1945, We Need a Union Because We Deserve a Raise!

As a woman passionate about the liberation of women, I’m weaving several threads through my story telling. I’ve recently been writing about my own family, but before leaving the 1940s time frame, I’m writing about women who paved the way for me to work as a flight attendant. I want you to know the United Airlines stewardesses who started the first stewardess union.

In 1945 (my birth year) United Airlines stewardesses were paid the same $125 a month as the initial group of “sky girls” in 1930! Determined and single-minded women began organizing, first at United. One union activist said, “We had no rights, let’s put it that way. We were at the mercy of the company. There were no rules or regulations about monthly flight time. If a stewardess didn’t show up to replace you on multi-stops across the country, the company would just say, ‘You have to continue flying.'” 1

In late 1944 United’s chief stewardess, Ada J. Brown, frustrated by the company’s unwillingness to upgrade conditions for the stewardesses, left her management position to return to the all-female rank and file and to begin organizing a union. She recalled, “As chief stewardess I tried to get improvements for the girls with salary, flight regulations, and protection from unjust firing.”2

Other United stewardesses including Sally Thometz, Frances Hall, Edith Lauterbach and Sally Watt became enthusiastic union organizers–organizing at the bases in San Francisco, Denver, and Chicago.

“I had planned to fly one year and quit,” Lauterbach told an interviewer in 1985. “It was a male-dominated industry and they weren’t anxious to have women hang around.” Later she added, “After we flew for a while, we realized it wasn’t as glamorous as we thought. We had to crawl on our hands and knees during rough weather and deliver meals in the turbulence, clean up after the passengers when they got sick…. Those little planes were all over the sky in bad weather.”3

By August 1945 they had organized the Air Line Stewardess Association (ALSA) and began contract negotiations with United. A year later, in April 1946, the women at ALSA had won a contract raising monthly salaries to $155, won a limit of 85 in-flight hours per month, and initiated pay for all the hours spent working on the ground, not just in-flight hours.

By contract, the company agreed to pay for half the initial cost of the uniforms and finally agreed to a grievance procedure to challenge disciplinary actions and dismissals. All these were vitally important work rule improvements for the working women at United. Note: in 1947 ALSA President Ada Brown, 30, marries and becomes a victim of United’s no-marriage rule. She is forced to retire from her career and the union presidency.4

In the generally well-paid airline industry, flight attendants were at the bottom of the wage ladder. By 1955 the average salary for flight attendants in the U.S. was just under $3,300, while pilots and co-pilots claimed more than three times as much. Other airline ground workers such as maintenance, clerical, etc. took home average yearly pay of between $4,300 and $5,300.5

The successful bargaining at United changed the picture at every airline! Within five years two-thirds of U.S. stewardesses at sixteen air lines had union representation. Ada J. Brown is an admired heroine for me!

Update: I just this morning discovered a youtube video featuring interviews with both Ada Brown and Edith Lauterbach! Lauterbach retired from United in 1989. She continues to be involved in union work with AFA! Produced by the current flight attendant union, the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), the film begins with historical footage. Current coverage includes discussion of the vital role of flight attendants during the 9/11 attacks and introduces flight attendants as aviation’s “first responders”. View this 18 minute video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1111&v=qKbn905qohI&feature=emb_logo

All these gutsy women left a lasting legacy to women workers and to flight attendants. Before flying for United, Edith Lauterbach (mentioned above) had earned a degree in political science from UC Berkeley in 1942, and later said she joined United as “a lark.” I, too, had earned a degree in political science (1967). Like Edith, it did not take me long to become a union activist.6

Let’s talk about uniforms since the subject was important in that first union contract. When I started with TWA in 1969, we were told we had to pay for our first set of uniforms. Should the company change our uniforms, they would then pay for the replacements. We paid for three outfits for summer and three for winter. TWA took payments out of our meager paychecks. This is quite a corporate trick—get your employees to cover the company’s uniform costs!

This was a good deal for the airlines for the many decades stewardess careers were short due to the restrictive age and no-marriage rules of the airlines. Age requirements drove down wages and prevented career-oriented stewardesses from accruing seniority or benefits. These regulations also aimed to prevent stewardesses from organizing for better pay and work policies. Once we legally challenged those rules, flight attendants had longer flying careers. One result of those changes meant that the airline companies would have to absorb a larger percentage the cost of their employees’ uniforms.

Uniforms serve at least two purposes. For those wearing the uniform, you assume that others wearing the same uniform are your colleagues, your allies. For the flying public, the uniform identifies the wearer as representatives of the designated airline. Dressing in a uniform can be a mental shift to accept the responsibilities assigned to you as an employee.

Dressing in a uniform is always full of symbolism. Uniforms are meant to convey messages–both to the wearer and to the observer. “Symbols have both psychological and political effects, because they create the inner conditions (deep-seated attitudes and feelings) that lead people to feel comfortable with or to accept social and political arrangements that correspond to the symbol system.”7 Women working as stewardesses in 1945 were ready to challenge the white male dominated airline management, the unions, and the government because they realized that the current “social and political arrangements” kept them at a disadvantage! No one expected a pilot to be weighed before a flight, or checked to see that he wore a girdle under his uniform.

I vividly remember the excitement we felt in 1969 when, as trainees, we realized we had made it through training, and would be wearing our uniforms (with a required girdle) the next day at graduation. That particular uniform, introduced in 1968, was not my favorite—who looks good in lemon yellow, or avocado green or a bright pumpkin color? And, really, the skirts were too short for comfort. Rather, it was the idea of the uniform. It was the idea of being part of this flying sisterhood! The uniform was a symbol of our willingness to act in the best interest of the group, to be a team, should we face an emergency.

Before every takeoff we would arm the emergency exit doors. After landing it was imperative that we disarm those powerful escape slides attached to the door. Often the doors were located in a galley. Should we forget, and the galley service people opened the door from the outside, the powerful surge of that escape slide could injure or kill them. We remembered and we cross-checked for each other.

Our skills, our willingness to take charge in case of an emergency were almost invisible. We were trained to evacuate hundreds of passengers. We were safety directors. We were safety directors disguised as merely helpful crew members. Neither the flying public nor the airlines wanted to remind passengers that flying could be dangerous. Institutional acknowledgment of our capabilities would have been extremely valuable to us as a group and as individuals. Neither government officials nor the airlines wanted that to happen.

Our flight attendant unions have long sought professional certification of basic proficiency for flight attendants by the FAA just as the pilots are certified by the FAA in their area of expertise. For decades the pilots’ union has successfully opposed certification for flight attendants claiming it could compromise their own authority on the aircraft.

Ellen Church, the experienced pilot who United Airlines rejected in 1930, offered United the alternative idea of hiring female nurses to fly as cabin crew. United told her to recruit seven other nurses to fly as “sky girls” on a trial basis. Once that idea was accepted, the women earned their wings and carved out their own niche in aviation. The men in charge handed these women their wing, that is, a half of a set of wings–symbols of their secondary status on board an aircraft. Few women journeyed as regularly or as far from home as these young women who flew as stewardesses. But, they needed to “know their place”.

Few of us questioned our half-wing status until the women’s liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s urged us to rethink all we knew and to question everything!

That’s when I really saw my single wing–it was a potent symbol of our secondary status! In fact, when male flight attendants were first hired at TWA in 1974, they received a full set of wings pinned to there uniforms. We wore our single lopsided wing. Of course, most passengers assumed, according to accepted “social and political arrangements”, that these new-hire male flight attendants were our supervisors! The true set of wings the men wore helped reinforce that assumption.

In 1973, as one of the founding members of the feminist organization, Stewardesses for Women’s Rights (SFWR), I helped numerous flying partners file complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. We challenged the restrictions airlines placed on stewardesses’ age, marital status, weight, uniform, grooming regulations, and more. In our list of complaints, we mentioned that disparity in the flight wings awarded to male flight attendants.

Many of our complaints about discrimination were resolved before the EEOC ever heard our cases. The airline industry, under pressure from our flight attendant unions as well as lawsuits, modified most of the list of concerns we had take to the EEOC. Finally, four years later in 1978, when TWA changed uniforms for flight attendants, all of us were wearing the same set of wings. One small, symbolic victory.

Those of us who created Stewardesses for Women’s Rights worked for a variety of airlines and lived all over the U.S. Our purpose in uniting was “to fight sexual and racial discrimination, and to ensure that women are given equal employment and promotional opportunities in the airline industry.” The impact of our efforts as a group pressured our unions to fight for these same goals.

Most of what I see written about flight attendants is inaccurate, or disrespectful or insulting. But Kathleen Barry in Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants has earned my respect. Barry writes that stewardesses “…were quite well aware of what that glamour cost them in conformity to stringent airline rules, in meager wages and no job security, and in working hard at appearing not to be working at all. Given the aura of glamour surrounding postwar stewardesses and all the cultural adulation they received, it may seem surprising that they should also have distinguished themselves by joining the heavily male and blue-color labor movement. But stewardesses’ willingness to to work hard extended not only to embody the airline-defined femininity: it extended to having their efforts taken seriously as real work too.”8

Notes

1 http://yourafa.org/why-afa/weve-come-a-long-way
2 Femininity In Flight: A History of Flight Attendants, Kathleen M. Barry 2007 p.63
3 https://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-xpm-2013-feb-06-la-me-edith-lauterbach-20130207-story.html
4 https://unitedafa.org/afa/about/milestones/
5 Femininity In Flight: A History of Flight Attendants, Kathleen M. Barry 2007 p.65
6 https://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-xpm-2013-feb-06-la-me-edith-lauterbach-20130207-story.html
7 Carol Christ https://www.goddessariadne.org/why-women-need-the-goddess-part-1
8 Femininity In Flight: A History of Flight Attendants, Kathleen M. Barry 2007 p.58

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Skytrain To New York, then Rail Train to Richmond,1946

Once reunited, in January, 1946 it is not surprising that Paul and Marie dreamed of taking a trip together. Dad had just survived a world war and the years of discipline of being a soldier. Mother had survived childbirth and rationing and waiting. She understood that a clubfoot birth tends to run in families. Her concerns and fear that her child might also be born with a clubfoot were soothed.1 And her new husband had returned safely!

Because they had married during the war, neither had met their new relatives. It’s over 1,200 miles to upstate New York and 950 miles to Richmond, VA. Rail travel was the obvious choice. Since the early 1900s, railroad travel down the coast to south Florida had been extensively promoted. Rail lines moved millions of soldiers around during the war. However, a train trip from Miami Beach to upstate New York, where dad grew up, would involve long hours and many station changes to reach the village of Penn Yan.

In my imagination, the two talked for hours during those first months about their options. They talked about the cost, about the timing, and about the baby. Traveling with an infant less than a year old was another major consideration. Several airlines flew north, but each stopped many times before reaching New York City. And those planes were not pressurized, so the planes flew at low altitudes encountering much choppy weather. Some passengers would experience “altitude sickness” induced by the flying conditions. Additionally, at the time, there were no “coach” fares. All tickets were the same high price.

