A history of the hard-won feminist gains in Canadian airlines.
When Trans Canada Airlines first hired women in 1938, it was to reassure people that flying was safe, and to bring an aura of femininity and glamour to commercial aviation. Serving a primarily male audience, the stewardesses endured unsafe conditions and gender discrimination while showing unflagging pride and enthusiasm, aware that, in the midst of the Depression, they had highly sought-after jobs. It wasn’t until the Second World War that male flight attendants, or stewards, were first hired. Stewards and stewardesses eventually unionized in 1948.
But during their long fight for recognition, the stewardesses’ abilities to make their arduous duties seem effortless worked against them, and airline management did not take their union activism seriously. Regarded by society as waitresses in the sky, they were sexualized in the sixties, even as they picketed for better working conditions. Today, as safety authorities, flight attendants have become visible symbols of social change.
Peter Pigott is Canada’s foremost aviation author. Among his accomplishments are the histories of Air Canada, Trans Canada Airlines, and Canadian Airlines. He is the author of From Far and Wide, Sailing Seven Seas, Canada in Sudan and many more books. He lives in Ottawa.