4 Flight Attendants Who Flew Through The Glass Ceiling
March is Women’s History Month here in the U.S. and as such I thought I would reflect on some of the incredible women who have broken down barriers and changed the game—all from 30,000 feet.
There are many famous flight attendants who have done extraordinary things. But in this piece I wanted to focus on flight attendants who made history in particular ways. All of the women listed here helped to change and shape their industry. And, importantly, each one of them pushed boundaries, advanced opportunities, and created lasting change for others.
If you think flight attendants are just glorified Coke-slingers, buckle up—you’re in for a turbulent surprise.
4 Flight Attendants Who Made History
and Changed the Game Forever
1. Ellen Church
First up on our list of flight attendants who made history, and rightfully so, is Ellen Church. Church was the first female flight attendant. Believe it or not (and I don’t know why you wouldn’t) the first “air stewards” were all men. The origins story of air travel is one of military and engineering success, and thus it was seen as a “man’s” industry. Female pilots may tell you this still feels like the case. Steward duties back then included carrying passenger luggage and even rowing passengers in boats after landing in sea planes. The physical aspects of the job, the association of engineering and military to aviation, and the small-mindedness of American culture meant that the field was completely dominated by men before WWII.
The kicker about Ellen Church is that she was a trained pilot but could only be hired as a flight attendant—and barely. She had to fight for the job, arguing that her background as a nurse would come in handy in ensuring passenger safety in-flight. She began her career in 1930, and like great female leaders, held open the door for others. She recruited seven other female nurses to “pilot” this female stewardess program with Boeing Air Transport.
Ellen Church, first female flight attendant
*If you want to learn more about the women in this post, all sources and links to more resources are listed below.
2. Edith Lauterbach
Our next flight attendant who made history started her career with United Airlines in 1944. You know, the good old days when you could be fired for gaining a pound, getting a husband, or aging a year (to 32!). When your employer could poke your belly to ensure that you were wearing a girdle and when you worked airports operations AND in-flight and were paid hardly enough for one of those jobs, let alone both.
But Edith Lauterbach wasn’t going to be anyone’s Lauterb*tch.
Along with four other female flight attendants, Ada Brown, Sally Watt, Frances Hall, and Sally Thometz, Lauterbach founded the Air Line Stewardess Association (ALSA), which became the Association of Flight Attendants—CWA. Today, AFA-CWA is the largest flight attendant union in the U.S., representing 17 airlines and 50,000 professional flight attendants.
Edith Lauterbach fought for workers' rights and was the first flight attendant to ever serve for 40 years with United Airlines. Now THAT is seniority!
In that first contract, ratified in 1946, pay was increased, rest requirements established, and a grievance procedure was put into place. But some of the other hot button items took much longer to address. It was not until 1968 that the age requirement (under 32 years old) was overturned. Lauterbach, who had planned to fly “for just one year” (every flight attendant will get a kick out of that one!) was the one arguing to keep her job at 32 and succeeded. She later became the first ever flight attendant with 40 years seniority.
Ada Brown, the former head stewardess and founder of ALSA was fired a year after that first union contract was ratified in 1947, for breaking the “no marriage” rule. Although the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, it did not put a stop to discrimination in aviation. The commonplace ban on married women and men serving as flight attendants was deemed illegal in the courts in 1971. Weight requirements were not loosened until 1979!
When I first started at my company, in 2014, we were told we had to wear high heels and makeup. I remember wondering to myself how they hadn’t yet been sued. But at some point over the years, the heel requirement has loosened, and the makeup provisions just *poof* disappeared.
Edith Lauterbach didn’t just advocate for workers’ (and women’s) rights, she also was a safety advocate. In 1952 she directed commercial aviation’s first evacuation test, which set the standard of a 90-second evacuation and other federal regulations for air safety.
Founding members of the AFA-CWA, now the largest flight attendant union
3. Ruth Taylor Carol
Boston-born Ruth Carol Taylor is our next flight attendant who made history. Taylor was the first African American woman to be hired as a flight attendant. She had been a nurse in New York City when she decided to try out the skies as an airline stewardess. When TWA rejected her because of their racism, she didn’t just accept her fate. She filed a complaint with the New York State Commission and applied to other airlines. Mohawk Air was where she landed. Before you go applauding Mohawk tooooo much, note that out of 800 applicants, Taylor was the only black woman hired. Yep, just one. Taylor has said she believes this is due to her light complexion being more palatable to her white employers.
The victory was short-lived for Taylor, as just six months later she was terminated for getting married. What a world.
In case you were worried about her tucking her big-time dreams away to sit home and toil, she did not. In 1963, Taylor covered the March on Washington extensively as a journalist for a British publication. She became involved in community activism for minority and women’s rights and consumers’ rights. While living in Barbados for a time, Taylor founded the first professional nursing journal in that country.
She founded the Institute for Interracial Harmony, which created a test to measure racist attitudes, and authored a book called The Little Black Book: Black Male Survival in America.
Ruth Carol Taylor integrated the airline industry, becoming the first black flight attendant in 1957.
Do you feel like you need to step up your game yet?! Sheesh, this woman did it ALL. But we’re not done yet!
4. Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir
This history-making Flight Attendant went on to become Iceland’s first female Prime Minister and the first openly gay head of state in the entire WORLD.
Like…whoa. Let me just take a breather to bask in this representation.
Sigurðardóttir worked as a flight attendant for Loftleiðir Icelandic Airlines from 1960 to 1971. During that time, she became active in the labor union. She even served as chairman of board of the Icelandic Cabin Crew Association not once, but twice. She later sat on the board of the Commercial Workers’ Union before beginning her career in Althing (Parliament) in 1978.
Throughout her career she earned a reputation as a social justice fighter and maintained incredibly high approval ratings. Then, in 2009, she took on her biggest role yet: Prime Minister of Iceland. The first woman to do so and the world’s first openly LGBT head of state. Can’t you just hear that glass shatter?
Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, Iceland Air Flight Attendant 1960-71
Women’s rights and equity were deeply important to Her Excellency, and under her leadership in 2010 the government passed a law to shut down all strip clubs and banned employers profiting from their employees’ nudity. After outlawing the purchase of sex and strengthening anti-trafficking legislation, this move caused many to call Iceland the “Most Feminist Country in the World.” (Bindel, The Guardian, 2010)
The sex industry is huge, and I know that here in the U.S. this move would be controversial. But Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir had this to say about it: “The Nordic countries are leading the way on women’s equality, recognizing women as equal citizens rather than commodities for sale.” Burn.
Successfully steering her country through the financial crisis that started in 2008, bringing the economy back to boom, was one of Sigurðardóttir’s biggest achievements in office. Her tenure as prime minister ended in 2013, and after 35 years in elected office, she retired the longest-serving member of Parliament.
Her Excellency Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, portrait as Prime Minister
So, fellow FAs, next time some jerk calls you a sky waitress, next time a passenger’s tone is demeaning, next time someone hits the call button to GIVE YOU THEIR TRASH (because like, what else could you possibly be here for?) think of Johanna Sigurðardóttir. You could run this whole damn place.
Think of all these incredible women. Flight attendants who made history. Change-makers. Firsts. Driven to reach higher than the status quo and beyond personal achievement. Each made it her business to fight for others, to extend opportunity, to advance equity. Glass breakers. Door holders. Advocates.
This month and whenever you need reminding, think of the great minds that have walked these skies before you.
I hope you enjoyed reading about these four flight attendants who made history as much as I did. This blog post was the most fun I’ve written in a while, and the background research had me slack-jawed, wide-eyed, and “Yes-we-can” inspired. Learning about these women put me in the BEST mood, and it lasted for days. I was spitting facts at my crews, hoping my excitement was contagious. I couldn’t believe I had never read up on these women before, and there are so many others I didn’t write about. There are quite a lot of flight attendants who made history, once you start digging.
I enjoyed this assignment so much, in fact, that I think I’m going to take on a similar topic for pilots. Anytime we talk of women in male-dominated industries, the setting is ripe for being inspired, encouraged, galvanized. And women in aviation certainly fits that bill.
If you liked hearing about these four important historic flight attendants, let me know in the comments. Had you heard of these women before? Or is this all news to you? If there is an aviation-related topic you’d like me to take on here at A Wheel in the Sky, don’t be shy. Let me know! No question is too silly, no tea requests too petty, and no topic is too boring (once I get my hands on it!)
Here’s wishing you all a happy weekend and a very happy Women’s History Month.
Sources & More Information:
Top 10 Most Famous Flight Attendants Throughout History– BAA Training.
Darnell, Tim. First Female Stewardess took to the Skies 90 Years Ago. AJC.com
Ellen Church– Wikipedia page
Feature: Ellen Church and Virginia Schroeder, Associated Press
Second: Ellen Church, public use photo via Google
Edith Lauterbach dies at 91; flight attendants’ union co-founder. Los Angeles Times, 2013
Kiger, Patrick. Edith Lauterbach: She Fought for Equal Rights in the Sky. AARP Blog, 2013
More on the founding members of the AFA-CWA and milestones in unionized aviation.
Angels in the Sky: Founding Members of the Association of Flight Attendants-Confessions of a Trolley Dolly
1. Edith Lauterbach, public use via Google
2. Founders, via afacwa.org
Ruth Carol Taylor
VanHouten, Matt. Ruth Carol Taylor (1931-). BlackPast.org.
Photo: Free Use via Google
Bindel, Julie, Iceland: The World’s Most Feminist Country, The Guardian
Ray, Michael, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir Biography, Encyclopedia Brittanica
- Johanna Sigurdardottir – Early Years. Photograph. Blogger.com. Web. 20 Dec. 2010. <http://www.mtholyoke.edu/~carve22r/classweb/eightwomen/ >.Ray, M. (2020, September 30).
- Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir. 2010. Photograph. Current Women Heads of State, New York. The Christian Science Monitor. 04 Nov. 2010. Web. 04 Dec. 2010. <http://www.csmonitor.com/CSM-Photo-Galleries/In-Pictures/Current-women-heads-of-state/%28photo%29/6>