The Women of 1957

The research I did for my new mystery trilogy reminded me of the world that women inhabited in 1957 as they hoped for a career or a chance to see the world before they “settled down.” “Settle down” was a euphemism in earlier eras to refer to the time in a young woman’s life when she should shun the working world, get married and start having babies.
There is certainly nothing wrong with women getting married and raising children. However, in 1957, it was “either or” not both. In the world of my novel “Last of the Seals” I tried to make the character of TWA stewardess Amelia Ryan, reflective of the narrow opportunities for women in the 1950s.
I found an old job application for stewardesses from the 1950s. The requirements show how far we have come as a society and specifically how far women have come in their quest for equality in the work place.
Here is a laundry list of the requirements for stewardesses. They are:
* Appearance: Height and weight proportionate
Attractive (“just below Hollywood”) Standards
Gender: Female
Martial Status: Single, not divorced, separated or widowed.
Race: White
Age: 21 to 26 years old
Education: Registered nurse or two years of college
Height: Between 5 feet, 2 inches and 5 feet, 6 inches
Weight: 135 pounds maximum

I’m not sure how a woman is supposed to react to the qualification–“attractive, just below Hollywood standards.” Is it a compliment or an insult to be told that you are “just below Hollywood standards.” It’s astounding to think of a job application which lists the “qualifications” as “white, single, female, a range for height and of course a weight restriction. The weight restriction was a sliding scale. For instance, the fictional character, Amelia Ryan is 5 feet four inches which means she could only weigh 125 pounds. If a stewardess shows up for a flight above weight, she is grounded.
The airlines wanted pretty young, single women to provide eye candy for their well-heeled passengers who flew–mostly affluent businessmen. Once a woman was over 26 or was married she was asked to resign.
That of course changed.
On February 11, 1958, Ruth Carol Taylor was hired by Mohawk Airlines and became the first African-American flight attendant in the United States. Ironically, despite her historic breaking of the racial restriction, Ruth’s career ended just six months later due to another discriminatory barrier: she married and was dismissed by the airline. In later years, stewardesses eventually became flight attendants and all of the discriminatory barriers came down one by one. Incidentally, only stewardesses had the age restriction and the marriage ban. No other airline employees and especially pilots, were under the same type of requirements.
In my novel “Last of the Seals”, stewardess Amelia Ryan falls in love with Sam Slater. They want to get married. But Amelia also loves her job. She has to choose between marriage and continuing as a stewardess.
The glamorous world of stewardesses was one of the only avenues open to women in the 1950s to “see the world” and have a career. But it came at a great price.


About gregmessel

I've written six novels and am working on a seventh. My first three novels were "Expiation," "Sunbreaks" and "The Illusion of Certainty." I'm now working on a series of mysteries set in San Francisco in the 1950s. In 2008, I retired from corporate life and so I can spend more time writing. I spent over ten years in the newspaper business. I now live on Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, just north of downtown Seattle.
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