In the 1970’s major controversies arose between female flight attendants and management of major airlines. Airlines such as United, as early as 1930, had been denying pregnant women the right to continue working, claiming that they were no longer physically fit for the demands of the job. According to the Washington Post, in 1978 there was a Supreme Court case brought against this policy that “all but one of the major airlines” held. The article claims that the Federal Aviation Administration argued in favor of the pregnant flight attendants stating: ” ‘a pregnant woman with no complications is in good health.’ Whether she should fly ‘is a matter between herself, her doctor and her employer,’ the FAA says.” The support of the FAA shows the growing awareness of a need to better address pregnancy leave in the workplace. However, the 1978 article shows that at the time these was still very questionable. The article continues:
The lower courts held that pregnancy can incapacitate a stewardess in ways that could endanger safe operation of an aircraft, that United has an obligation to maintain the highest safety standards, and that the mandatory leave policy is “consistent” with that obligation.
This had been the norm for some time and it was not clear that this could change. The ambiguity as to whether or not this was discrimination against women is demonstrated by the statement of the Judge Lewis’s decision. The article states: “Lewis did not rule specifically on whether the mandatory leaves were sex discrimination but said the policy ‘applies only to pregnant stewardesses. Clearly this is not a discrimination based solely on sex.'” As people were trying to work through policies regarding mothers at work, it appears they were unclear on what was and was not fair to dictate by policy regarding women’s work and motherhood.
Because airlines employed mostly women as stewardesses, this provided an opportunity for activism and women-led unions. The Association of Flight Attendants was one of the prominent unions that emerged to combat the discrimination women faced in the work place with policies like automatic termination for marriage or pregnancy. In their short documentary entitled “Turbulent Romance,” the AFA tells their history of seeing discrimination and working to end it. Their goal with the video is to recruit more members and they work to contrast degrading conditions with the protected and dignified status of flight attendants that their association helped promote. In the film they change the label of these employees from “stewardesses” to “flight attendants” to the modern “first responders.” With the changes in titles over time came changes in status and rights. Although the AFA has reason to boast of their influence, both the documentary and other writers such as Beatrix Hoffman in her article “Labor Unions: Association of Flight Attendants” highlight the real significance that flight attendants had during the push for equal rights in improving maternity leave policies.
Hoffman, Beatrix. “Labor Unions: Association of Flight Attendants.” In Reader’s Companion to U.S. Women’s History, 306. US: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 1998. History Reference Center, EBSCOhost(accessed December 3, 2016).
“Mandatory Pregnancy Leave Challenged.” The Washington Post 1978.
“Judge Bars Forced Pregnancy Leave.” The Washington Post 1978.