EXCERPT: 'When Everything Changed,' by Gail Collins

Despite the fact that the American experience was built around women who ventured off to create homes in an unexplored continent, there had always been a presumption that a proper woman didn't move around too much, and there was certainly a conviction that sending a woman on a business trip raised far too many risks of impropriety. Georgia Panter, a stewardess for United Airlines in 1960, noticed that except for the occasional family, her flights were populated only by men. One regular run, "The New York Executive" from New York to Chicago, actually barred female passengers. The men got extra large steaks, drinks and cigars – which the stewardesses were supposed to bend over and light.

Women had been eager participants in the early years 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. The airlines originally hired nurses to serve as flight attendants, but by the postwar era, trained health care workers were long gone and the airlines were looking for attractive, unmarried young women whose main duty would be serving drinks and meals.

Georgia Panter and her sister – who also became a United stewardess – grew up in Smith Center, Kansas, a plains town so remote "we used to run outside if a car went by to see who was in it." When the Panter sisters joined United, they became celebrities back home, and the local paper ran a picture of them in their uniforms. They quickly learned the downsides of the job, from the very low salary to the indignity of constantly being weighed and measured by "counselors" watching to make sure they kept their slender figures. "We had inspections often," Georgia said wryly. "Everybody seemed to think they should inspect us. Every department." (Besides limits on weight and height, stewardesses were required, according to one promotion, to have hands that were "soft and white" – a hint as to how welcome African-American applicants were at the time.) But despite the appearance police and pay that was lower than she had received working as a clerk for the University of Denver, Panter loved having the chance to travel. She and her sister gradually accumulated enough seniority to allow them to fly around the world on their airline passes, and they found that single women tourists were about as rare as female businesswomen on airplanes. "People were fascinated. They'd come up to us, talk to us, invite us to their homes. They thought it was so unusual."

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