Creating an Image: “Sky Girl”

1946: Unnamed TWA flight attendant exiting aircraft.

“Women had been eager participants in the early days of flying, when things were disorganized and open to all comers. But any hopes they had for gaining a foothold in commercial aviation were dashed when the Commerce Department, under pressure from underemployed male pilots, exiled women from the field by prohibiting them from flying planes carrying passengers in bad weather. Instead they got the role of hostess.”
exert from When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present by New York Times editor Gail Collins, 2009 p.19

First Stewardess Was Actually a Pilot!
In 1930 Ellen Church, who was a registered nurse as well as a licensed pilot, attempted to be hired as a pilot for Boeing Air Transport. Church was told the idea was “impossible and ludicrous”. Her next approach was to appeal to the male chauvinism of airline executives. To help women find work in the skies, as she herself hoped to do. Church pitched the idea to Boeing Air Lines (which later became United Airlines) that nurses be hired to perform some of the tasks then handled by co-pilots, like hauling luggage and handing out lunches, as well as to help put the public at ease about the dangers of flying on the clunky, crash-prone early passenger planes. Boeing agreed to hire eight women, conditionally, for a three-month experiment. Church was to recruit seven other nurses for the experiment. On her first flight as a “Sky Girl”, Church worked on a Boeing 80A for a 20-hour flight from Oakland/San Francisco to Chicago with 13 stops and 14 passengers! “Sky Girl” was the early designation used by Boeing Air Transport.

An article in 2015 Time magazine by Jennifer Latson, reported that Church said, ““Don’t you think that it would be good psychology to have women up in the air? How is a man going to say he is afraid to fly when a woman is working on the plane?”
Time continued, “Stewardesses cleaned the cabin, helped fuel the planes and bolted down the seats before takeoff. And while they normally drew on their medical training only minimally, in assisting airsick and panicked passengers, they occasionally played the part of first responders in an emergency….”
Learn more about the life of Ellen Church:

I grew up reading Nancy Drew novels and certainly as a girl had enjoyed Silver Wings for Vicki. I lived in an airline town! Miami Springs, a western suburb of Greater Miami, was adjacent to Miami International Airport. The roar of early morning takeoff sounds began my morning. As a teen in the 1950s, the career paths for girls were limited and uninspiring: teacher, nurse or secretary. In Silver Wings for Vicki, I read about “earning our wings”, meeting interesting people and traveling the world–all for a salary! As Gail Collins wrote, ” In the real world, the job was a lot more mundane, but it was virtually the only one a young woman could choose that offered the chance to travel.”

These were the images I carried of air hostesses in my mind! This 1958 cover photo (when I was 13) of smiling, confident women held my attention. And I liked those smart, tailored uniforms! Yes, the pay was low, but if you had a uniform, you would not have to buy clothes for work. (Later I was to learn that the airlines required us to pay them for the uniforms.)

Remember in the 1950s newspapers were a major resource for job seekers and for employers. Remember, too, that in 1968 when I saw the ad for air hostess in the Miami Herald that ad was in a column labeled “Help Wanted-Female”. Court orders had outlawed employment ads to specify a preferred race of applicants, but sex-segregated ads where legal.

In my online research for this post, I realized that Hollywood started immediately to capitalize on the image of young women working on the flying machines! Ellen Church and the other nurses she recruited began flying in May of 1930. This Air Hostess film reached the public in 1933!

1938 TWA flight attendant uniforms designed by Chief Hostess Gladys Entriken

1938 TWA flight attendant uniforms were designed by Chief Hostess Gladys Entriken. Pictured here are the summer uniforms. Working in a white suit doing all the tasks mentioned earlier seems impossible!

However, the visuals are appealing. This was all part of luring folks onboard, that is, selling seats on the early unpressurized planes.

Transcontinental & Western Air (TWA) Hostesses, 1939

1940 TWA Air Hostess graduates

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2 Responses to Creating an Image: “Sky Girl”

  1. Therese Ramsey says:

    I have never heard the term “sky girl” before! The uniform with the cut out lapel area is way cool and even looks comfortable! Very interesting history.

  2. Paula says:

    Therese, I, too was intrigued by that cutout lapel! That uniform is really my favorite. Next time I’m going to share the purpose that uniform accent served. I have lots of photos…

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