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When Was the First EEOC Ruling About Flight Attendants?

The History of 1960s Stewardess Discrimination


The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a ruling about airline policies regarding female flight attendants in December 1965.

A New Agency to Fight Discrimination

The EEOC had begun examining discrimination complaints earlier in 1965. Female flight attendants, who were always called stewardesses then, were among the earliest workers to file sex discrimination complaints.

Airline Stewardess Requirements

Airlines made a point of hiring only female flight attendants during the 1950s and 1960s. Airline executives said they had to appeal to businessmen, the primary airline customers. The implicit sexism of this business model aside, the airlines also required that these stewardesses be single, very young and pretty -- a fairly explicit sexism. Most airlines terminated or grounded the women once they reached age 32 or age 35 (depending on the airline).

Airlines also forbade stewardesses to marry. In October 1965, one of Northwest Airlines' flight attendants filed a sex discrimination complaint with the EEOC because Northwest terminated female flight attendants upon marriage but did not ban marriage for male employees.

The EEOC Ruling

In December 1965, the EEOC issued its first flight attendants ruling. The commission found "reasonable cause" that the airline had discriminated against its stewardesses because it did not apply a marriage ban to males. Aileen Hernandez was one of the five commissioners behind the ruling.

Although there were questions about the authority and enforcement power of the EEOC, the ruling did offer a guideline from an official government agency. However, this was not the end of stewardess sex discrimination. Airlines responded to this case and other stewardess complaints by requesting an official ruling: did age and marriage restrictions violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act? Furthermore, the airlines asked the EEOC to declare being female a bona fide occupational qualification, or BFOQ, of the flight attendant job. The airline stewardess discrimination arguments continued for several years throughout the 1960s.

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