobbi was always butting heads with male passengers; she’d ask them to fasten their seat belt, and they’d respond with, “I’ve been flying since before you were born.” Credibility was already hard to come by: erotic novels about the lives of stewardesses flying around the world (with titles such as Coffee, Tea or Me) had been published, and advertising’s increasing emphasis on the “easy” stewardess was making their job more difficult by the day. Combined with the scanty uniforms, it became impossible for the stewardesses to escape being painted in the public view as sex objects who were on the plane to look pretty and catch a husband, not to save lives in case of emergency.
That view came from the top down: from the management personnel who addressed them as “girls,” to the supervisors who instructed them to glue on their fake eyelashes and weighed them on a whim, to the pilots, cockpit crew, passengers, and public. For Bobbi, seeing her job reduced to a stereotype in the popular media was bad enough, but to see that stereotype promoted by her own employer! It led to a sense of defeatism. And danger, too. On one flight, Cindy had a plane full of passengers who’d gotten food poisoning from a flan; Pan Am had been testing out a new menu. She went to the cockpit for help, but the pilot called her a “hysterical broad,” and none of the cockpit crew would come back to see just how serious the situation was. More than ten ambulances had to meet the plane when it landed; Cindy later heard that one person had died en route to the hospital.
The stewardesses’ pleasure at beating National was short-lived. Continental Airlines quickly launched an ad that was just as egregious. Its new slogan: “We Really Move Our Tails for You.” Airline execs claimed that no innuendo was intended; it was merely, they declared, a natural extension of Continental’s seven-year-old tagline “The proud bird with the golden tail.” But the campaign had in reality been inspired by the massive success of “Fly Me.” When Continental’s stewardesses protested, pointing out that passengers would ask them, “Why don’t you move your tail for me?” the airline’s only response was to suggest a couple of comebacks, such as a cheeky, “Why? Is it in the way?”
SFWR had had enough. They decided they’d make a commercial of their own, what they called a “counter-commercial.” It would be about the dangers of promoting the “bimbo” image of the stewardess. One story that circulated widely through the galley grapevine was of a stewardess who had been in the middle of conducting an emergency evacuation when a male passenger picked her up and carried her off the plane, declaring, “You shouldn’t be here.” The perception of stewardesses as sex objects was literally, they argued, putting lives at risk: the more passengers thought of the stewardesses as decoration, the less they’d be inclined to follow orders in an emergency. The group had already tried raising this issue with the airlines: it was hard enough, they’d point out, to convince a belligerent passenger to put up his tray table when you were dressed in hot pants and vinyl boots, but trying to evacuate a plane wearing a button that said “Fly Me” was too ludicrous to imagine. “I don’t think of myself as a sex symbol or a servant,” said one stewardess. “I think of myself as somebody who knows how to open the door of a 747 in the dark, upside down and in the water.”
This had been the reasoning behind the flight attendants’ decades-long fight to become licensed as safety professionals. The airlines had always resisted, not just because licensing would have improved the status of the stewardesses, but because safety was something airlines never liked to mention. No airline ad boasted about safety records for the reason that even hinting at the idea that air travel might not be 100 percent safe terrified potential passengers. If flight attendants became known as safety professionals rather than airborne cocktail waitresses, the thinking went, the idea that one might need safety in the air would put fliers off. But they did need safety in the air: hijackings were becoming more common throughout the 1970s, and on Pan Am, Cindy was hearing about a bomb threat more often than she cared to. If someone had called in to say they’d planted a bomb on the plane, the airline would tell the crew during the preflight briefing; it became so common that Cindy and her fellow flight attendants would make jokes on the jumpseat about how if the plane was going to blow up, they hoped it would happen before they had to do the meal service.
But the stewardesses used a technique unions had wielded successfully for decades to build support. Playing on the safety of the public, just as they’d done in their campaign against hazardous cargo, was, they found, a much more effective way to get what they wanted than talking about the personal safety of flight attendants. And it was certainly more attention-grabbing than complaining about women’s rights in the abstract.
Around a hundred SFWR members, wearing blue buttons that read, “Stewardesses are people too,” crowded into the 30 Rock offices. It was a big event: reporters had been invited to watch the commercial debut, and they had responded with enthusiasm. The film was a simple one; a professional actor, posing as a stewardess, spoke to the camera: “Sure I serve coffee, tea and milk, as well as breakfast, lunch and dinner, but my primary function is the enforcement of federal safety regulations. I receive exhaustive training in all phases of emergency procedure, be it the in-flight birth of a child or the 90-second evacuation of a jetliner. And I undergo frequent reviews and tests by the Federal Aviation Administration to maintain my proficiency in these seldom-used but terribly important skills. I’m a highly trained professional with a serious job to do. Should an emergency situation arise, I urgently need the respect, confidence and cooperation of all my passengers in order to minimize danger and accomplish what must be done.” The ending was solemn: “Fantasies are fine—in their place—but let’s be honest, the ‘sexpot stewardess’ image is unsafe at any altitude! Think about it.” The commercial got a good amount of press, including another Anna Quindlen article, and coverage on three television networks (one was on a feminist show called Woman Alive! on New York’s WNET). The next newsletter featured the text of the commercial displayed prominently next to the membership form.
Adapted from: The Great Stewardess Rebellion: How Women Launched a Workplace Revolution at 30,000 Feet by Nell McShane Wulfhart Copyright © 2022 by Nell McShane Wulfhart. Published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC