Women in the History of Aviation in the United States

The venture of women into aviation was a long and difficult process. Although female pilots such as Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols and Jacqueline Cochran managed to make their respective mark in the aforementioned field, it was the stewardess who marketed the aviation industry as a lucrative and safe endeavor for women. In the process, aviation continued to exist as a male-dominated industry.Akin to their entry in fields that were traditionally dominated by men, the venture of women into aviation had a precarious beginning. The conventional belief was that women were too emotionally unstable to be able to pilot airplanes. But some women managed to negate this chauvinistic philosophy by convincing some of the most intransigent male aviators to train them. They eventually succeeded in procuring pilots’ licenses and piloting their own airplanes (Mankiller, 1999).In the recent decades, female pilots remain few and between. Thousands of women in the aviation industry continue to work as stewardesses (Shayler and Moule, 2005). Despite the impressive feats of female pilots such as Amelia Earhart, Ruth Nichols and Jacqueline Cochran, it was the stewardess who marketed the aviation industry as a lucrative and safe endeavor for women (Barry, 2007). This just goes to show that gender roles and ideology in the United States still has a long way to go.Female Pioneers in AviationThe success of brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright in achieving powered flight in 1903 sparked public interest in aeronautics. For the first time, the American people realized that air travel was indeed possible. Since the aforementioned feat, aviation clubs mushroomed across the US. Men from all walks of life flocked to these institutions in order to receive basic aviation training (Lebow, 2003).Read also about Department of the Army HeadquartersUnheeded during this time were women who wished to learn how to fly as well. Critics cynically claimed that women would never be able to fly as competently as men. If ever women were to surpass men in the realm of aviation, it would be at the expense of the grace that was conventionally associated with their gender (Lebow, 2003). Despite these sexist observations, some women did not let their gender hinder their passion for flying. They went on to achieve aviation feats that were commonly related to men.Before AmeliaThe first female pilots practiced their flying skills as entertainers by way of barnstorming. Blanche Stuart Scott, a native of Rochester, New York, became the first American aviatrix in 1910. Harriet Quimby, meanwhile, was the first woman to fly across the English Channel. Apart from earning the distinction of being the first woman to conduct nighttime flights, Ruth Law also set a non-stop distance record in 1916 for both men and women by performing 16 consecutive loops. She was later credited with launching nighttime airmail between Chicago and New York (Mankiller, 1999).Katherine Stinson, a female pilot who studied under Maximillian Theodore Liljestrand (Max Lillie), became the first woman airmail carrier in 1913. She likewise went on to become a stunt flyer and a pioneering skywriter. Meanwhile, her younger sister, Marjorie, was a 1914 graduate of the Wright School of Aviation in Dayton, Ohio. Marjorie was the youngest licensed pilot in the US and in 1915 became the only woman inducted into the US Aviation Reserve. It was also in 1915 that their mother, Emma, founded the Stinson Aviation Company in San Antonio, Texas, where she and her two aforementioned daughters trained Canadian pilots for the British Air Force during World War I (Mankiller, 1999).Amelia Earhart (1898-1937)Amelia Earhart is probably the most well-known aviatrix in the history of aviation. In 1937, she became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic (Mankiller, 1999). Because of this feat of hers, she was best remembered as someone who used aviation as a means of championing equality between women and men. Prior to Earhart’s above-mentioned exploit, many people believed that flying was the domain of men. Despite her death in a mysterious plane crash on July 2, 1937, she managed to prove that this was not the case (Shayler and Moule, 2005).World War IIBefore and during World War II, women were able to obtain more affordable aviation lessons through the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) and the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). The CPTP was the product of a New Deal bill that aimed to stimulate private aviation and to promote preparedness by increasing the number of licensed pilots. The program funded novice-level aviation classes at college and universities. Even African-American men and women were allowed to join – Congress’ antidiscrimination provision opened the CPTP to non-whites. The WASP, meanwhile, was composed of two programs that provided advanced-level aviation lessons for women (Weitekamp, 2005).But as World War II loomed, the CPTP focused on preparedness. The program concentrated on training fliers that could enlist in the air forces should the US join the war. By 1941, all of its trainees, male and female alike, were made to sign a pledge promising to join the armed services if they were needed. Although it allowed many women to earn pilot’s licenses, the CPTP officially barred women from serving into combat. It was not until the US formally joined World War II that the American government finally decided to take advantage of the large number of trained female pilots by utilizing them for the war effort (Weitekamp, 2005).The year 1942 was characterized with the emergence of programs bearing the same objective. The navy, for instance, created a women’s reserve called Women Activated for Voluntary Emergency Service (WAVES). The counterpart of WAVES in the coast guard was the SPARS, an organization whose name was derived from the service motto Semper paratus – always ready. The military soon followed suit by establishing the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), which was later renamed as the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) (Weitekamp, 2005).It was likewise