Pan Am Stewardesses Were More Empowered Than We Might Think

Gabby Shacknai
·12 min read
Photo credit: Amber Hawkins
Photo credit: Amber Hawkins

In 2021, the so-called “golden age of travel”— or really any age of travel — seems about as mythical a concept as tracking down Bigfoot or spotting the Loch Ness Monster, but there was in fact a time when flying was an expensive and exclusive practice, something that people around the world saw as a privilege and treated as such. Airlines like Trans World Airlines (TWA) and Eastern led the way in the early days of air travel, but none was quite as glamorous as Pan Am. With its iconic blue-and-white logo, spacious seating, ever-flowing champagne, famously unparalleled service, and routes that covered the globe, the airline was synonymous with luxury, and it offered passengers a ticket to the high life. But, more than that, Pan Am presented a unique and coveted opportunity to the young women who worked for the company as stewardesses: the chance for independence and freedom, and to truly experience the world.

A new book from writer Julia Cooke weaves together the real-life stories of these women, from the strict requirements they had to meet — a college education, fluency in two languages, the political savvy of a Foreign Service officer, a height between 5’ 3” and 5’ 9,” a weight between 105 and 140 pounds, and an age of under 26 at the time of hire — to the roles they played in the women’s, civil rights, and anti-Vietnam War movements. Come Fly the World tells the captivating tales of five women at Pan Am, but, beyond that, it tells the raw, unfiltered history of women in the 1960s and ’70s.

Shondaland spoke to Cooke about her new book, the history of air travel and the place that Pan Am’s stewardesses fit into it, and why she felt it was so important to write about these women’s experiences.

GABBY SHACKNAI: Where did your interest in the golden age of travel, and specifically the women of Pan Am, stem from?

JULIA COOKE: My father was an attorney for Pan Am and worked in the Pan Am building. He has this anecdote that, of the 13 offices he would have to walk past in the legal department to get to his own, 10 of them had maps papering the walls, and I think that’s a great example of just how international people who worked for Pan Am were. It didn’t really matter what department you were in; you cared about internationalism. But it had such a huge influence on me, and I only came to really understand the degree that [this was so] in my 20s. My mom, more than anybody else, was determined to travel, so she would pack us for hot or cold, and we would just go to the airport and see where we could get seats on a Pan Am flight. It was really a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants spontaneity and an excitement to see any place that’s not your own.

GS: For those who might not be familiar with the early days of air travel and Pan Am, apart from perhaps seeing depictions in Catch Me If You Can or Mad Men, how would you explain the role that Pan Am played in the history and culture of travel?

JC: From a purely factual standpoint, the airline itself was an airline of firsts. They were the first to fly across the Pacific in the ’30s, and after World War II they were the first airline to have a commercial route that circled the globe, meaning you could take just one airline to go to any continent. Then, in the ’50s, they were the first to run a transatlantic jet, and they really ushered in the move to the jet age from propeller planes. But, in terms of its aura, Pan Am had this glamour to it because it had an internationalism that other American airlines arguably did not have. Some of that was because they really invested a ton of money into that image — Pan Am also owned InterContinental Hotels, which was a very glitzy chain that hired incredible architects and designers to create that image; they had the biggest offices in New York; and the women who worked for Pan Am wore the most fashionable designers, who designed their uniforms. So, it really was a 360-degree investment in glamour.

Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images
Photo credit: Michael Ochs Archives - Getty Images

GS: Many of the requirements Pan Am stewardesses had to meet during the years you write about are quite superficial and even sexist at first glance — especially those around height, age, and weight.

But, at the same time, this job, as you said, was in many ways an early harbinger of feminism because it gave these women a gateway to the world that they wouldn’t have otherwise had. How do you explain this dichotomy?

JC: That was really one of the most interesting things to learn about: the degree to which this job was such a huge contradiction. It was a job that forced women to adhere to these regulations that were really built around male fantasies of what a woman could offer them. Yet, at the same time, the job itself offered them this huge amount of freedom that was completely unprecedented. So, it really required someone who was willing to go along with those sexist requirements in order to gain the sort of freedom the job offered. But that did change pretty quickly because a lot of these women were unwilling to quit when they got married, for example, so the age limit and the marriage ban were the first things to really fall, thanks to the lawsuits women brought.

One of the first things that I saw when I started researching stewardesses was that in a lot of women’s history books they get a couple of pages or even a chapter, and a lot of the accounts of the second-wave feminist movement have a brief section on them. But what I found so remarkable was that the feminist movement clearly recognized the important role that these women played in the dismantling of the structural elements of sexist labor policies, but even the books that did talk about these women didn’t seem all that interested in their lived experiences in the role of a stewardess. So, there was a bit of a gap, and I kept thinking, why did they fight so hard for this? Clearly, the job was more than just being a waitress in the sky if they were all fighting so hard to keep it, so I wanted to understand more of that.

GS: When we look at travel now, there’s almost a lack of glamour to it, but it sounds like Pan Am played such a huge role in creating this excitement and celebration around air travel at the time.

JC: Yeah, and so much of it came down to the fact that fares were fixed. The government controlled how much an airline could charge for a specific fare, so really what airlines were competing with was image, and that was how they would differentiate themselves.

Photo credit: Fairfax Media Archives - Getty Images
Photo credit: Fairfax Media Archives - Getty Images

GS: To what extent do you think Pan Am’s stewardesses shaped this image of internationalism and travel?

JC: You know, I was just recently thinking about the things that we bring home from trips, and I think there is a real sense of glamour around getting things that other people can’t get. So, some of that was just inherent, but these were women who really leaned into that and had a real sense of occasion and excitement about the world, so they were really eager to get out there and to bring it home to share with their friends and family. And that’s infectious. They really anticipated the global marketplace in a way that I find so incredible.

GS: The role of flight attendant today isn’t one we often associate with glamour, but why do you think it was such a coveted position back then?

JC: Some of it was because really in the ’50s it was not socially acceptable for women to travel by themselves, so it was seen as something that you could do while also being a woman who wanted to get married and have kids. [Women had to] break with convention in order to indulge that wanderlust, so being a stewardess became a way to wander but to wander respectfully. So, for that generation of stewardesses, that was the appeal, but for a slightly later generation, once it was okay for women to travel, it was a way to see the world when you didn’t have the means to. For example, Karen, who I keep coming back to, found a way to get out of the country via the U.S. Army, but when she came back, she couldn’t afford to travel anymore, and she didn’t have a wealthy family or husband who could send her on lavish tours every year or take her on a big honeymoon. So, she became a stewardess because she really wanted to travel and wanted to pay for it herself. The vast majority of the women I interviewed, when I asked them why they started flying, said it was because they wanted to see the world. It was just that simple, and, whether it was because of societal constraints or financial constraints, flying on an international airline took care of both of those things.

GS: Your book focuses on just nine years, but these nine years were some of the most significant and eventful in modern U.S history. We see the civil-rights movement, the Vietnam War, second-wave feminism, and many other happenings during this time.

What would you say was the relationship and the convergence between these crucial moments and the world of Pan Am stewardesses was?

JC: It was a lot more integrated than you might think. On the one hand, the people who applied to work at Pan Am were, in some ways, on the more conservative side in the sense that the women who joined in the ’50s and ’60s didn’t mind having to adhere to those sexist requirements. So, they weren’t necessarily huge parts of the counterculture, and yet the counterculture was really acting on what they did. And a lot of them did move towards these progressive movements over time. It was really eye-opening to me to learn about Lynn and her involvement in the anti-Vietnam War protests because her political perspective completely changed, and her whole history was shaped by what she saw flying troops in and out of Vietnam.

So, these women’s personal experiences as stewardesses were really weaving into this larger tapestry of history. The civil-rights movement was really important because it resulted in integrating the airlines, and one of the consequences of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act was that they had to hire Black stewardesses. So, all of a sudden, these Black women were serving on the planes, and their experiences were remarkable to hear about. They applied for the job in the early ’60s because, just like everyone else, they wanted to see the world, but they wound up being so shaped by the Civil Rights movement. One of the women I interviewed wore her hair in an Afro in part because she wanted to assert her identity and, in her words, “show them who I am.” So, these gestures were important, and they played an important role in the history of the time.

Photo credit: Tim Graham - Getty Images
Photo credit: Tim Graham - Getty Images

GS: While researching and writing this book, what were some of the biggest surprises about the Pan Am stewardess experience?

JC: I don’t know that I was prepared for how much I would like a lot of these women! It had been very much a job, even though it was always something I was interested in, and I was looking at things from a detached perspective. But, as I got to know a number of them, I really just so enjoyed spending time with them. And as I was attending a lot of their conferences, I found myself so inspired by the friendships that I saw among these women. They travel together, they prioritize each other, and they have these really remarkable networks that many of them credit with keeping them sane or happy into their 80s. After witnessing that, I have really found myself much more willing to invest time and energy into my own friendships, and I was very surprised by the degree to which it’s shaped how I think about doing so.

GS: Why do you think this is such an important story to tell now?

JC: I think that the way we talk about history has much more of an impact on how we behave than we might like to think. To me, the idea or undermining or just not recognizing the lived experiences of such a huge group of women really stood to impact how I exist in the world and the freedoms that I enjoy. When I started working on this, I was in my very early 30s, and I felt a lot of tension between the concepts of feminism and femininity, and I think what’s happened in the years since has resumed the talk of what feminism is and what it can be. So, a lot of writing this book was really driven by my desire to understand what it was like to work in this job that was entirely based on wanderlust as a woman who wanted to get married and wanted to have a family someday. And I think that’s as relevant now as it was 50 or 60 years ago.

Gabby Shacknai is a New York-based journalist, who covers beauty and wellness, food and travel, and consumer-facing business. Gabby is a former Condé Nast editor and currently works as a freelance writer, contributing to Forbes, ELLE, Women's Health, Fortune, Departures, and many other outlets.

Get Shondaland directly in your inbox: SUBSCRIBE TODAY

You Might Also Like