Marie and Paul continued to dream of the possibility of visiting their families “up north”, as we say, in south Florida. It is 470 miles to the Georgia border, so those of us who lived in south Florida consider much of the country “up north”–even Richmond, VA. Marie was an avid reader of the Miami Herald newspaper. I feel sure it was she who saw the splash of an announcement about National Airlines soon to be offering non-stop flights between Miami and New York! The paper proclaimed that National now had a long range aircraft, the Douglas DC-4, capable of flying nonstop to New York and it started February 14 that year! It would only be a five hour flight!2 (Today it is 2 ½ hours.)

Perhaps they could fly! The couple would still have to take a small aircraft to Ithaca, NY and then a bus up to Penn Yan. Paul and Marie began their planning! They would stop in Richmond on the way back to Miami Beach to visit Marie’s relatives there. From our carefully organized family camping trips a decade later, I know they began preparations for their trip with attention to detail and much enthusiasm. Each one could pack a forty pound suitcase which needed to include all the essentials for baby Paula. They could travel in spring. The weather would be mild. Paula would be ten months old.

I have clear evidence that Paul, Paula and Marie took this trip. Mother took care to record the basics of the trip in my baby book. She wrote this for me:

“I took my first trip when I was ten months old. I flew from Miami to Elmira, N.Y. From there I went by bus to Penn Yan to visit my grandmother Neilson. We stayed in Penn Yan two weeks leaving by train for Richmond, Va. to visit my other grandmother. Daddy brought me home and mother stayed in Richmond. A good time was had by all—Mother’s note”.

Taped alongside Marie’s hand-written entry is a brief notice cut from the Miami Beach newspaper about the couple’s excursion. It reads “Mr. and Mrs. Paul Neilson have completed a visit in New York. Mrs. Neilson stopped in Richmond, Va. for a visit but Mr Neilson has returned to his home at 1518 Drexell Ave.

In June, 1946 my intrepid parents boarded a DC-4 non-stop flight bound for New York. The National Airlines 46 passenger aeroplane was new, but it was still one of those early propeller aircraft. I assume our heroic couple, traveling with their offspring, knew of the difficulties since the DC-4 was not pressurized or heated and subject to almost constant turbulence since it could not fly fly higher than 10,00 feet due to lack of breathable oxygen. Did they carry their own Chiclets or did they depend on the National stewardesses to hand them out to help keep their ears from popping? Maybe both happened….

I was quite curious about the working conditions for the two stewardesses working that 1946 flight. I’ve found first hand descriptions of flying on the DC-4 planes written by retired National Airlines stewardesses. Here is their summary,

“One of the responsibilities of the senior stewardess was ‘showing the ropes’ to the junior stewardess. Working conditions were challenging, as the DC-4 was not pressurized. Flying at lower altitudes meant air turbulence, cold cabins in winter and sweltering conditions in summer. Passengers were uncomfortable and often suffered air sickness. ‘Burp bags’ and Chiclets were a must! The harsh conditions did not discourage employees or the flying public, as National continued to prosper. The public began to realize that air travel was the fastest and most convenient way to travel.”

The DC-4 was a pioneer introducing many to air travel—including my parents.

This was my first airplane trip! Once we finally arrived in Penn Yan the only evidence of our activities are snapshots and one other more formal photo of the family group. Possibly they had a late celebration with Dad’s family of their second wedding anniversary on June 10. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Paul and his two brothers shot baskets together or played touch football—they were active, young men. His youngest brother Roger was a junior in high school. Judging from the snapshots grandmother Edith enjoyed getting to hold the new baby. Paul’s sisters, Rosemary and Jean, were part of the celebration, too. Within a few years, Rosemary would join us in south Florida.

I did not have the chance to really know my paternal grandmother Edith since we lived so far distant. However, she let us know she was thinking about us as we grew up. As children, we each received a birthday card and a crisp dollar bill on our birthdays. At Christmas, we came to expect a brown paper-wrapped parcel full of her homemade Christmas cookies. Usually they were cut into shapes like bells or reindeer and covered in sweet, sweet icing. Edith had 13 grandchildren which means she put a lot of effort into sending each of us reminders of her affection.

After two weeks visiting in Penn Yan, our small family boarded a series of southbound trains for Richmond, Va. where Marie spent her early years. Can you imagine traveling with a 10 month old child on this trip—that’s why I describe Marie and Paul as intrepid adventurers.

On To Richmond, Virginia in late June, 1946

Marie’s girlhood is shrouded in mystery. When she left her parents, why her parents separated, and why she grew up in her mother’s older sister’s household is unclear. Her female relatives sent gifts for the birth of her first child with clear indications of interest and goodwill. Her mother, Mamie and the three aunts in Richmond showered her new baby with gifts. More presents arrived for the child four months later at Christmas. On the baby’s first birthday, Marie recorded a long list of gifts ranging from a silver rattle to handmade sweaters to nightgowns and booties. Of course, part of Marie’s reason for keeping an accurate list was to be able to send thank you notes for each one.

After a long train trip, Marie, Paul and the child arrived in Richmond to visit Marie’s family. Soon, Paul boarded a train to take Paula back home while Marie stayed a week to visit. Marie summed up the experience with “A good time was had by all”, so I am prepared to believe she enjoyed her stay.

Streetcars were a familiar sight here and in other large cities so transportation around the city would have been easy. Perhaps they visited the famous department store, Miller & Rhodes in downtown Richmond to have lunch and do some shopping—even window shopping. When traveling downtown, Marie and her friends could not miss seeing the imposing structure of Old City Hall built in 1894 of local gray granite in the Gothic Revival style.

The building occupies its own city block in downtown Richmond! The massive and ornamented nature of the design makes me want to visit it myself! Imagine this: the interior centers around a large skylit atrium surrounded by four levels of cloister-like arcades, linked by a grand staircase. The building housed city offices and courts until the late 1960s. It was restored in the early 1980s and is now used for offices and special events. Of course it is designated as a U.S. National Historic Landmark.

Other days they may have played bridge or canasta with friends. Marie had a chance to visit, to laugh and to enjoy the freedom rarely available to a new mom. While she was in Richmond, Paul had a chance to bond with his new daughter as the primary caretaker.

This would be the last time she was in Richmond. As I’ve mentioned, we later took numerous family camping trips, stopping in nearby states, but never did visit here. Add this to the list of mysteries.

Richmond was a bustling city with two major train stations. Both stations were referred to as union stations! Which of these elaborate train stations did my parents use in 1946? I enjoyed this sleuthing challenge. First I discovered that “union station” simply means that the station serves one or more rail lines which makes changing trains easier for passengers traveling on different lines. The two or more railroad companies using the station actually paid for the building of that station. In Richmond there were two union stations—one on Main Street downtown and one on Broad Street, as pictured above.

Further inquiry convinced me that Paul and Marie must have arrived at the huge Broad Street Station. Traveling from the north, they probably used the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, the principle line using that union station. Broad Street Station was built in 1917 in the neoclassical style featuring an elegant central dome and ten columns across the symmetrical facade—no clock tower here. This station is now the Science Museum of Virginia.

Departures: when they each boarded a train for home they left from the elaborate Main Street Station, in the downtown area, with its dominating clock tower as part of its Renaissance Revival architecture. This is an ornate six-story tower with four clock faces. Built in 1901 by two rail lines—one was the Seaboard Air Line Railroad which, as the name implies, served the eastern seaboard down to Key West.

From 1915 to 1958, this station was the principal departure point for all passengers heading south—passengers like Marie and Paul. It is quite a grand building—nothing like the Miami train station. Main Street Station and its train shed (an over-arching roof above the arriving and departing trains) is one of the last surviving train sheds of its type in the nation. Both were added to the National Register of Historic Places. Today the station serves Amtrak passengers.



Here’s another question.
Were they traveling on a steam or diesel fueled locomotive train? In the 1940s, diesel locomotives began to be introduced on U.S. railroads in large numbers. Steam and diesel locomotives ran side by side for a brief time in the 1940s and early 1950s, but new diesel locomotives took over as they radically cut maintenance and operating expenses.3 Answer: probably both given the number of trains used on their trip.

More than likely on the train trip south, both adults would have been traveling in segregated rail cars! In my research, I found this photo of a rail car built in 1924 by the Pullman Company. “The car was built with a dividing wall in the middle of the passenger car denoting it as a segregated or “Jim Crow” car. The Central of Georgia Railroad used this car in regular service, relegating African-American passengers to a separate section complete with segregated restrooms until the end of that era on railroads in the 1950s.”4

Remember that during WWII the armed services of the U.S. were segregated! Not until the executive order by President Truman in July 1948, was discrimination “on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin” abolished in the United States Armed Forces. This executive order did not legally obligate public establishments such as lunch counters, stores, restaurants, and theaters to open to all on an equal basis. Civil rights advocates sought equal access to transportation. Prior to the 1960s, segregation on streetcars, buses, and railroad cars was consistently challenged by blacks and their allies, both in courts and through direct action including boycotts especially in the south.5

Home Sweet Home
Reunited for a second time this small family started making plans for another dream—a home of their own! Miami Beach was expensive and housing was limited since it was primarily a tourist town. They soon learned that to take advantage of the GI Bill’s mortgage loan assistance for veterans, one could only seek a loan for new housing. Mortgage loan assistance was not available for existing housing. This requirement limited their options.

Only this week did I find, in 1940 census records, that Marie had worked as a “saleslady” prior to WWII. In 1946, with an infant at home, her possibilities for bringing in a salary were non existent.

Paul was working and attending night school studying to be a land surveyor. Until he had a job, they would not be eligible for a loan to buy a house for their growing family. In January 1947, the couple could tell Paula she would have a sister or brother just after her second birthday. They needed that new house!

Transportation would be an essential part of the answer to where Marie and Paul would live. Today, while we are in the midst of this Covid pandemic, we can now see how our transportation options and choices affect each of us personally and as a society. Choosing to stay home is not an option for everyone.

Working for an airline, working for a transportation company, for 16 years brought benefits and complications to me personally. The thrill of flying captivates many people—for many different reasons. As I tell my story, I’m weaving the complex strands of the personal and political realities of a young woman coming of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s. All these tangents matter! Each is part of the whole.■

Postscript one:
I learned that Richmond had the first successful electrically powered street railway system in the United States. Designed by electric power pioneer, Frank J. Sprague, the trolley system opened its first line in January 1888. Richmond’s hills, long a transportation obstacle, were considered an ideal proving ground. The new technology soon replaced horsecars.

As part of a national trend, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the electrically powered street railway systems accelerated Richmond’s expansion. To generate traffic and fuel sales of property, amusement parks were created at the end of the lines at Lakeside Park and other spots.

