Maternity Leave: Flight Attendants

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.


5 thoughts on “Maternity Leave: Flight Attendants

  1. This is really interesting. I would have never thought about the fact that flight attendants were not allowed to work while pregnant. What are the policies today regarding flight attendants and maternity leave? Are they allowed to work while pregnant?


  2. I totally get that flying that much can’t have been thought to be good for babies. Still, Part of me is highly suspicious that airlines let women go when they got pregnant because they wanted to keep the flight attendant image sexy. Pregnant and post-baby mothers would not fit into the image airlines wanted– especially in the early days of commercial flight.


  3. My questions regarding this topic apply to the modern day: What are the current policies toward pregnant flight attendants? Why has this traditionally been a female occupation and has it changed in the ratio of men and women who are now “first responders.” I think it is interesting how women were able to unionize and have significant power to change policies because their profession largely employed women.


  4. This is not an occupation that I would have thought about maternity leave with – probably because I have never seen a pregnant flight attendant. I would have assumed that their inability to continue working in that position was based on their health, so it’s interesting that these women took it as an opportunity to fight discrimination against women in the workplace.


  5. It’s interesting to see that because flight attendants were mostly women, this gave them greater agency to become active and form unions to fight for equal treatment. It’s also disheartening to see similar arguments today against hiring women, the most prominent one from Donald Trump that pregnant women are inconvenient to business.


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