The “friendly skies” of the 1970s were far from being a haven for many women. Behind the polished smiles and impeccable service of the flight attendants, or stewardesses as they were called back then, hid a grim reality of sexual harassment and objectification. These challenges were brought to light in a powerful account penned by Paula Kane in her book ‘Sex Objects in the Sky: A Personal Account of the Stewardess Rebellion’ (1974). Here, we take a closer look at the experiences these women regularly confronted.
The Real-Life of Stewardesses
At first glance, the stewardess role in the 70s seemed glamorous. Advertisements depicted them as ‘the charming young girl’ who was always eager to make passengers ‘feel good all over.’ Films like ‘The Swinging Stewardesses’ and ‘Come Fly with Me’ further perpetuated this misrepresentation. But the reality was far from it.
In her book, Paula Kane vividly paints a starkly different picture, one that was marred by constant sexual advances, disrespectful behaviour, and outright harassment. She boldly shatters the glamorized image of a stewardess, replacing it with the uncomfortable truth of what it truly meant to be a woman serving in the skies during this time.
Kane recounts how she and her fellow stewardesses had to often brace for unwanted passes, deal with intoxicated passengers, and tolerate indecent behaviour. These women were expected to keep their cool, maintain a poised demeanour, and ‘politely take verbal and physical abuse’ while performing their duties. The airlines’ blatant promotion of their female staff as sex symbols further deepened the culture of objectification.
Awakening and Rebellion
For Paula Kane, the turning point came when she realized her dissatisfaction wasn’t merely with her personal experiences but with the larger system that perpetuated such behaviour. With the support of the Stewardesses for Women’s Rights organization and an investigative reporter, she began to unearth the deeply entrenched injustices within the airline industry.
These included not only sexual harassment but also overlooked health and safety hazards, like radiation dangers, and a blatant disregard for personal milestones, such as marriage and parenthood. It was during this period that Paula decided to stand up and fight back, sparking what came to be known as the ‘Stewardess Rebellion’.