Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Star of Davida Interviews Liz Rich

In the 1950s and 60s, being a stewardess (called flight attendant since the 1970s) was one of the most glamorous jobs open to women. The job was far from easy: they had to remain single, adhere to strict dress rules, and maintain a certain weight. Once they reached their early thirties, they had to retire. This large staff turnover (about 40%) was to the benefit the airlines, since few flight attendants managed to earn enough seniority to qualify for benefits. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, flight attendants tried to fight against these unfair policies, but were largely unsuccessful; they filed about 100 complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in its first year of operation, but it took several months until they got so much as a hearing. Due to NOW's efforts and the amazing dedication of hundreds of flight attendants, the EEOC eventually found that the airlines’ policies towards flight attendants counted as sex discrimination and had to stop. Star of Davida had the honor of interviewing Liz Rich, who was a flight attendant during this era.

What airline did you work for?
I worked for TWA [Trans World Airlines].

That doesn’t exist anymore, right?
Right. It was bought by American Airlines, so we were luckier than Pan Am people who didn’t get anything. [Pan Am declared bankruptcy in 1991.]

What years did you work there?

Why did you decide to become a flight attendant in the first place?
I had gone to Europe and worked running service clubs for the Air Force. When I came back to New York, I got a job screening Fulbright applicants, but I wanted to travel because I missed Europe. On the money I was making I couldn’t do that, so I went and applied to become a stewardess then.

How did you get involved in the fight against the airline’s discriminatory policies towards stewardesses?
Because of the new anti-discrimination laws that were being passed in the late 1960s, they couldn’t discriminate against men or women in hiring anymore, that’s when we started hiring men to jobs. When I got hired I had to sign a paper that said I would retire at 35, and that was no longer legal. People just kept on working, I have friends who are still flying at 70.

What other activism were you involved with in the skies?
In 1972 we founded Stewardesses for Women’s Rights, during the feminist movement, because we were fighting against sexist ads and health and safety issues. One issue was carrying radioactive material on passenger planes, we wanted them to stop doing that so we wore badges that would test radiation.

We also had an office in Rockefeller Center which we got in a very funny way. One of our members and founders had a friend who was a lawyer for Ross Perot, and he had bought an investment banking firm called duPont, Glore Forgan and Co. He thought he could show Wall Street how to do it right and they made sure he failed, so he was left with all these offices when duPont went out of business. They had a big building on Wall Street they waned to get rid of but they were renting it and the landlord wouldn’t let them out of the lease, so we cooked up a scheme with them. DuPont told the landlord that they would rent their office space to Stewardesses for Women’s Rights, and they were so sexist down there that the idea of having us in their building horrified them, so they let duPont out of the lease. To pay us back for the favor we did them, duPont gave us a wonderful office for the rest of its lease at Rockefeller Center, 30 Rock. It was a great office for press conferences, so all the women’s groups came there for press conferences and we got to know everybody.

Is that how you connected with groups like NOW?
In those days we got together and go to know everyone anyway, everything was bubbling up then so there would be parties and everyone would introduce you to everyone else.

Are you familiar with the show Pan Am? If so, what are your opinions towards it?
I started watching it and I just found it so ridiculous. It’s sort of unreal, nothing like what it really was.

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