During the 1960s, female flight attendants were called stewardesses and were required by airlines to be young, unmarried and attractive. Also in the 1960s, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was formed to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. When the EEOC began investigating discrimination complaints in 1965, female flight attendants were among the first women to challenge the sex discrimination in their jobs.
Most airlines wanted young, beautiful stewardesses to appeal to their “businessmen” customers. The definition of “young” went so far as to require female flight attendants’ termination when they turned 32 or 35 – the age depended on the airline. As for marriage bans, most stewardesses had to sign agreements that they would resign or be dismissed if they got married.
The EEOC issued its first ruling on female flight attendants and sex discrimination in December 1965. Aileen Hernandez and the rest of the commission found “reasonable cause” that a Northwest flight attendant had been discriminated against based on sex, since male employees were not terminated upon marriage. The EEOC called for a conciliation and for restoration of the flight attendant’s job and back pay.
Being a Woman: A Bona Fide Occupational Qualification?
The airlines responded to charges of sex discrimination by asking the EEOC to rule that being female was a bona fide occupational qualification, or BFOQ, of being a flight attendant. In their arguments to the commission, airline executives cited the “evidence” of business necessity: surveys showed a customer preference for young, female stewardesses. Of course, being female was the airlines’ requirement for the position of glamorous young stewardess that they had created, but was it an actual BFOQ of serving as a flight cabin attendant?
In August 1966, the EEOC lawyers drafted legal opinions. In November 1966, the EEOC commissioners voted that being female was not a BFOQ. However, the airlines protested that the ruling was improper because one of the commissioners was Aileen Hernandez, who in October had both submitted her resignation from the EEOC and been elected as one of the first officers of the National Organization for Women.
Aileen Hernandez had been elected by Betty Friedan and the other NOW founders in absentia, subject to her acceptance upon resigning from the EEOC. Although the NOW officers election had taken place in October 1966, after the BFOQ rulings were already drafted, a judge granted the airlines a restraining order, preventing the EEOC from releasing its ruling.
This led to another period of slow government bureaucracy. The airlines had their way for another year, but in February 1968, the EEOC ruled that sex could not be a BFOQ of being a flight attendant.