Psychologist, nursemaid, babysitter, corporate geisha, glamour girl of the air – the Australian flight attendant has long been an iconic figure in popular culture.
Their role in the growth and development of our national aviation culture, however, is lesser known.
Australian aviation history has been the domain of macho mythmaking, a tale of rebels and mavericks, ground-breaking flight records and male heroism writ large across our skies from the Great Air Race of 1919 to the feats of Charles Kingsford-Smith.
Not surprisingly, these intrepid young men in their flying machines feature front and centre in SBS’s upcoming documentary Australia Come Fly With Me, tracing the highs and lows of more than 100 years of aviation in Australia to mark the centenary of air travel in Australia this year.
But alongside them, we see their less celebrated counterparts, the humble hostie - young female pioneers who played not just a vital role in aviation culture but also in the fight for gender equity and workplace reform, says academic Dr Prudence Black, author of two books on airline attendants and aviation cultural history, The Flight Attendant’s Shoe and Smile, Particularly in Bad Weather: The Era of the Australian Airline Hostess.
The image of the perennially smiling ‘trolley dolley’ remains stubbornly entrenched even today, Black says, but flight attendants played a critical role in making air travel a pioneering site for women’s activism in Australia.
The first female stewardess was hired by United Airlines in 1930; in Australia, the first flight attendants appeared in 1936, working for a small regional Tasmanian airline called Holyman Airways.
The first female stewardess was hired by United Airlines in 1930; in Australia, the first flight attendants appeared in 1936, working for a small regional Tasmanian airline called Holyman Airways. As Black describes in Smile, Particularly in Bad Weather, the skies provided a pathway to unprecedented freedom from restrictive gender roles.
“For thousands of young women in the late 1930s right through until the 1980s…It offered a legitimate way to escape a predictable life at home with their parents, or a staid career behind the secretarial desk, or an inevitable engagement to the boy next door.”
It was a demanding, often difficult job. These young women, some barely out of their teens, flew in lumbering metal DC-2s, providing tea and coffee and handing out sick bags, but also providing critical psychological support and comfort (nursing would become a qualification that was required of all Australian airline hostesses in the tradition set in 1930 by the first air stewardesses in America).
“In the 1930s, not a lot of people had flown so the idea of a young woman on board was meant to give you confidence,” Black says. “People were nervous about flying but also people were throwing up everywhere. These were unpressurised planes where you’re flying below 10,000 feet, through some pretty tough turbulence. The conditions were tough, but they had to keep smiling and they were relied on to keep passengers calm. They played a key part in keeping these planes up in the air.”
“In the 1930s, not a lot of people had flown so the idea of a young woman on board was meant to give you confidence,” Black says.
From the outset, sexual politics threw up all kinds of barriers, from a restrictive compulsory retirement age to a strict marriage ban to unequal promotional opportunities and pay rises.
Qantas employed their first air hostesses in 1948 to fly on the new Lockheed Constellation service from Australia to the UK; outraged male stewards who had been flying on Qantas flights since 1938 went on strike, fearing that these intrepid young women would steal their limelight.
By 1957 the Airline Hostesses’ Association was formed, marking the establishment of the first all-female union in Australia and a growing sense of empowerment.
But conditions remained tough. Hijackings and airline fatalities were rife in the 1950s. The sexual revolution of the 1960s created a new air hostess archetype in popular culture - think mini-skirts, brightly coloured, tight uniforms, an increasingly important role as a sexy commodity to sell tickets – but it masked the reality of onerous workplace conditions, from sexual harassment to wage inequity.
Until the 1970s, there was only one air hostess on board alongside the male stewards. By 1971, the Boeing 747 revolutionised flight culture, ushering in the glamourous jet age, but it was “still hard, heavy work in difficult conditions,” Black says.
She cites the infamous hijacking of Ansett Airlines Flight 232 to Alice Springs in 1972 by a suicidal male armed with a sawn-off shotgun and knife. Adelaide-based flight attendant Kaye McLachlan was instrumental in keeping him calm until they landed; once on the ground, she narrowly missed being killed in a shootout. “The crew was phenomenal,” Black says.
In 1975 came another landmark moment with the so-called Old Boilers Dispute (the term came from Sir Reginald Ansett’s contemptuous description of the domestic union executive as a “batch of old boilers’). It sparked a two-day strike for better conditions, part of a growing battle for gender equality in the skies throughout the 1970s, Black says. “It was the start of a time of widespread industrial action.”
The term air hostess only changed to flight attendant in the early 1980s once male stewards started working on domestic flights.
The term air hostess only changed to flight attendant in the early 1980s once male stewards started working on domestic flights. Agitation for reform continued throughout the decade; it took the pioneering female pilot Deborah Lawrie years to win her sex discrimination fight against Ansett.
By 1984, flight attendants had won equal pay but early generations of attendants, who had begun work in the 60s and 70s were still contractually required to retire at 35.
A group of attendants spearheaded a landmark anti-discrimination case against Qantas that lasted close to a decade and which went all the way to the High Court of Australia.
Finally, in August 1992, the Qantas appeal was dismissed by Justice Michael Kirby, delivering a historic win for pay equity.
Every year, the so-called Golden Girls who brought the case meet with Justice Kirby to celebrate this seminal industrial relations victory, Black says. “He remains a big supporter.”
It’s important we continue to acknowledge that the story of flight is also a story of female emancipation and independence, she says.
“These were the early pioneers of female empowerment. It was all in a day’s work.”
Australia Come Fly With Me airs over three weeks from Wednesday 14 October at 8.30pm on SBS. The series will be subtitled in Simplified Chinese and Arabic, and added to the subtitled collection at SBS On Demand, available immediately after its premiere. It will also be available with audio description on the live television broadcast.
You can watch the trailer below: