The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon

The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon

The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon

The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon

Synopsis

In the years after World War II, the airline stewardess became one of the most celebrated symbols of American womanhood. Stewardesses appeared on magazine covers, on lecture circuits, and in ad campaigns for everything from milk to cigarettes. Airlines enlisted them to pose for publicity shots, mingle with international dignitaries, and even serve (in sequined minidresses) as the official hostesses at Richard Nixon's inaugural ball. Embodying mainstream America's perfect woman, the stewardess was an ambassador of femininity and the American way both at home and abroad. Young, beautiful, unmarried, intelligent, charming, and nurturing, she inspired young girls everywhere to set their sights on the sky.

In The Jet Sex, Victoria Vantoch explores in rich detail how multiple forces--business strategy, advertising, race, sexuality, and Cold War politics--cultivated an image of the stewardess that reflected America's vision of itself, from the wholesome girl-next-door of the 1940s to the cosmopolitan glamour girl of the Jet Age to the sexy playmate of the 1960s. Though airlines marketed her as the consummate hostess--an expert at pampering her mostly male passengers, while mixing martinis and allaying their fears of flying--she bridged the gap between the idealized 1950s housewife and the emerging "working woman." On the international stage, this select cadre of women served as ambassadors of their nation in the propaganda clashes of the Cold War. The stylish Pucci-clad American stewardess represented the United States as middle class and consumer oriented--hallmarks of capitalism's success and a stark contrast to her counterpart at Aeroflot, the Soviet national airline. As the apotheosis of feminine charm and American careerism, the stewardess subtly bucked traditional gender roles and paved the way for the women's movement. Drawing on industry archives and hundreds of interviews, this vibrant cultural history offers a fresh perspective on the sweeping changes in twentieth-century American life.

Excerpt

When World War II ended, assembly lines shut down and America’s Rosie the Riveters were sent home to start their lives as wives and mothers. It was a new era for femininity, and television’s June Cleaver, who dished up casserole in her suburban dream kitchen, set the standard. But not all women wanted to be full-time homemakers and those who were unmarried or needed to work outside the home had limited options: they could be secretaries, nurses, teachers, or sales clerks, but not much else. Then something monumental happened. Millions of Americans started to travel on airplanes—and the stewardess profession was born.

Now, young working women did not have to change bedpans or take dictation; they could travel the world, meet important people, and lead exciting lives. the stewardess position was well paid, prestigious, and adventurous—and it quickly became the nation’s most coveted job for women. Scores of qualified young women applied for each opening so airlines had their pick and could hire only the crème de la crème. in order to win a stewardess position, an applicant had to be young, beautiful, unmarried, well groomed, slim, charming, intelligent, well educated, white, heterosexual, and doting. in other words, the postwar stewardess embodied mainstream America’s perfect woman. She became a role model for American girls, and an ambassador of femininity and the American way abroad.

This icon of American womanhood showed up everywhere in postwar culture—stewardesses appeared in Hollywood films and national ad campaigns for everything from milk to cigarettes. in 1955 a Disney television series featured an episode titled “I Want to Be a twa Stewardess When I Grow Up.” in 1958 a Life magazine cover story reported that stewardesses held “one of the most coveted careers open to young American women.” Airlines . . .

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