during World War II that some aviatrixes were recognized for their courage and excellent flying skills. After Jacqueline Cochran ferried a bomber across the Atlantic for the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) in 1941, an ATA officer requested her to train American women pilots for the organization. She obliged, recruiting 24 women, training them in Canada and traveling with them to England to enlist. Nancy Harkness-Love, the deputy chief of staff for the Ferry Division of the Air Transport Command (ATC), was responsible for the formation of a women’s service in the ATC (Weitekamp, 2005).The Postwar Era: The Rise of the StewardessThe involvement of women in the field of aviation decreased significantly in the postwar era. The return of male pilots from wartime service to take aviation jobs resulted in decreased opportunities for commercial jobs even for female pilots with advanced credentials. Aviatrixes had to content themselves with low-paying, dead-end aviation careers such as working for small freight carriers, teaching flying lessons, chauffeuring executives and dusting crops. A career in the armed forces was just as bleak – the return of male pilots from wartime service spelled the disbanding of women’s reserves and the revival of the prohibition against female military pilots (Weitekamp, 2005).The “Sky Girls:” Selling the Aviation IndustryAlthough female flight attendants were already commonplace in the 1930s, it was only during the postwar era that they became a noticeable presence in the airline. Indeed, the postwar era was characterized with the feminization of passenger service. Large numbers of young women worked as stewardesses mainly because of the relatively high pay, better working conditions and fringe benefits. Such perks, however, were not without covert reasons – airlines saw female cabin attendants as a valuable marketing tool (Barry, 2007).The presence of stewardesses happily serving passengers would give the public the impression that flying has evolved from its barnstorming and wartime beginnings to a safe and modern means of travel. Although women such as Earhart, Nichols and Cochran brought renown to the aviation industry, they also gave the impression that flying was an unladylike activity. In sharp contrast, the stewardess gave off a soothing air of elegance, domesticity and respectability (Barry, 2007). After all, if a mere girl is not afraid to board a plane, why should the passengers be?Behind the Chic Uniform.But critics pointed out that the cabin attendant profession, particularly from the late 1940s to the 1970s, was plagued with sexist labor policies. During these decades, airlines hired only young, attractive and unmarried white women. Applicants must possess good teeth, clear skin, and glossy hair and should have no evident physical flaws. A visible scar was said to be enough grounds for the rejection of a candidate (Barry, 2007).Personnel officers also scrutinized candidates’ family backgrounds, conversational skills, posture, vocabulary, diction and even the gracefulness of their hand movements and the neatness of their clothes. Regardless of the class background from which they came from, aspiring stewardesses were required to exhibit middle-class manners and deportment – intangible qualities such as “poise,” “tact” and “character.” Furthermore, cabin attendants made to retire by age 32 in order to make way for younger and more nubile candidates. Marriage was already out of the question for a stewardess, as the former was synonymous to unemployment. Apart from these restrictive guidelines, stewardesses were also victimized by exploitative marketing strategies like skimpy uniforms and provocative slogans such as “fly me” (Barry, 2007).Professionals, Not Sex ObjectsDeteriorating working conditions in airlines prompted many stewardesses to become involved in union action. The Air Line Stewardesses and Stewards Association (ALSSA) held its inaugural conference in 1951 – two years after it was formally incorporated by the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA). In 1952, the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) finally mandated the presence of flight attendants on all flights that had at least 10 passengers. In 1958 and 1959, the cabin attendants of TWA went on strikes due to unfair labor practices. Another positive development in flight attendant action and organization was the Landrum-Griffin Act of 1959, which left male union leadership vulnerable to challenge from their female colleagues by requiring unions to comply with majoritarian principles in governance (Whitelegg, 2007).Despite such militancy from “mere girls,” the repressive labor policies of airlines continued to work against them. For one, age restrictions resulted in high labor turnover, which, in turn, prevented the formation of a strong and cohesive leadership among union supporters. In addition, the no-marriage rule discouraged many flight attendants from forming and or joining unions. Because most stewardesses in the aforementioned periods were unmarried, they cannot afford to join strikes and lose their only source of income in the process (Whitelegg, 2007).ConclusionAlthough modern times allowed women access to the male-dominated field of aviation, it took decades of determination and militancy on the part of women before this took place. The first step that women took to achieve this feat was to shatter the misconception that they were too emotionally unstable to be able to fly a plane. Thus, women such as Earhart, Nichols and Cochran ignored societal norms about proper feminine behavior and went on to make their respective mark in the world of aviation.During the postwar era, stewardesses debunked the aforementioned myth by protesting against policies that turned them into sex objects in the sky. Although their militancy resulted in better working conditions for women in the aviation industry, much still remains to be done. At present, being a pilot is still regarded as a “man’s job.” Being a stewardess, meanwhile, is still associated with beautiful but subservient young women who are valued for their physical beauty and their ability to “effortlessly” serve meals and drinks to passengers.