Ross Fitzger­ald

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ross Fitzger­ald

The air host­ess was an im­me­di­ate sym­bol of the jet-set era. The hair, the uni­forms, the fash­ions were all syn­ony­mous with the world of glam­our and in­ter­na­tional travel.

We don’t call them air hostesses any more be­cause that’s po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect. Pru­dence Black’s fine book about Aus­tralian air hostesses is a nos­tal­gic and en­gag­ing back­wards glance at their hey­day.

Some years ago, a friend in Bris­bane put a per­sonal ad in a pa­per that read: “Wanted — grounded Qan­tas hostie.” It worked. He mar­ried her and as far as I know they are still to­gether. Hostesses were seen as de­sir­able, but let’s be­gin at the be­gin­ning.

Ellen Church be­came the world’s first host­ess, or stew­ardess, in the US in 1930. In the years that fol­lowed, air hostesses were rep­re­sented, es­pe­cially in films and pop­u­lar fic­tion, as a unique com­bi­na­tion of care, ca­pa­bil­ity and glam­our. Just the sort of woman a man would want to marry, like my friend in Bris­bane.

Only six years later the first group of Aus­tralian air hostesses started work­ing on board and were sim­i­larly pro­moted in the na­tional media. In­deed, there was a wide­spread view among po­ten­tial Aussie trav­ellers that if a re­as­sur­ing and ca­pa­ble young woman was work­ing on an air­craft, then fly­ing must be safe.

Air travel cre­ated a mod­ern work­place that al­lowed young women to have a job po­ten­tially filled with ad­ven­ture, state-of-the-art tech­nol­ogy and work that was some­times thrilling but of­ten de­mand­ing and ex­haust­ing.

More­over, the air­line host­ess sym­bol­ised a Smile, Par­tic­u­larly in Bad Weather By Pru­dence Black UWA Pub­lish­ing, 310pp, $29.99 new kind of work­ing woman: in­de­pen­dent but also trained, as the au­thor puts it, to “self-reg­u­late as an aes­thetic ob­ject and at the same time be an ex­pert pro­fes­sional”.

Smile, Par­tic­u­larly in Bad Weather takes off with the be­gin­nings of this pi­o­neer­ing pro­fes­sion in the mid-1930s and lands in 1983.

The lat­ter date was when air­line hostesses, along with male flight stew­ards, were re­named flight at­ten­dants. It seems an ap­pro­pri­ate cut­off point. More­over, the new name marked a sig­nif­i­cant vic­tory in which fe­male work­ers had suc­cess­fully as­serted them­selves.

Of­ten sin­gle, th­ese women, some of whom worked on the long­est, most iso­lated and chal­leng­ing air routes in the world, had joined forces in 1956 to cre­ate the Air­line Hostesses As­so­ci­a­tion, one of the first fe­male pro­fes­sional unions in Aus­tralia.

“Not only did this as­so­ci­a­tion make an is­sue of the dif­fi­cult phys­i­cal con­di­tions of fly­ing,” Black writes, “but it also re­sponded to the threat of early forced re­tire­ment once the air­line hostesses no longer con­formed to the in­dus­try-pro­moted image of youth­ful beauty.”

This book use­fully de­scribes how in the 60s, 70s and early 80s the unionised ‘‘hosties” fought against be­ing stereo­typed and dis­crimi- nated against in terms of wages and work­ing con­di­tions.

The fi­nal chap­ter pow­er­fully chron­i­cles the gen­der wars in the Aus­tralian avi­a­tion in­dus­try af­ter Regi­nald Ansett called a group of air hostesses “a batch of old boil­ers”. Black coun­ter­points this of­fen­sive, highly sex­ist ut­ter­ance with the fact, by the early 80s, male stew­ards were fi­nally al­lowed and en­cour­aged to work on our do­mes­tic air­lines.

All in all Smile, Par­tic­u­larly in Bad Weather sheds new light on the im­por­tance of a pro­fes­sion that helped change the em­ploy­ment land­scape for women.

Some of the black-and-white illustrations and coloured plates are a hoot. A stand­out is a pho­to­graph, taken in Au­gust 1938, of then prime min­is­ter Joseph Lyons — who car­toon­ists of­ten de­picted as a cud­dly koala — arm in arm with a group of Aus­tralian Na­tional Air­ways air hostesses. As it hap­pens, Lyons was one of ANA’s most ge­nial pas­sen­gers on his trips from his home state of Tasmania.

But my favourite pho­to­graph, taken in 1959, is of a cap­ti­vat­ing Qan­tas flight host­ess hold­ing a real koala. De­signed to cap­ture the at­ten­tion of the over­seas mar­ket, the image fea­tures a hostie wear­ing Qan­tas’s new “Jun­gle Green” uni­form and wear­ing a seem­ingly per­ma­nent smile. It’s all a bit of retro fun in a book that also has a se­ri­ous in­tent in record­ing the em­pow­er­ment of women. is emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of his­tory and politics at Griffith Univer­sity.

Retro trip: a koala re­ceives first class treat­ment on Qan­tas

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