At the beginning of commercial aviation (after they’d funded it with bootleg liquor) there was an open question of who will serve the passengers while the pilots are busy flying? Enter the steward. You read that right, the first people to attend to passengers were men. Specifically, the first was a Cuban-American man named Amaury Sanchez who served on a Pan-Am flight from Key West to Havana on January 16, 1928. Sanchez wasn’t the first first, but he was the first on an airline that lasted for more than a few months.
All stewards and stewardesses were white, or white-passing, though some airlines debated hiring Black men as stewards, like the Pullman Porters travelers were used to seeing in long distance train travel. But for airlines, dated norms from slow locomotives wouldn’t do: “Commercial air carriers elected instead to offer passengers a genteel “hostess” rather than a racially subordinate servant.” (Kathleen M Barry, Femininity in Flight)
Before World War II the flight attendant’s job was done more or less equally by men and women, Pan Am and Eastern hired only men, United and other airlines hired only women. Flying in those days was loud, bumpy and hard work, as Phil Tiemeyer writes in his book Plane Queer, “airline executives were unsure whether the hostile environment required a flight attendant with manly fortitude or the comforting touch of a woman.” The comforting touch of a woman won out, and from the post war era on it was white women in the cabin.
That is until women like Patricia Banks-Edmiston came along in the late ’50s and demanded to be let in. Black women had to fight in court and petition commissions individually to slowly get airlines to start hiring them in the 60s. Then in the 70s men like Celio Diaz Jr had their day in court to open the profession to either sex.
Today, some airlines are opening their uniform policies to allow flight attendants to wear any uniform that feels right for them. Slacks or dresses, high heels, suits, and more, these safety professionals now have more freedom to wear what makes them most comfortable, and most able to assist in the event of an emergency. Which is really what’s important anyway.
Story credit: Airspace February 2023 Newsletter; https://airandspace.si.edu/