After WWII ended in 1945, the network of trams was bought up by Virginia Transit Company to close it down, almost at once, and substitute it by a bus system. So, perhaps that streetcar trip was unavailable when Marie visited in 1946 depending on how quickly the transition happened.

As roads improved in the early 20th century with generous support from federal and state government funding, streetcars were unable to compete with automobiles and buses.



Postscript two:

Last week when I searched for a photo to illustrate the land surveying work done by my father on Miami’s highways, I found an aerial photo of the I-95 interchange built in the 1960s. When I read the article about the section of I-95 to be built in Miami, I was struck by the decisions of the federal, state and local officials who made the crass decision to run the interstate through the historical Overtown neighborhood thus destroying or dividing that historic African-American community.

This week I discovered the same tactic used in Richmond. In the 1950s the toll road, approved by the state of Virginia, led to the destruction of many historic locations, vistas and the built environment, including blocks of homes and businesses in Jackson Ward, Richmond’s oldest historically African-American community. This highway became I-95 which now has a raised highway a mere 75 feet away from Main Street Station. This is right at the level of the clock tower as you can see in the photo.

Notes
1 After Marie’s death, I found notes about the clubfoot exercises added to the card with the list of recommended Exercises for Infants she received from her doctor in 1945. That card indicates that she was doing clubfoot exercises on me as an infant! Those exercises were taken from the book Baby’s Daily Exercises by Dr. E.T. Wilkes
2 https://airlinefiles.com/virgin-america/81-national-regional-airlines/528-national-airlines-original-3
3 What Happened to the Railroads? https://americanhistory.si.edu/america-on-the-move/lives-railroad
4 Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga, TN https://www.tvrail.com/about-us/equipment/passenger-cars
5 Looking Back on the Fight for Equal Access to Public Accommodations https://www.epi.org/publication/fight-equal-access-public-accommodations/

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Dad’s “Can-Do Attitude” Served Him Well

Often stories tell us more about a person than facts. In describing my father, Paul, I’m going to start with a true story. In early 1944, Paul and a few of his army buddies are walking down Lincoln Road, the well-to-do shopping area of Miami Beach. Paul notices something sparkling in the asphalt along the edge of the road. With his ever-present pocket knife, he carefully digs out an impressive ring with a large faceted stone. He and his friends gawk—one offers to buy it from him. Paul declines. Later he takes it to Marie and asks her opinion. She describes it as “too gaudy”. Then she volunteers to take it to her jeweler to get a professional opinion about its worth.

Marie is told that this good-size stone is, in fact, a diamond! The two decide to have the stone set in a simple, elegant platinum setting to be mother’s engagement ring! False pride did not deter them for taking advantage of this opportunity. They were willing to seize the moment! This is part of what I describe as a “can-do” attitude.Yet, Marie and Paul did not share this unbelievable story with just anybody.

Today my youngest sister has transformed that special diamond into a necklace she wears every day. She enjoys telling the story when asked about her unusual necklace.


William Paul Neilson grew up in a large family living in a beautiful area of farms and forest near a pristine glacial lake. These are the green rolling hills of western New York state long known for its vineyards. During the late 1800’s and through the mid-to-late 1900’s, Penn Yan and surrounding Yates County were home to a large number of dairy farms, many settled by Danish immigrants and their descendants—like the Neilson family.

Born in 1921, Paul was the oldest boy. He had two sisters and two brothers. In those early years they lived on a farm near Penn Yan, New York. Penn Yan is the village located at the northern end of Keuka Lake, the central lake of the eleven Finger Lakes. Once you’ve seen a map (see the map below) you’ll understand the name for this group of long, narrow lakes. More than 100 million years ago, glaciers moved south with the huge ice sheets gouging out deep crevices in the land. When the ice receded, the crevices became these pristine group of lakes. All the creeks and lake waters drain from south to north to Lake Ontario.

This area is known as part of “upstate New York”. I’ve learned that any part of the state not in New York City is upstate, with downstate referring only to the greater New York City area!

About age twelve (1933), their father left the family and would soon start another family. Paul’s mother, Edith, moved her family into the unheated attic of a house belonging to her brother. This must have been a desperate move for a woman—divorced during the Depression and struggling to support her five children. Her youngest was still a toddler. The move to the village of Penn Yan would have been difficult for the children after knowing the freedom of farm life.

Edith depended on child support payments from their father. Often the payment would be late or not arrive at all. Edith struggled to care for the children. The population of the small village of Penn Yan was 4,517 in 1920. It had only grown to 5,308 by 1940, so employment for the mother was difficult to find. Eventually Edith found work in a men’s clothing factory and worked there until she retired about 1955.

My Uncle Bob, dad’s younger brother told us all these details after my father’s death. He described being sent to the post office to get the support money, and then, the many times it was not there. As boys, he and his brothers had blamed their mother because they thought “she had pushed father away”. Bob described how the boys hunted along the railroad tracks searching for any coal that had bounced out of the coal trains in an effort to heat their rooms. As teens, he and Paul had worked as golf caddies—not great wages, but sometimes decent tips. Probably they made money shoveling snow in the long winters. Bob told me they also made money as “pinboys” setting up the tenpins by hand in the early bowling alleys.

During these conversations with Uncle Bob, he vividly remembered Paul giving him money for a movie and a soda so Bob could pay for a date with his best girl—who became my Aunt Jean. Bob graduated from high school just two months before Paul went into the army in 1942. Bob seemed to hold Paul in high regard. He and I had a good rapport in sharing memories about Paul. Since my dad talked little about his early life, I’m still appreciative of Bob’s willingness to tell us about those years. It’s helped me to understand Paul better.

During his high school years at Penn Yan Academy, the local public school, Paul was a “big man on campus” because of his athletic abilities. Paul captained the football and basketball teams, played baseball and ran track. One of the few stories we heard from him about these years was a love story. He was a kid from a poor family and his high school sweetheart was from a wealthy family who did not approve of their dating. After graduation in 1940, her parents sent her to an out-of-town college in an effort to break their connection. Both Paul and this young women asserted that the separation would not change their relationship. But, as Dad told the story, apparently it did. He did not share any more details of this story.

Uncle Bob was quite surprised that Paul had told me about this love story. Bob confirmed that it had been hard on Paul. Perhaps this episode came up because Aunt Rosemary mentioned it first. Rosemary was four years younger than Paul. She moved to the Miami area about 1950 and was the only relative I ever had living nearby while growing up. In some ways, Rosemary was the big sister I never had.

There is no way to know if that broken romance was part of the reason Paul moved to Rochester sometime after high school graduation. Rochester was the largest city in the region. When Paul was inducted into the army in July, 1942 the records show he was 6’1” and weighed 162 lbs. That same record indicated he was working at a hotel in Rochester in an unknown position. One likely clue: the records on his induction papers list his civilian occupation as “clerk, general office”. Three years later on my birth certificate in August 1945, Marie listed Paul’s occupation as “accountant”. Those years in the army before he was sent overseas are a blank for us now—except that we know he met Marie while training at Miami Beach.

In 1945 he served in the U.S. Army in the Philippines preparing to take part in a possible invasion of Japan. Paul had been promoted to Staff Sergeant. He was a hard worker and comfortable in the company of men. In the baby book Marie kept about me, she recorded that Paul brought a silk kimono home as a gift for me—and one for her. Paul understood that Marie was interested in beautiful fabrics. From notes in that same baby book, I learned that they lived in an apartment at 1518 Drexel Avenue, Miami Beach.

Those Drexell Avenue apartments are now part of the historic district of Miami Beach! The twenty-eight unit, two story building was built in 1926 in the Mediterranean Revival style popular in that period. After returning from the Philippines and being demobilized in January 1946, Marie, Paul and infant Paula began their life together. They had a number of things to figure out.

How to make a living in civilian life? We know Paul worked for a time at the Biscayne Kennel Club, a popular dog racing and gambling facility on Miami Beach that only recently closed. We know he went to night school to learn to be a land surveyor—a job necessary for the growing cities of south Florida. Paul like working outdoors and was good with numbers. He helped survey some of the early cloverleaf entrances and exits to the new highways of Miami. He spent most of his working years as a surveyor for the City of Miami Beach.

I-95-construction-in-1960s

We are formed by the events that progress at our coming of age,” observed Robert Trout, news broadcaster for seven decades in a NPR interview. I thought about my father! By age twelve Paul had lived during the beginning of the Depression, saw his family split apart, moved from country to a village, struggled with poverty, became an admired high school athlete and shortly after school was drafted into the army and shipped 1500 miles away to train for war. Before being sent overseas he married and soon knew that his wife was pregnant. Each of these events did shape the father I grew up with. He wanted the best for his children, but we did not always agree on what was best for us.

Set for Adventure! Both my parents were interested in seeing our country. Once the youngest child reached five, we took family camping trips all across the U.S. However, their first adventure was aboard an airplane! Dad returned from WWII in January 1946. In June the small family boarded an airplane to visit his relatives in Penn Yan and her relatives in Richmond. Traveling with a ten-month old infant is always an adventure and a challenge–here is another example of their can-do approach This was my first airplane trip! And the last one they would take for almost twenty years.

Postscript

Of Note:
The Finger Lakes region is a central part of the Iroquois homeland. The Iroquois tribes are also known as The Haudenosaunee, or “people of the longhouse” which refers to their dwellings. The Iroquois confederacy includes the Seneca and Cayuga nations, for which the two largest Finger Lakes are named. Lake Keuka (pronounced KYOO-kah) is about 20 miles long and 187 feet deep at its deepest point. It is perhaps the Finger Lake that stands out most due to the Y-shaped channel at the north end, near Penn Yan, with a scenic bluff rising over 700 feet above the water level.

The unusual Y-shape contrasts with the long and narrow shapes of the other ten Finger Lakes. Formerly, Keuka Lake was referred to as Crooked Lake. Keuka means “canoe landing” in the Iroquois language and “lake with an elbow” in the Seneca language. Even today the crystal clear water water of Lake Keuka is used as the public water supply for Penn Yan, Hammondsport, Branchport, and Keuka College.

Nearby Seneca Falls was the site of the first women’s rights convention in the U.S. Attended by almost 200 women, the Seneca Falls Convention advertised itself as “a convention to discuss the social, civil, and religious condition and rights of woman”. The convention met July 19–20, 1848. It was organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, two abolitionists who met at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London.

The proposals put forth by the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments, which was presented at the convention, reflect the strong association between Iroquois women and their culture and with the organizers of the Seneca Falls Convention. The positive influence is clear. Willow Michele Hagan writes more about this connection:
https://www.centerwest.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/iroquois_native_american_hagan.pdf

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Maternal Ties: More Than Apron Strings


Marie and Paul came from quite different worlds. Both had experienced difficulties in their childhoods. Both my parents have been major influences on me and my life choices. I’m starting with Marie’s story because she was the original resident of Miami Beach where the story began. Marie grew up on Miami Beach when it was barely a city. Dad was sent from upstate New York to south Florida for military training.

By her high school years Marie Virginia Donovan was an accomplished athlete despite the fact that she had been born with a clubfoot (talipes equinovarus). At school and in community organizations she ran track, played volleyball, softball, and badminton. Her 1939 Fisher High School basketball team was the state champion! Mother was tall. She was 5’7’’–tall and slender. When I was a teenager and moaned about my height of 5’10 ½”, she recalled that she was as tall for her generation as I was for mine. I was unaware of her earlier disability until, on a hike, one of my Girl Scout friends asked, “Miz Neilson, what’s wrong with your leg?”

Marie calmly explained, to my nosy friend, that she had been born with a clubfoot which meant her leg had been twisted to the side pulling the foot, calf, and leg out of line. Without help this would have kept her from walking. Later we, in the family, learned that as an infant and toddler she had worn a metal brace on that leg. Her mother removed the brace several times daily to move her leg, to stretch, and to massage it. Rarely did Marie discuss this part of her early life with her children, so our knowledge is spotty. Somehow she healed and began to walk and even run.

Until I began genealogy research several years ago, I believed what I was told: that she was an only child. However, census records revealed that her parents had a daughter, Margaret, born two years earlier. Census records also indicate that Marie’s parents separated not long after her birth. More census records indicate that Marie and her mother, Mamie Coghill Donovan, lived with the Coghill relatives in Richmond, VA. Her father, Albert J. Donovan, who had been a policeman moved from Richmond to Toledo, Ohio. He worked as a structural iron worker until his death there in 1947. His body was sent back and buried in the same cemetery as that of his estranged wife. Certainly a series of unknowns among these bare facts.

In Richmond, as a youngster, Marie was sent to Catholic School but apparently “acted out” and was then sent to public school. At another time she described this childhood escapade: before going to have a formal photograph taken, she took scissors and chopped off her long hair. Her mother then cut it straight across and they went for the portrait anyway. We heard these stories as children. We did not have a context or perception to ask more questions—or perhaps they were deflected.

One way to describe the child she told us about is as a “willful child”–this was seen as an especially odious character trait in a girl. It seems Marie, as a young girl was a “handful”! Perhaps this is why Marie, sometime around age 10, was taken to the wilds of 1929 Miami Beach, Florida to live with her mother’s sister Anne, her husband and their adult son. Perhaps the Depression may have been part of this decision. Now we will never know why. Her aunt Anne was known to her family as, “Duckie”, a nickname, a ubiquitous southern custom at the time. Marie was raised by her Aunt Duckie. The two seemed to get along well. When I was born in 1945, I was spoiled as a young child by this woman who I, too, knew as Aunt Duckie.

Marie moved to Miami Beach and became part of her aunt’s family. Duckie and her husband were part of the “social set” of Miami Beach in the 1930s. When Marie, as a 16 year old, went to the police chief and asked for a driver’s license he asked her if she could drive. “Well, I drove myself here!” she replied and she got that driver’s license—never did take a driver’s test. My maternal grandmother Mamie Coghill (Marie’s mother) stayed with her family in Richmond. Again, we do not know why…. The large Coghill family (eight children) in Richmond seems to have been well-off judging from the few photos Marie has saved for us. Marie’s Miami Beach family lived with fine china, Duckie wore furs and they shopped on Lincoln Road, still a wealthy shopping area today. The few family photos I have from this time period seem to indicate some wealth as you saw in the above photos.

Marie regularly attended Miami Beach Community Church evidenced by the delicate attendance pins she passed along to us. Additionally within a month of my birth she had enrolled me in what was called the Cradle Roll of that church. Her high school friends included Celia Mangles who became our family dentist—rare to have a woman doctor in the 1950s. I remember Dr. Mangles office because her mother was the receptionist and she always had a small dog with her behind the desk. Even then I liked dogs.

Miami Beach of this era was a “sundown town” meaning African Americans were not to be in town after 6:00 p.m. Black workers needed a police-issued “pass” to avoid police questioning after 6 p.m. Black tourists were not allowed in hotels, but those hotels did book black entertainers to amuse their all-white guests. Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and others were required to stay the night in the segregated Overtown neighborhood of Miami. Even in the 1960s and 1970s when Diana Ross and the Supremes performed on Miami Beach, they could not stay at those hotels.1

Anti-Semitism had long limited property ownership and housing opportunities for the Jewish population. “Gentiles Only” signs were common among local businesses and hotels. In some cases Jews and Gentiles were required to use separate entrances. In 1949, by a local ordinance, anti-Semitism, was officially outlawed, but anti-Semitism thrived in many forms despite a large number of Jewish residents and visitors.2

Mother seems to have destroyed an earlier scrapbook containing photos of her girlhood. Each of the five photos I have of her and her sports teams has swaths of glue across the back where they had been pasted somewhere else. I’m glad to have these photos to give a picture of Marie as a young woman in the late 1930s and early 1940s. We see, in these photos, her commitment to athletics and being part of the teams she enjoyed.

Mother was an accomplished seamstress when she married in 1944. From my earliest years, she was always interested in fashion and fabrics. I have fond memories of shopping for fabric for casual outfits for my sisters and later, memories of choosing the luxurious fabrics mother used to make formals for me or for the elegant ballet tutus for my sister. Until we were teens, mother sewed new “Easter dresses” for each of us—often with drawstring purses she made to match our dresses. At Halloween, Marie used her imagination and her sewing skills to provide us with unusual costumes.

Marie taught me to sew as a young girl. I sewed some of my clothes even while in college. Sometimes today, when I am sewing, I recall a particular sewing skill she taught me. Example: in 1966 she created a beautiful white silk formal for me, but as she was joining the bodice to the skirt she got a drop of blood on the white silk of the skirt. I was there watching as she dabbed a bit of her own saliva on the spot to wipe away the blood stain. It worked! She explained it worked because our saliva is much the same composition as our blood. I know that my own eye for fabric combinations began at home with her guidance.

When I left for college in 1963 mother helped me plan my wardrobe. She sewed two reversible wrap-around skirts popular that year. She helped me pick out two blazers and then skirts to mix and match. She knit me two beautiful mohair sweaters—one soft pink and the other forest green—both were stunning (and also itchy). In 1963, leaving home on that Greyhound bus for college in Tennessee was my first big step “out of the nest”.

Decades later I learned that my father had said to her, “If we only have enough money to send one child to college, it should be Karl because he is the boy.” Marie did not confront his sexism directly. She just said, “Let’s take it one step at a time and see how it goes.” I had no idea about this attitude while I was growing up since I had always done well in school.

Now you’ve met my mother, Marie, and you now know some details about her people, where she lived, some about our relationship and a sense of who she was in the world. Marie, in my experience was a kind woman–especially kind to me during my difficult teen years. Her sense of humor could have us all laughing at times.

Notes:
1 https://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/100-years-the-dark-and-dirty-history-of-miami-beach-7552169
2 https://www.miaminewtimes.com/news/100-years-the-dark-and-dirty-history-of-miami-beach-7552169
3 History of Religious Freedom in Florida https://www.statutesandstories.com/blog_html/history-of-religious-freedom-in-florida/

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Recreation: Carefully Managed

USO activities during WWII. Note the young woman’s official USO armband! She was an “approved” junior hostess–approved by the USO, that is!

1943, Miami Beach, Florida
What do I know about these two people who grew up more than a thousand miles apart, who would meet and marry in 1944? What did I know about the social norms of that decade? I do know my mother and father met on Miami Beach when Marie, as a resident of a community inundated with GIs, did her part “to keep morale high” before the men were shipped overseas. My mother, Marie, mentioned in passing having participated in social activities, like dances, to entertain some of the soldiers. She was a “hometown girl” doing her civic duty! Marie never mentioned volunteering as a USO junior hostess, but from my reading this seems most likely.

Paul, my father, was a tall, athletic young man from upstate New York sent to warm, sunny Florida for military training and then an unknown future. He was doing his civic duty to fight the war overseas. The Great Depression was part of the background for all of these recruits and for the local residents of every community swamped with military men. Military installations became a great boost to the local economy. The tidal wave of young men also became a burden to local communities.

The Challenge of a Dramatically Expanded Military
As Time described the situation, “the United States had to meet the challenge of housing a dramatically expanded military that was stationed at home indefinitely. Officials and citizens alike fretted about what would happen as more men volunteered or were drafted. How would towns adjacent to military bases cope? How would the men fare while they waited? What was the best way to rein in the power of the waiting ground force as it prepared for the bloodiest war in history?” 1

On Miami Beach, hotel rooms became barracks, hotel dining rooms became mess halls, a movie theater became a testing center, hotels became administrative offices, hotel pools and the ocean were used to teach life saving techniques, golf courses became parade grounds, and the beach was used for rifle ranges and physical training.2

German submarines, or U-boats, aimed their torpedoes at tankers and freighters along the eastern coast of the United States to disrupt delivery of supplies as well as to lower morale; sinking ships burned within sight of American civilians. The Germans sank 24 ships in Florida waters during the war, eight of them off Palm Beach County between February and May of 1942.” Reports of Germans coming ashore from submarines were also of ongoing concern for all the residents along both coasts of Florida during the war years.

Note the oversize portrait on the far left. FDR overlooks the GIs in the Dayroom of this UFO Hall
as the soldiers enjoy their “Home Away From Home”.

What was the purpose of the USO
USO clubs were intended as a “Home Away from Home” for the military personnel and workers in wartime industry located in more than 3,000 communities in the Western Hemisphere. They provided soldiers a place to eat, write a letter back home, play games, or simply relax. The USO provided all services including meals, snacks, overnight accommodations for free except for a few items like packages of cigarettes. The organizational framework for the USO was highly structured at the national and local levels including a USO Manual for Community Conducted Operations even though it was considered a civilian agency. Only the Director and the Assistant Director were paid. All the female volunteers were very carefully screened and never compensated.3

Basic premise: The newly formed USO would handle “on-leave recreation of the men in the armed forces” and would operate separate from military control.

The USO both reflected the social conventions of the era and reinforced those conventions. Racially integrated USO facilities were the exception. The women who became those “unpaid female volunteers” for the USO took their organizational skills learned in their homes, religions and other community organizations to build those 3,000 or more USO community centers. Class and race distinctions as well as age distinctions dictated who would pass the “screening tests” for a woman to be chosen to serve either as a “senior hostess” or a “junior hostess” at the USO facilities. Religious participation was encouraged by the USO. On weekends, churches were filled with young soldiers who came from bases all around. At times, families invited the soldiers to their homes for Sunday dinner.

