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Understanding the Air Age: Extracting a Culture of Aviation (June 2013): The Gender Divide

By Guillaume de Syon

The Gender Divide

Often the investigation of women and gender in aviation has tended toward the sensational, very much echoing the notion that the “exception” at the air shows is what made female pilots acceptable, but never the norm.  Many laudable volumes such as Doris L. Rich’s biography Amelia Earhart appeared in this subfield and paralleled, to a degree, developments in women’s and gender history at large.  Four important works on female aviators include Claudia Oakes’s United States Women in Aviation through World War I and United States Women in Aviation, 1930-1939; Kathleen L. Brooks-Pazmany’s United States Women in Aviation 1919-29; and Deborah G. Douglas’s United States Women in Aviation, 1940-1985.  All are part of the notable “Smithsonian Studies in Air and Space” series.

These books were followed in quick succession by popular works on women air service pilots, female Soviet fighters, and biographies of famous aviatrixes.  In Still Missing, Susan Ware takes on the symbol of Amelia Earhart to examine the question of feminism, while American Women and Flight since 1940 by Deborah G. Douglas is the best starting point for anyone wishing to learn about the issues surrounding women in aviation.  Other helpful approaches include Margaret Weitekamp’s Right Stuff, Wrong Sex.  This book documents the first attempts by women to join the space program, including how they were grounded, partly due to patriarchal attitudes associated with aviation.  Weitekamp’s study is joined by Amy E. Foster’s Integrating Women into the Astronaut Corps: Politics and Logistics at NASA, 1972-2004, a very well-documented account of the complexities—both social and political—of gender relations in a unique workplace.  More complex yet, though excellent in its approach, is Liz Millward’s Women in British Imperial Airspace, 1922-1937.  This study of aviatrixes offers a unique approach to understanding notions of airspace, gender relations, and feminism, thus arguing for a reinterpretation of the third dimension.  In this regard, Millward takes studies of gender and aviation to a new level that may call for further reinterpretation of aviatrix behavior in differing national contexts.  Other authors have already done this, but not in English.

More serious studies of flight attendants have cropped up in recent years.  Often obscured by illustrated books that continue to emphasize the perceived glamour of air travel, they all seek to extract the peculiarities of the identity of flight attendants (known as “stewardesses” until the 1970s).  Drew Whitelegg in Working the Skies: The Fast-Paced, Disorienting World of the Flight Attendant and Kathleen M. Barry in Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants both compare and contrast the myth of glamour with the challenges American female flight attendants faced as the airline industry evolved.  Barry chose a more historical approach whereas Whitelegg relied extensively on oral history interviews to cover the present day.  Both studies, however, end up complementing each other well.  They have been joined more recently by Christine Yano’s investigation of Japanese American flight attendants in Airborne Dreams: “Nisei” Stewardesses and Pan American World Airways.  Yano’s conclusions are more measured and suggest that, while indeed discrimination existed, the opportunities provided by commercial flight helped bridge some racial divides.

Works Cited