Flight attendants helped to ground sex discrimination

 
 
Updated 10/19/2014 6:12 AM
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  • This half-century-old photograph shows a "stewardess" lighting a cigar for a passenger during a "men's only" flight. Retired flight attendant Shari Worrell of Lake Barrington remembers the drama surrounding one such flight after a passenger with a ticket for "Dr. Johnson" turned out to be a woman.

    This half-century-old photograph shows a "stewardess" lighting a cigar for a passenger during a "men's only" flight. Retired flight attendant Shari Worrell of Lake Barrington remembers the drama surrounding one such flight after a passenger with a ticket for "Dr. Johnson" turned out to be a woman. Courtesy of Shari Worrell

  • This photograph shows a flight attendant demonstrating the proper way for a lady to descend a staircase. During the 1960s, flight attendants helped bring about changes in sexist employment rules.

    This photograph shows a flight attendant demonstrating the proper way for a lady to descend a staircase. During the 1960s, flight attendants helped bring about changes in sexist employment rules. Courtesy of Shari Worrell

  • This photograph illustrates some of the requirements for a "stewardess" a half-century ago. Today's flight attendants can thank Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for ending some of the blatant discrimination against women in the workforce.

    This photograph illustrates some of the requirements for a "stewardess" a half-century ago. Today's flight attendants can thank Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 for ending some of the blatant discrimination against women in the workforce. Courtesy of Shari Worrell

  • After her graduation from training school on May 1, 1968, Shari Worrell became a "stewardess" for United Airlines in an era that demanded she wear a skirt, high heels, false eyelashes and a girdle.

    After her graduation from training school on May 1, 1968, Shari Worrell became a "stewardess" for United Airlines in an era that demanded she wear a skirt, high heels, false eyelashes and a girdle. Courtesy of Shari Worrell

  • This excerpt from retired flight attendant Shari Worrell's 1968 trainee guide shows the weight requirement for stewardesses. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 abolished many of the rules that discriminated against women.

    This excerpt from retired flight attendant Shari Worrell's 1968 trainee guide shows the weight requirement for stewardesses. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 abolished many of the rules that discriminated against women. Courtesy of Shari Worrell

Dedicated to protecting the safety of others, Lake Barrington's Shari Worrell once performed mouth-to-mouth to save a man's life. Another time, she used a pair of earphones, a small drinking cup and "occupied" stickers meant for the bathroom door to fashion a MacGyver-esque stethoscope needed by a doctor. Throughout her career, she received three awards of merit for her lifesaving efforts.

But before she started her job each day, Worrell had to step on the scale to prove she weighed between 105 and 118 pounds, undergo an inspection to make sure the seams in her stockings were straight and submit to a girdle check.

"It was just the way it was back then," says Worrell, 66, who started as a "stewardess" with United Airlines in 1968. "I didn't think it was the least bit odd. If they told me to stand on my head in the corner, I probably would have done it."

But during her 34-year career as a flight attendant, Worrell and other young women who started as stewardesses helped change the way the airlines and all employers dealt with women in the wake of the groundbreaking Civil Rights Act of 1964 and its Title VII, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin.

"The flight attendants played an astonishing role in the development of Title VII," says professor Mary Rose Strubbe, assistant director of the Institute for Law and the Workplace at IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law. Strubbe, 66, who started her law career with a Chicago firm representing many of those flight attendants in discrimination cases, will be one of the presenters Thursday at the institute's conference on the role of flight attendants in fighting sex discrimination.

Focused on racial injustice in the 1960s, legislators added the prohibition against gender discrimination shortly before passage of the Civil Rights Act. That addition had an immediate effect when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission was founded in 1965 with four male commissioners and one woman.

"There were a large number of sex-discrimination cases in the first year, much to the surprise of the staff," says Carol Miaskoff, acting associate legal counsel for the EEOC. Female flight attendants sought the EEOC's help in getting rid of rules that discriminated against women.

"You can't get married. You can't have kids. You have to be a certain age. You have to be a certain weight. They were just surrounded by these rules," Strubbe says. "Looking back now, it's difficult to believe that the airlines had these astonishing rules."

Shortly after her graduation in 1966 from Forest View High School in Arlington Heights, Worrell turned down an offer to study journalism at Northern Illinois University and took a job working in the executive offices of United Airlines in Elk Grove Township, where her mother, Norma Flude, also worked.

"I was raised that you help other people. If you cut five pieces of cake, you took the piece that was the smallest," says Worrell, who wanted to become a stewardess. "I like people and I like serving. It was a great job."

When Worrell turned 20 and was old enough to fly, she gave up her post teaching Sunday school at church and received the training she needed to be good at her new job, and then some.

"I didn't smoke, but they still taught us how to do it," Worrell says, recalling how she learned to extinguish a cigarette by rolling off the tip instead of snubbing it. "They taught us how to have a man help you put on your coat. You made eye contact as you slipped in one arm, and then you would quickly turn, still gazing into his eyes, to put your other hand in."

Male passengers did enjoy being served by a bevy of young, fit, single women, and "we were hit on all the time," Worrell says. But the rules also made sure women did not show any cleavage, wore skirts at about knee level and looked professional. Worrell still has a photograph of a young Mario Tricoci fixing her hair and the hairdos of others at the training facility.

"They wanted you to be perfect ladies," Worrell says.

It took years of legal battles in court before the EEOC ruled that gender was not a "bona fide occupation qualification" to be a flight attendant, Miaskoff says.

"Before the enactment of Title VII, people didn't think twice about those rules," says Strubbe.

Some of the court cases restoring jobs and awarding back pay were in the courts for more than 20 years.

"It was very tortuous to get there, but we got there," Miaskoff says, noting that younger Americans might not realize how the rules regulating their jobs were different for previous generations. "There's still a lot of problems in the civil rights arena, but it's important to recognize the profound importance of the Civil Rights Act."

Even as flight attendants were fighting to change those antiquated discriminations against women, Worrell remembers how she once had to leave a restaurant because it refused to serve her black co-worker. A cross-section of society, the world of flight attendants during her era included women, blacks, homosexuals and others who benefited from the protections guaranteed by the Civil Rights Act, says Worrell, who has been involved in numerous causes and charities during her career and since an injury on the job forced her into retirement.

The changes pushed by flight attendants forced "employers to look at the idea that you can't have rules that address what woman can and can't do in the workplace if you don't have rules for men," Strubbe says. "They didn't solve everything. But what they did do was obliterate the blatant discrimination. I think young people don't realize how blatant it was."

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