Sex discrimination was evident everywhere. Women who participated in the war effort as WACs, WAVES, military nurses, or as pilots ferrying planes were harassed and often labeled “unwomanly”. One historian wrote, “life as a female member of the military carried its own unique set of burdens, discriminations, and humiliations. Many Americans… could not imagine female military personnel serving any purpose other than to grant sexual favors to servicemen.”4

Historic background of the USO
also known as the United Service Organization for National Defense

President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted the morale of military personnel to remain high and believed that current service organizations would be better suited for the job than the Department of Defense. In contrast, the Department of Defense felt that they should control every aspect of the soldier’s life. However, the leaders of The Salvation Army, Jewish Welfare Board (JWB), National Catholic Community Service (NCCS), Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), and National Traveler’s Aid Association all believed that their organizations were better suited for the responsibility.

Fortunately, a compromise was reached. The United Service Organizations for National Defense (USO) resulted from a Presidential order February 4, 1941. The USO was incorporated in New York state as a private, nonprofit organization, supported by private citizens and corporations. The six civilian service organizations would be in charge, and the military would provide building supplies, locations, and labor when needed and available. For example, in a town that did not have a suitable building to use as a club, the military would build a structure using supplies and labor from the local military base.5

Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses During World War II was an excellent book to answer many of my questions about the USO program and the role of junior hostesses in particular. Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun by Meghan Winchell, writes that “making light conversation was part of the hostess’ overarching role: to provide G-rated entertainment that would keep the men away from alcohol and prostitution.” Winchell used oral histories or questionnaires from seventy women who volunteered in the United Service Organizations (USO) as junior and senior hostesses. Winchell works as an associate professor and the history department chairwoman at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln. Her expertise was featured in “USO — For The Troops,” a television documentary that aired on Public Broadcasting System in November, 2016.

Traditional “woman’s work”: supporting men
Winchell believes hostesses don’t receive more recognition regarding their World War II service because what they were doing was considered fun and just traditional “woman’s work”. Additionally Winchell said, “I argue that they were crucial in maintaining morale. “One [hostess] I interviewed said she would go back home and write letter after letter for servicemen, because she wanted to help them.
“Dancing was fun, but they danced their shoes off, often through midnight, never with the same guy … They knew these guys were going to get on big transport ships and go off to war.”6

Young women had to be approved by a local USO committee to be allowed to volunteer. Some USO facilities required fingerprinting as part of the application. All required the junior hostesses to carry official USO identification before being admitted to a USO facility including volunteering at the popular USO canteens. The men were expected to wear their military uniforms to any USO event. The women were instructed to wear civilian clothes. No slacks were permitted.

Interview with Elizabeth Zimmerman, a Brooklyn junior hostess in the 1940’s

Diane Lade, a writer for the Orlando Sentinel interviewed Elizabeth Zimmerman, now over 100. She was 25 when she was interviewed, fingerprinted and approved as a junior hostess for the USO in Brooklyn. Zimmerman said that doing her duty during World War II meant putting on a nice dress and making conversation. She smiled and nodded, knowing the stranger she was listening to could be heading off to battle and this might be his last cup of coffee with a friendly, young woman.

As a USO junior hostess in Brooklyn, she chatted with servicemen every Thursday night. She danced and played ping-pong with them while they talked about home. Zimmerman added, “My job was to cheer the boys up, to make life more pleasant for them. I made it very clear I wasn’t in the military, but I thought it was important to do something.”

Interviewer Diane Lade wrote that Zimmmerman believed “…her job was to remind soldiers and sailors that American life was worth fighting for without breaching 1940s morality standards.” Lade wrote that Zimmerman recalled, “she was not allowed to drink, smoke or wear slacks. She had to dance with any serviceman who asked, as long as he was not rude or inappropriate. She served under the watchful eyes of older, usually married, senior hostesses.”7

Understanding the Context
Being a hostess and boosting morale was considered civic duty. The presence of women in the USO clubs was also thought to encourage men in battle. If they were treated as protectors and even VIPs by women they met—all the more reason to face combat and win the war.

Hostesses who’d spend their nights jitterbugging with troops also mended their uniforms, helped them write letters home and snagged them drinks, donuts and sandwiches. It’s estimated that 1.5 million volunteers participated during the conflict. Junior Hostesses were required to volunteer a minimum of two hours per week and only registered hostesses could attend social activities for service men. A junior Hostess who worked the minimum required hours from 1941-1945 would have earned 490 hours, just shy of a service pin with one star.

Observations from USO online publication, Thursday, Feb 4, 2016

Article:In the USO’s Early Years, Hostesses Provided a Wholesome Morale Boost
“You have to think of it in context,” said Winchell, the associate professor of history at Nebraska Wesleyan University. “All of the young men who were eligible were in the military. There were very few civilian defense workers. If you were not in [the military] then you were rejected. If you were an 18 to 20-year-old woman, then the USO was the only game in town.”
If games have rules, this one had lots of them, designed mostly to keep the USO in the business of boosting morale among the troops while keeping it out of the dating game.
“No young lady will be permitted to leave the Service Club until the dance is over,” stated Rule No. 7 on a handout of guidelines for junior hostesses. Rule 8 warned, “At the conclusion of the dance, girls will leave only with their chaperones. Those coming in private cars will leave immediately after the dance.”
In “Hail Hostess,” an instructional USO pamphlet from the early 1940s, women were warned away from romance with words like, “The boys have a lot of things on their minds and you are probably not one of them!” They cautioned girls about unmentioned wives and girlfriends back home.

“They wanted middle-class, mostly white women who were considered sexually respectable,” said Winchell. “The USO knew women mattered to morale—the men needed company of women. [But] they didn’t want them having sex.” USO hostesses were prescreened “good girls” who could provide comfort in the way of conversation, dancing and the occasional picnic outing.

While on duty, hostesses were not allowed to smoke on the dance floor, in the canteen or at the front desk, etc., they were not allowed to drink intoxicants, were not allowed to dance with another girl when there were servicemen present, were not allowed to refuse to dance with anyone unless they were being un-gentlemanly, were not to indulge in conspicuous dancing, and were discouraged from chewing gum. They were expected to be a lady at all times. USO also had rules that governed how a Junior Hostess should dress:

Colored socks and high heels too
are very odd looking and just won’t do
so if you’re smart and very wise
Just wear heels and economize.

Don’t wear slacks to the USO
Pants are made for Jack and Joe
Slacks are made for for a time and a place
So don’t wear them here and be a disgrace.

A backless dress will never do
And not too short or loud
The simpler ones are more becoming
And you’ll be stepping along with the crowd.
(USO Junior Hostess Manual – Macon Georgia8

Married women were the senior hostesses, performing “motherly” tasks, while the single women were the hostesses: chaste dates for the servicemen. Hostesses were not supposed to get emotionally or physically invoiced with the servicemen. But while the conduct of hostesses was physically respectable by the USO standards, many found their future husbands at USO dances.

In 1942 the U.S. was recruiting women for war service. Which would you chose? If you even had a choice….

In my fantasy I can see Marie and Paul meeting at the UFO recreation center while playing a competitive game of ping pong. I see them each complimenting the other on a dramatic shot. Then they sat down and drank cokes. Before long they grabbed the paddles and kept playing. Both were accomplished athletes and Marie would have played to win!

Marie and Paul married in June of 1944. Six months later, with his basic training complete, Paul was shipped overseas. At the war’s end, Paul returned from the Philippines in early January, 1946. Two surprises greeted him. He first met his new daughter under a Christmas tree! Since his original release was scheduled to be before Christmas 1945, Mother had decorated and discarded two fir trees. Marie wanted to celebrate that holiday with her new husband and their six month old daughter, Paula. Now she could!

Neither of my parents were interested in talking about their early years or childhoods. Sometimes we would get snippets of information, but that was rare. As children we didn’t know to ask the right questions! We never really questioned them about how they met or about those early years together. I do have some scraps of information from other relatives and from photographs and a memory book mother kept.

These details about the material reality and the social conventions that dominated my parents early years define and describe my own upbringing as a girl. Their experiences during those war years shaped them and certainly influenced me and my upbringing. I was taught to “be a lady”. This was a strong message I received throughout my girlhood.

By 1952 we were a lively family of six involved in school activities, scouting, sports and our family camping trips. Talk about their early years did not often come up. My father worked as a land surveyor. Mother was a homemaker with a full-time job raising four kids while Dad worked long hours outside the home. We knew that mother was an only child and the dad was one of five children raised by his mother after his father divorced his mother. That was about it. Only later did we learn more details and the secrets both kept.

Postscript

“The troops that passed through Miami Beach claimed that they had been sent to ‘the most beautiful boot camp in America.’ Many of these young servicemen and women “got sand in their shoes” and vowed to return if they survived the war.”88 And return they did, packing up their families and heading South to take advantage of the GI benefits and buying the houses that were popping up all over the area. Others returned year after year for vacations. Others returned when they retired. Just as Miami Beach had made an indelible impact on the young GI’s, the returning veterans had a major impact on the economic future of South Florida.”9

1 “The Surprising Fear That Created the USO”, Erin Blakemore February 5, 2016 https://time.com/4205222/uso-75-years/
2 http://www.miamibeachvets.com/
1bb http://www.pbchistoryonline.org/page/the-enemy-presence-german-u-boats
3 http://www.ww2uso.org/history.html
4 “Fort Lipstick and the Making of June Cleaver: Gender Roles in American Propaganda and Advertising, 1941-1961”, by Samantha Vandermeade https://commons.lib.jmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1043&context=mhr
5 http://www.ww2uso.org/history.html
6 “Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun: The Story of USO Hostesses During World War II, Meghan Winchell, 2008
7 http://digitaledition.orlandosentinel.com/tribune/article_popover.aspx?guid=f3b52118-c403-467d-9bb3-339241ffaa6e
8 http://www.ww2uso.org/history.html
9 http://www.miamibeachvets.com/

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Stratoliner, She Flies Above the Clouds! It’s 1940!


Author’s note: I’ve recently come across a flight attendant blog by Heather Poole who writes about flying as a flight attendant in 2020. One of her quotes, “Once a flight attendant, always a flight attendant” helps explain my ongoing interest in the women (and now some men) who serve as Safety Directors on airships past and present.

Weeks ago as part of my historical overview to reflect on the career of women flight attendants, I began this post about TWA’s luxurious Stratoliner. Today I begin to weave the threads of flight attendant history with my own personal story. Challenging, at times, but engrossing for me.

In 1940 only movie stars, the wealthy, and business travelers could afford the price of airfare. At that time, essentially all travelers were traveling first class. Air travel may have looked luxurious in the carefully posed photos of the 1930s — and it no doubt was in many ways—but it was still an incredibly grueling way to travel. The airplane could drop 100 feet at any moment. The lack of cabin pressurization prior to 1940 could cause altitude sickness which meant folks could feel awful. At times, passengers and crew, in flight, needed to receive oxygen.

One historian summed it up writing, “Despite the airlines’ cheerful advertising, early air travel was far from comfortable. Flying was loud, cold, and unsettling. Airliners were not pressurized, so they flew at low altitudes and were often bounced about by wind and weather. Air sickness was common. Airlines provided many amenities to ease passenger stress, but air travel remained a rigorous adventure well into the 1940s.

Flying was also something only business travelers or the wealthy could afford. But despite the expense and discomforts, each year commercial aviation attracted thousands of new passengers willing to sample the advantages and adventure of flight.”2

TWA’s Boeing Stratoliner changed everything!. The Stratoliner was a major achievement! TWA boasted that it was the biggest airliner ever built. It was the first commercial aircraft with a pressurized cabin, allowing it to cruise at an altitude of 20,000 feet! This altitude kept it well above many weather disturbances. The Model 307 Stratoliner had a capacity for a crew of five (two pilots, a flight engineer and two air hostesses) and 33 passengers. During the 1940s many of the other commercial planes in use were not pressurized.

TWA wanted the world to know about this new airship! Print advertising was an important part of spreading the message that luxury and adventure were now available to everyone. And that this relatively new flying metal bird was safe enough for the entire family to come along. Women were still a minority of passengers, but by the end of the 1930s women comprised about 25% of the flying public. 4

Stratoliner Club coins to identify the bearer as a distinguished flyer on the new pressurized airplane!

In 1941, such an “high-altitude” flight was a remarkable experience, which TWA marked with Stratoliner Club certificates, coins (see the photo above), and other memorabilia including playing cards. That Stratoliner Club certificate, suitable for framing, was awarded to the “small group of distinguished air travelers who have participated in the historical development of the science of upper-altitude air travel.” The passenger’s name was carefully scripted on the certificate and signed by Jack Frye, President of TWA.

TWA’s interiors were created by well-known industrial designer Raymond Loewy, and fitted out with furnishings from the upscale retailer Marshall Fields. On daytime flights passengers had access to a chaise lounge and dressing rooms. A sleeper version offered 16 berths and nine chaise lounges.1

I’m always looking for first-person accounts of those who lived in an earlier era. Ernest K. Gann, author and American Airlines pilot, described the flights in the early years, “The airplanes smell of hot oil and simmering aluminum, disinfectant, feces, leather, and puke…the stewardesses, short-tempered and reeking of vomit, come forward [to the flight deck] as often as they can for what is a breath of comparatively fresh air.”2

Another quip I read from a TWA air hostess who flew in the late 1940s was that the crew often joked among themselves that TWA stood for “Tired Women’s Association”.3

Most people still rode trains or buses for intercity travel because flying was so expensive and possibly unsafe. A coast-to-coast round trip cost around $260, about half of the price of a new automobile. Much of the country was still trying to recover from the Great Depression.

Yet, America’s airline industry expanded rapidly, from carrying only 6,000 passengers in 1930 to more than 450,000 by 1934, to 1.2 million by 1938. Still, this was only a tiny fraction of the traveling public flew. The idea of “coach” service at a lower fare was not introduced until the 1950s.

1939, War in Europe!
On September 1, 1939, Germany (under Hitler) invaded Poland from the west; two days later, France and Britain declared war on Germany, beginning World War II. As a counter-attack, on September 17, Soviet troops invaded Poland from the east.

Many in the US, both politicians and citizens, were determined to not be drawn into another war in Europe. Isolationism was a great political force in the U.S.

Between 1935 and 1937 Congress passed three “Neutrality Acts” intended to keep the U.S. out of war, by making it illegal for Americans to sell or transport arms, or other war materials to belligerent nations. Yet many in the U.S. were alarmed by all the nations invaded or threatened by the advances of Germany, Italy and later Japan.

President Roosevelt was extremely concerned about the possibility of Nazi Germany controlling all of Europe including Britain. In an effort to supply military aid to its foreign allies during World War II while still remaining officially neutral in the conflict, Congress passed the Lend-Lease Act, and FDR signed it into law in March, 1941. In a novel approach, the U.S. government could lend or lease (rather than sell) war supplies to any nation deemed “vital to the defense of the United States.” Most importantly, passage of the Lend-Lease Act enabled a struggling Great Britain to continue fighting against Germany virtually on its own.

With the Japanese bombing of the US Naval fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 the U.S. was drawn into World War II. Four days later, FDR declared the U.S. to be at war with Japan. Two days after the war declaration, on December 13, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt took the first step toward mobilizing airlines’ resources after the Pearl Harbor attack. FDR directed Secretary of War Henry Stimson to take control of any civil airline assets necessary for the operation of the military air transport system. The United States was suddenly involved in two major wars, one in the Pacific against Japan and the other in Europe against Germany and Italy. Troops were deployed overseas, and combat air forces were formed and located in strategic areas of the world.

Casual air travel virtually ceased in the United States. A tight priority list ensured that only those serving the war effort flew. As a result, aircraft flew more than 80 percent full, 20 percent higher than before the war. The military requisitioned 200 of the nation’s 360 airliners, along with airline personnel.

Wartime Mobilization of the Airlines!
Some in the airline industry’s Air Transport Association were planning for a possible wartime mobilization of the airlines as early as 1937! Records indicate that plans had been drafted that year by Edgar Gorrell for the Air Transport Association. As a result of the ordered mobilization of the airline resources, the Air Transport Command, ATC, a governmental agency, was formed in 1942 to coordinate the transport of aircraft, cargo, and personnel throughout the country and around the world. Major airlines helped with the organization, and the aircraft manufacturers came through with the planes needed for the difficult missions supplying a worldwide airlift campaign. ATC was responsible for the movement of supplies, equipment, and key personnel–basically a major airlift–within its sector and coordinated its activities with other divisions to provide a worldwide delivery system.

Repainting TWA’s Stratoliner: olive-drab camouflage replaced the airline markings until 1946!

TWA’s five Stratoliners were transferred to the government. The Stratoliners, ideal for long-range operations as combination passenger/cargo carriers were converted to U.S. Army Air Forces specifications. The Stratoliners then were designated C-75s and the planes’ heavy pressurization equipment was removed! Extra fuel tanks were added and olive-drab camouflage replaced the airline markings. Maximum gross weight rose from 44,000 to 55,000 pounds.

Maintained and operated by TWA personnel under Air Transport Command’s new Intercontinental Division, the C-75s began flying to war zones across the North and South Atlantic as required, independent of any domestic transcontinental operations. They were flown by the airline’s senior pilots and flight engineers, wearing the same uniforms as Army Air Forces personnel but with civilian insignia.

TWA pilots flew the Stratoliner for the Air Transport Command wearing the same uniforms as Army Air Forces personnel but with civilian insignia.

The early transatlantic flights were all pioneering efforts for the TWA crews, since the C-75s were the first land transports to operate between the United States and the European theater. Regularly scheduled flights soon included Scotland and England, typically via Newfoundland and Greenland, or the Azores to North African bases and on to India and China. Ascension Island, an isolated volcanic island located in the Atlantic Ocean, was the usual stop for the long haul flights between Brazil and North Africa.

Early on, a TWA C-75 made a survey flight on February 26, 1942, as a first step in establishing routes from Washington, DC to Cairo. Three of the five C-75s–remember these are the TWA Stratoliners now operating as troop transports–were allocated to transatlantic service and the other two to the Washington-Cairo route. The latter flights, many of which took off from Washington’s National Airport, often lasted 20 hours. By the end of the war The Stratoliners, or C-75s, as the government called them had flown 3000 transatlantic flights to Africa and Europe. The experience and expertise gained from these strategic flights would serve the civilian TWA operations well after the war ended. TWA’s five Stratoliners compiled a nearly perfect safety record during the war.

In the early 1940s the uniforms designed by chief hostess Gladys Entriken were still being worn. This is the white linen summer uniform.

I’ve been unable to find any information about TWA Air Hostesses during WWII as of this writing. Yet, this is where my own story overlaps with these international events.

My mother, Marie, was raised on Miami Beach, Florida when it was a small town dependent on winter tourists arriving on the railroad. When mother traveled north to visit relatives in Richmond, Virginia she traveled on the Florida East Coast Railway. Florida was the least populated of the southern states in the early 1900s. In the 1930s many military bases were being built throughout the state. The military had taken advantage of the strategic location by the sea, the mild temperatures, flat land, low land prices and mild weather to train year-round.

Army training on the beach at Miami Beach, Florida, circa 1942

My father, Paul, grew up in upstate New York in the Finger Lakes region. The U.S.army shipped him to Miami Beach for training most likely on a troop train on the Florida East Coast Railway. Both Marie and Paul were recent high school graduates caught up in this national emergency. Over two million soldiers, nearly 15 percent of the GI Army, the largest force the US ever raised, were trained in Florida. What were the chances that these two people who lived more than a thousand miles apart would meet and marry in 1944 before my father departed for the Philippines?

1 p. TWA, Kansas City’s Hometown Airline, Julius A. Karadh and Rick Montgomery,2001 p.24
2 https://airandspace.si.edu/exhibitions/america-by-air/online/innovation/innovation14.cfm
3 Try Walking Across, Donna Holden, Helen Parker Holden
4 Conquest of the Skies: A History of Commercial Aviation in America, Carl Solberg 1979 p.275

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Essential or Expendable?

Both the U.S. government and the airline industry have played Russian roulette, that is, a dangerous and deadly game with the lives of flight attendants–all 120,000 of them working for U.S. airlines! Only recently have various airline officials voice concern about protecting their “team members”. That is their public face.

My mother, a wise woman, often advised me, “Actions speak louder than words”. Let’s examine the actions of the airlines and the government officials who should be protecting the public–both citizens and employees. The U.S. airlines have treated their front line employees including flight attendants as expendable. Full disclosure here: I worked as a flight attendant for TWA from 1969-1985 and was an active member of my union, the Independent Federation of Flight Attendants.

Flight attendants are at very high risk for COVID-19
A recent report from the New York Times shows just how at-risk flight attendants are to contracting COVID-19.

Aside from healthcare workers, dentists, and paramedics, flight attendants have among the highest risk of getting COVID-19, given the amount of time they spend in confined spaces with others. Study the chart from the New York Times published March 15, 2020. (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/03/15/business/economy/coronavirus-worker-risk.html) All airline employees should have been provided with protective gear. Some overseas airlines were screening passengers and requiring each to wear face mask as a condition of making the flight. No American airline has done this! Today the United States now has the highest number of known cases of coronavirus in the world.

Time magazine on April 3,2020
Among the first American workers to raise the alarm about a potential COVID-19 pandemic were flight attendants. In late January, as the virus spread outside the Chinese province of Hubei, airline crews staffing international flights to Asia began expressing concerns, asking for disinfection supplies and permission to self-quarantine if they thought they had been exposed. “We were begging to be allowed to wear masks,” one flight attendant for a major U.S. airline tells TIME.

Two months later, as flight crews remain on the front lines of the fight against the virus, they fear airlines’ failure to heed their concerns has turned them into a dangerous part of the problem. In interviews and emails with TIME, more than a dozen flight attendants describe a continuing shortage of basic protection and a confounding lack of guidance over how to do their jobs without spreading the disease. Their gravest concern: that after weeks of working without proper supplies, they have been exposed to thousands of cases and in turn become primary transmitters to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who continue to fly every day. “It’s awful, because we know we’re definitely spreading it, seat to seat, city to city, person to person, hotel to hotel,” one Atlanta-based flight attendant who has been in the job for 15 years tells TIME. https://time.com/5815492/flight-attendants-coronavirus/


Behind the scenes: Delta Air Lines, via an email communication to 25,000 employees, has instructed flight attendants who test positive for COVID-19 to “refrain from notifying” their colleagues or posting about their conditions on social media. (from April, 10 New York Post article)

Flight attendants and their unions have been pleading for help from their employers since the outbreak began months ago. On March 22, one reporter wrote about American airlines disciplining flight attendants who wore face masks. By April 8, American was scrambling for face masks to protect their 18,000 employees at their Dallas-Ft. Worth facility.

Late in March, 2020 American told workers, including flight attendants, that they could start wearing face masks to work but they had to bring their own. Now with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shifting recommendations to everyone wearing a mask, the carrier is looking (finally) to supply the equipment.

According to the Dallas News article on April 8, 2020:

“Tammy Spence, a customer service manager for American at DFW, showed up to work yesterday with a sewing machine with plans to make masks out of old promotional T-shirts. American management got behind the effort and sent workers to Walmart to find fabric.
Spence said by the end of Tuesday, there were a few dozen workers cutting fabric. By Wednesday, employees had brought more than a dozen sewing machines and began finishing the first batch of masks.
So far, about 100 employees have stopped by to volunteer. Since only about 20 people at a time can work in a conference room turned into a sewing center, they have been working in shifts. They are spread out roughly six feet apart to follow social distancing guidelines.”

In 2018, American Airlines was the most profitable airline group, generating revenue of 44.54 billion U.S. dollars that year. Why were they not setting aside money for emergencies like this one?
An enterprising woman had to bring her sewing machine from home to jump-start the efort to supply this minimum of protection for the 18,000 American employees in the Dallas/Ft.Worth area.

Airline Profits for the Last Ten Years Have Soared
Delta made profit of $4.1 billion for 2019
American made profit of $1.4 billion for 2019
United made profit of $2.3 billion for 2019

Expose: Corporate Greed
For the last ten profitable years major airlines — including Delta Airlines, United Airlines, and Southwest — have used roughly 96% of their cash flow on stock buybacks. Stock buybacks function to reduce the number of outstanding shares to push stock prices higher thus enriching all who currently own stock. Rather than invest in their businesses and the labor force groups who generate those profits, these companies were conniving to enrich shareholders. The airline executives also awarded themselves big bonuses for these wise decisions!

If these airline companies had invested most of the profits into building a financial cushion to protect themselves from the cycles of highs and lows we would be in a different place today. If the companies had developed a national aviation-preparedness plan for responding to the threat of communicable diseases, as advised by the Government Accountability Office in 2015, flight attendants would not be using make-shift masks and risking infection each time they go to work. (More about that 2015 directive later.)

If the airlines had shared the profits with employees by making fair contracts with the flight attendants and mechanics and pilots, their companies would have benefited. If the airline executives had decided to invest heavily in better quality service for passengers it would have been a wonderful surprise. Everyone passenger would have appreciated more leg room for every ticket holder on every flight.

Instead, wealthy shareholders, who now hire private jets for their trips, are now richer thanks to those stock buybacks–what a scheme! Instead, the airlines are turning to the government for a bailout because they neglected to invest in their own future. Instead, front line employees are now exposed to a deadly virus without resources to protect themselves. Read more on this subject:
https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/airline-bailout-coronavirus-share-buyback-debate-trump-economy-aoc-2020-3-1029006175

Why were these “legacy carriers” not prepared for an emergency like this? Why did not a chunk of those profits go to a preparedness plan?

In 2015 the General Accounting Office (GAO), as the congressional watchdog over government spending, was asked to review the preparedness of the U.S. aviation system to respond to communicable diseases after the Ebola outbreak.

What did the report recommend? Quick answer: the General Accountability Office told the federal government to develop a comprehensive nationwide plan to prepare the U.S. aviation system and to protect the aviation system against a collapse of this magnitude!

True Preparedness. What Could have Been!

WASHINGTON, D.C. In a report in 2015, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recommended that the Department of Transportation in concert with key stakeholders like the airlines, should develop a national aviation-preparedness plan for responding to the threat of communicable diseases.The report was produced in response to a Congressional request for a review of how prepared the US aviation system is to respond to potential communicable disease threats from abroad such as the recent Ebola epidemic.

The report stated: “a national aviation preparedness plan could serve as the basis for testing communication mechanisms among responders to ensure those mechanisms are effective prior to a communicable disease outbreak as well as to provide the basis for ensuring that airport and airline staff receive appropriate training and equipment to reduce their risk of exposure to communicable diseases during an outbreak.”
The report also highlighted the concerns of workers employed by contract aviation service firms – including contract workers who clean aircraft — about the availability of training and access to equipment to control exposure to communicable diseases.
https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-16-127“>

January into February: “Help Us–We Are On the Front Line!”
Since first hearing about the global spread of COVID-19, flight attendants have raised concerns regarding protective supplies including masks but were only given wipes, a flight attendant told TIME. Some airlines even prohibited attendants from wearing gloves or face masks aside from the gloves they were provided to pick up trash. According to TIME, it wasn’t until late March that many airlines allowed flight attendants to wear masks and gloves on their own accord.

Despite efforts to keep safe by bringing their own protective material aboard and through extra sanitation efforts, flight attendants continue to risk exposure to the virus in daily work activities. Attendants not only use the same restroom facilities as passengers but sit close together when aboard flights in their rickety jump seats.

“When airlines call us essential, what they mean is expendable,” a flight attendant wrote in a private social media group created for flight attendants to share concerns amid the pandemic. Created on March 22, the group has over 50,000 members, including crew members who have tested positive for COVID-19. Like health care workers, flight attendants also fear losing their jobs should they speak to the press, so groups like this have allowed individuals to talk about their situations without that fear. reported by Time, April 3, 2020

In a video shared by one of her friends with The Washington Post, another flight attendant had a blunt message for her colleagues: Stop flying.

From her hospital bed, she recounted how she worked a nearly two-week stretch last month and felt fine. But on her day off, she began feeling congested. She thought it was allergies. Now she’s hospitalized with covid-19.
“I’m asking all of my flight attendant friends to stop flying,” she said. “It’s not worth it. Forget your mortgage. Forget your bills. Stay home.” From Washington Post, April 8, 2020

Flight attendants are the safety directors on every aircraft. But who will look out for those safety directors? Not their employer. Not the U.S, government. Why did the U.S. government ignore their own warnings about the U.S. aviation system’s vulnerability to potential communicable disease threats from abroad? Why did the airlines willfully ignore this threat? Perhaps flight attendants are, in fact, expendable in order to ensure the best returns on those high profit years.

Since the earliest years of aviation in the 1930s, flight attendants have performed heroic acts in the line of duty. Flight attendants have lost their lives in the line of duty. Twenty-five flight attendants on a ordinary work day were killed in the terrorist attack on 9/11. Hijackings, bomb threats, medical emergencies, hostile passengers and more are part of the job. Where is the concern, the compassion and the respect for these working women and working men?

Postscript:
“Qantas staff are exploring options, including a class action alleging the airline failed to adequately protect them against Covid 19, after more than 59 employees became infected along with some family members.

The Flight Attendants’ Association of Australia has begun exploring possible legal avenues for staff, amid deep dissatisfaction about the way in which Qantas has handled what they say are the risks, particularly to cabin crew.”
from The Guardian newspaper April 12–yesterday
https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/apr/13/qantas-staff-consider-class-action-alleging-airline-failed-to-protect-them-against-covid-19

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Redirection & Reflections….

“While the future remains unknown, we can still ground ourselves in the steady rhythm of Mother Earth. Hope is handed to us in small pleasures.”

That positive quote is from the women who publish We’Moon calendars and books.

Every woman alive is an expert on living as a woman in patriarchy. We each cope in a variety of ways. We adapt. We each carry a memory bank full of sights, sounds, juxtapositions. Each of these are colored by our own interpretations.

I’ve long wanted to write about all the “twists and turns” my life has taken in the last seventy-four years. But there have always been many, many distractions. Actually sitting down and writing consistently has not happened. Now I am writing. I encourage all of you to consider writing about your life too!

Today I am sitting at the huge vintage 1934 roll top desk that I believed, in 1978, would turn me into a woman who took the time to write about her life as it was unfolding. I remember thinking that once I had this wonderful writing space, I would be able to sit down and write about all that was going on in my life as a passionate participant in the women’s liberation movement.

I knew then that what we were doing was important. Mostly I was busy working as a flight attendant for TWA and scheduling my work life there around all the activities associated with the KC Women’s Liberation Union and the New Earth Bookstore and our feminist theater group Actor’s Sorority. The roll top became the place to sit down and pay bills.

Spring of 2020 has limited the distractions. Spring 2020 has brought limitations, yet if offers opportunities to rethink priorities. We are “sheltering at home”. We are sheltering at home in the house Jeanne and I built in the mid 1980s with help from women carpenters.

Now I have an opportunity to record and to interpret all my years of living as a woman in these times. Yes, we have a big garden to maintain—it helps us feed ourselves. Yes, I have a mountain of fabric to inspire more quilts. But I want to do this project—I am excited about the prospect of looking back, of opening the numerous scrapbooks I’ve kept since 1962 for clues and detail no other biographer could know about or interpret correctly. I want to be in control of my own life story.

I wrote my first blog post seven years ago with the intention of writing about creativity and about inspiration. Six weeks ago I was inspired to write a blog about working as a TWA flight attendant and our history as women workers in the male corporate world. In spring 1969 at the age of twenty-four I began my sixteen years of flying. Known first as air hostesses, by 1971, with the addition of males, we became flight attendants. My real education about the ways of the world began with this job. Looking for a job with adventure, and expecting a living wage inspired me to become a local union officer. Four other blog posts about the early years of aviation and the role of air hostess followed. I’m pleased and excited about this opportunity to write my life and to place it in a context as a working woman.

My computer and its keyboard are perched on that same oversize roll top desk made in Kansas City, MO. I do my online research reading the life stories of other women who inspire me on many levels. I see their pictures. I can search for examples of their work. They become companions of a sort! The women I admire help keep me alive. Our stories are ours—we do not want them corrupted or co-opted or distorted by others. Girls and women desire to know how other women survived girlhood and navigated the world as adult women.

Every time women speak the truth about our lives, the world can benefit. In recent months I’ve been drawn to reading about women working in the early 1900s in archaeology and in aviation. Women were avid participants in both. Living in a system that highly favored males, women archaeologists and women fliers faced opposition from all the institutions set up to enforce male supremacy. When I learn about their achievements and their struggles I feel an intimate engagement with each woman. Her strengths, her accomplishments give me courage. Feminism and quilting have been two grand adventures I’ve quite deliberately chosen. Each has enriched my life. Quilting and feminism have always overlapped in my world. Many of my quilts contain strong feminist content. Most of my life I have played with fabric and needle.

Today I am working on a TimeSpan quilt I’ve decided to call “Nesting Time or Sheltering in Place, 2020”. At the center is a wool crewel work embroidery I did in the early 1970s while sitting in hotels and flight attendant lounges all across the US. A small brown critter is nestled in a cocoon of curving leaves and branches.

“Happiness is having a very special home of your own” is printed by the kit manufacturer Columbia Minerva Corp. This design by Erica Wilson kept my mind and my fingers engaged during those hours of enforced waiting nearly fifty years ago. In the early 1970s I could not afford a car. To buy this kit, I boarded a bus to a suburban Kansas City shop. I didn’t have “a very special” home yet, but I had dreams of one.

The larger border is fabric I salvaged from a gored skirt. I was drawn to that soft green color, the large graphic butterfly (long a symbol of transformation) and the graceful lettering on the skirt fabric. The critter in the nest is seven inches across. The top measures twenty-one inches across.

The curved shape of the bottom border is a result of the shape of the gored skirt. I decided I did not want to trim it square and lose more of the butterfly image. I like the graceful flourish it adds. Please know that I’ll continue to write about my quilting adventures too. Each time you open my current blog post you will see what subject has engaged me that week.

Writing about my life has now become a priority, a redirection. Choosing the right words, phrases, examples and photos to string together for a pleasing whole is rather like selecting fabrics for a colorful quilt. I’m trusting that connecting each small segment day-by-day will succeed in creating an accurate picture of my life. I invite you to join me on this journey.

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We Sewed It: From Feedsacks to Silks and Brocades, 38″ x 46″

Browsing at JoAnn’s Fabrics last summer, I spotted an apron in the sale section. I didn’t want an apron, but I was drawn to this one! On that apron were printed dress patterns from my girlhood! I carry strong memories of pleasant time spent with my mother as we searched for the right pattern, and then examined our fabric options to make clothes for me or my sisters.

My mother, Marie, had a flare for fashion and she appreciated fine fabrics. She sewed most of our clothes when her four children were youngsters. Mother also created several beautiful formal gowns for me using velvet and silk. (I mentioned brocade in my quilt title because that’s how I picture the gold full-skirted dress in the center of the Simplicity collage.) When I was a teen, mother taught me to sew using these patterns—here, in this apron, was a fragment of my history.

Simplicity, McCall and Butterick patterns were the source for our creative beginnings. We studied the color sketches, read the fabric suggestions and imagined what would best serve our purposes.

This collage of Simplicity patterns ranged from 1948 to 1968. I was born in 1945, graduated from college in 1969.This twenty year period was a formative time for me. The lines, the draping, the colors and the skirt shapes or lengths, as well as the hairstyles of the sketches all felt familiar to me. I especially admired the composition of the grouping which finally included a woman of color. Each dress had been carefully chosen to balance the visual compilation—even the colors of the dresses were artfully arranged. Below each dress was the year that pattern appeared. I bought that sale apron despite the fact that it was printed on polyester—that is a measure of how taken I was with this collage.

Mother and I bonded over our mutual interest in creating with fabric—actually, I believe this appreciation is in my genes! To start this quilt project, I trimmed the area from around the graphic. But I had to piece the two bottom corners to make the rectangle you now see. After choosing a red grunge fabric to frame the center collage, I sought additions.


The feedsack print was laying out because I’d recently discovered it at a thrift shop—I liked how the red and the blue in the feedsack worked with the colors of the Simplicity dresses. We didn’t know about feedsacks in my household, but I have grown fond of their quirky personalities. Two other fabrics soon turned up: one was a collage featuring birds, flowers and several simple geometric repeats. I cut this and used it in sections. The fabric with the large-scale hibiscus flowers on the beige background added more variety. Additionally, hibiscus flowers grew all around our neighborhood in Miami Springs, Florida where I grew up. I’d chosen this fabric from Betty Buckley’s estate sale—it held good memories for that reason too.


Rather than merely frame my collage, I decided to look for the type of patterns my mother would sew when she was sewing for us in the 1950s. I already had several of these on hand for the scrapbook about my mother I was planning. As a transition to those patterns I had the brilliant idea of including my mother and father’s wedding photo.

Their wedding was June 6, 1944 shortly before my father was shipped overseas to the Philippines in WW II. Dad wears his khaki army dress uniform. Mother wore a light blue linen suit with a narrow skirt—fabric was rationed during the war. Marie wore a gardenia corsage and gardenias in her hair. She carried a white clutch purse and wore the popular spectator pumps of the era. I’m sure she and her aunt, who raised her, spent much time and energy deciding on her ensemble. They were married in the Congregational Church on Miami Beach.

More details about designing We Sewed It

I found I could add interest to the whole by adding diagonal lines and accent colors around the patterns I’d chosen. I am especially attached to the linen fabric with the varied thread colors used around my parent’s photo. A few years ago I found several items of clothing made with this fabric. All were new and had been donated to the salvation army thrift shop by Coldwater Creek. Some of the clothes fit me and others I’ve cut to make use of this appealing fabric. (For any textile enthusiast, this linen, woven with two different thread colors, is similar to “shot cotton” where the warp threads are one color and the weft threads are a complementary color—often producing a shimmering affect in certain light situations.) Can you see the shimmer of the linen threads here?


Your educated eye will notice I’ve used “coping strips”, at times, to make the sections fit together and to add visual interest. One example: the small scale print used in two spots. The ombre border keeps the eye moving along the outer planes before next examining the graduated gold dots found in the binding.

Of course, all this was pieced on my vintage Singer Featherweight 221—now working for five decades for me. I used my favorite batting, Mountain Mist’s Cream Rose. It is 100% cotton and a mere 1/8” thick, so it drapes well and quilts easily. My machine quilting adds a variety of textures throughout the quilt. I used a walking foot to sew the straight lines. Most of the quilting was free motion quilting using my vintage 1980s Bernina 930.

The final step for We Sewed It: From Feedsacks to Silks and Brocades, 1948-1978 was adding the label. My wall hanging quilt documents one chapter in one sewer’s life as I play with fabrics and honor our foremothers who carried on the sewing traditions vital to life.


Postscript: One of the reasons to study material culture and fashion history, in particular, is the evidence we find of inclusion and exclusion from the norms of society. By 1961-68 some pattern companies began to include some women of color pictured in the drawings for the patterns. There is little evidence of inclusion of women and girls with a variety of body shapes who might also be home sewers using their patterns.

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Early Air Hostesses Were Petite to Allow for More Cargo!

First class of twenty-two TWA Air Hostesses, December,1935 Kansas City, MO


1930-1935
Boeing Air Transport hired the first Sky Girls in 1930 as an experiment. Not until five years later did Transcontinental & Western Air (then T&WA) graduate its first hostess class on December 6, 1935. The early air transport companies made little profit and existed on air mail contracts with the federal government. Any cabin crew would take space away from the revenue-producing air mail sacks. Those new air hostesses had to be petite! Trained in Kansas City, the graduating class, pictured above, consisted of 22 young women.

Earlier in 1935, TWA initially hired 60 hostesses from a pool of over 2,000 applicants. Only those twenty-two completed training and earned their wings. Each of the women interviewed was between 21 and 26 years of age, was between 5′ and 5’4″ tall, was a registered nurse and was not married. TWA interviewers looked for each to possess “intelligence, tact and charm”. Their training included geography, ticket handling and working the heating system on the DC-2. Each received $2.50 per day during her three-week training course for personal expenses and apartment rent. Most significantly, they were creating a new career path for women in an industry that was in its infancy, embarking on a journey that was certainly unfamiliar to them.1

At that time, many citizens strongly believed the perils of flying were overwhelming. The City Manager of Kansas City, MO, Henry McElroy, in the mid-1920s asserted,” A man is a damn fool to get his feet off the ground. Let me tell you all there is to aviation. There’s a lot of young bucks who learned to fly (during the World War I). As soon as they have smashed the crates (planes) and killed themselves there will be no more flying.” 2

The future in aviation for these young women was potentially exciting and rewarding as much as it was unpredictable. “Rough weather rendered some flights so unbearable that entire cabins had to be hosed out afterward. TWA employees spoke of ‘the vomit comet to Albuquerque’ only half-jokingly.”3 In the 1930’s aviation researchers dreamed of flying at high altitude above the weather because it would pay dividends in passenger comfort, higher speed, and longer range.

Circa 1935 TWA Air Hostesses when it was The Lindbergh Line or Transcontinental & Western Airline

Adventure, a break from the routine, and the thrill of visiting other cultures were the same reasons young women have always given to the question,”why would you want this job”? And, let’s add– there is this exquisite thrill of leaving earth and of flight itself! Adventure and hard work were combined for cabin crews before cabins were pressurized in the 1950s. Those early uniforms you see here were serviceable outfits for women working long hard days. The uniforms were single breasted jackets with skirts below the knees, and a single pleat at the front for easy movement.

Companies create uniform clothing with a distinctive design as a way to identify members of a particular group of workers. Other entities may have other motives for using similar versions of a particular uniform and to appropriate an established image.

1938: TWA’s chief hostess, Gladys Entriken, designs new uniforms!
Winter Blue, in above photo and Cream Linen, in photo below


1938
New uniforms designed by TWA’s chief hostess, Gladys Entriken, were introduced in 1938 at the opening of New York’s LaGuardia Airport. The “winter” version of a medium blue gabardine featured a double breasted jacket with a flared skirt, again for easy movement. The summer version, in cream linen, was issued the following year. It was identical except for the colors—cream with a pale blue blouse. Both uniform jackets had buttons with the TWA logo, and the high-sided hat, was worn at a jaunty angle, and featured a grosgrain cockade for the TWA insignia. The skirts were shorter but still cover the knees.


In 1941, famed artist George Petty created a drawing featuring the image of a TWA air hostess. It is believed that the purpose was twofold: to generate publicity for TWA and to drum up patriotism. As World War II unfolded, “TWA’s Petty Girl”, wearing the blue winter uniform, would be seen by millions through posters, postcards and even luggage tags. 4
Please compare the images. The sexualized drawing is a caricature of the real woman in the postcard and the eleven women striding across the tarmac! This is the first example I have found of TWA’s use of a sexualized image of flight attendants or air hostesses in their promotions. But not the last!


Other entities found images of the “sky girls” to be useful for their purposes.

1 http://twamuseumguides.blogspot.com/2017/02/presenting-case-for-twas-attendants-our.html
2 TWA: Kansas City’s Hometown Airline, Julius A. Karash and Rick Montgomery, 2001 p.10
3 same, p.18
4 Same as #1, TWA Museum

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