Half the People

Interview with Barbara "Dusty" Roads

Barbara "Dusty" Roads Q: When you were a child were little girls brought differently than they are today?

Roads: Oh, yes, little girls were brought up entirely differently. We lived in a different time of different values and different priorities. Little girls had the opportunity to stay little girls. There were no drugs. Crime was nothing like we have today. Little girls could talk to strangers and we did. I think it was a much easier time, a lot more pleasant. Yes, we had the stress and the strain of the Depression and the war, but I think we had a different moral fiber.

Q: What sort of career did you feel was open to you?

Roads: It was really very limited: you could be a nurse, a librarian, or a schoolteacher. And I just checked those things off as being boring. I really thought of aviation. I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, and, you know, there were a couple of guys that ran a bicycle shop there who invented the airplane...

We had the national air races in Cleveland every year, and so aviation was very big in my life. And I, I had up till I was in high school and found out from my father, "You can't be an airline pilot darling, they don't hire ladies." It broke my heart but... so I settled on being maybe a flight attendant, maybe a stewardess.

I was 12 when I made up my mind. I thought, well, if I can't fly in the cockpit at least I can go up and look out the cockpit windows and meet people who do these interesting things because that was what really I wanted to do. Amelia Earhart, Beryl Markham, Jacqueline Corcoran - they were women who did things and went places and I wanted to go places and do things.

Q: What sort of qualifications did you need to be an airline hostess?

Roads: They were looking for the girl next door, a Doris Day. When I had my interview, one of the things I was asked was if we entertained a lot in our home. We were WASPS -- white, Anglo Saxon Protestants. And they were looking for college graduates.

Q: You wrote a song about being a stewardess...

Roads: I made up a part of it. During our training in Chicago we had to serve on the switchboard. We'd call out the name of the gal who had a phone call. And they'd come out of their respective room. There were six to a room and there were 26 of us in the class, so I'd be up at the switchboard and I'd flick the button and start singing. We had some verses... oh, they were kind of naughty, but we would all get up and have our dungarees rolled up above our knees and we would do a can-can. And we would sing:

We are the airline girls
We wear our hair in curls
We wear our dungarees rolled up above our knees
And when we see a man
We do the best we can
We have that certain spice
Men call it paradise...

And then we'd do the can-can:

Have you had yours today?
Yes, I've had mine today
I have mine every day
That's why I walk this way...

And then we'd say,

Sally is a friend of mine
She will do it any time
For a nickel or a dime,
15 cents for overtime...

We were caught singing that song in the stewardess college. Naughty, naughty.

Q: Can you describe the sort of training you received?

Roads: Well, of course we had a lot of training on how to walk and how to talk, how to bend down in the aisle and not embarrass yourself and how to serve meals. We were trained in dynamics of flight. We had to memorize our route system, all 80 cities. We had a lot of geography. Now we all knew where Miami was and we didn't have to take a class to know that. We also learned how to get along with different types of people. Of course it was all first class passengers and all first class seating then, so it was a different class of passenger that flew.

Being a stewardess was a transition, not a career. This was not a profession, this was a transition between graduating from college and then finding Mr. Right and having the split level ranch with the station wagon in the driveway and two kids in private schools. They even called it the charm farm.

I was having so many good times, so much fun, that I kept postponing Mr. Right. How could I let a man take me away from inaugural balls and skiing in Europe and camping in the High Sierras? I kept putting it off and putting it off and I finally put it off for forever. There was a period there when they wanted to get rid of everybody at age 32 but we had a grandmother clause added to our contract. If you were with the airline prior to November of 1953 you were exempt. I came under the grandmother clause at the glorious age of 25.

Q: Did you feel that the age limit was wrong?

Roads: It made me angry, it really did. It violated my sense of fair play. The pilots could work until age 60 and we were fired at age 32. Something was wrong there. It just violated my midwestern core value of fair play.

Q: What were other reasons for being laid off?

Roads: Oh, if you gained too much weight, if you were terribly rude to a passenger. Of course the customer was always right in those days. If they found out you were married -- good-bye.

You could be fired for safety violations, if they were really flagrant. Safety was not nearly as important then as it is now. I'm happy to say that has become more important. Also, being a frump, you know, a slob... appearance, neatness, was a very, very important thing. They would call it something else but if you were a slob you were out. In those days we weren't even allowed to wear eyeshadow, now it's almost mandatory. Give me a break!

We wore high heels and hose and we were supposed to wear girdles. Occasionally they'd do a girdle check... they'd come up and give you a little finger on the rear-end. If you didn't have a girdle on, you'd be called into the office -- even if you didn't need one, which I didn't 'cause I only weighed about 120 pounds. I was very lucky... I stayed away from all of that because I'm tall and tall people carry their weight better. If you were short and prone to weight gain then you were their target.

Q: Were these rules accepted?

Roads: They were in place when I joined the airline in 1950. And it was a real strange thing, but we accepted the fact that we were fired when we got married. They expected women to get fat and ugly when they got married and had babies. They felt you wouldn't devote as much attention to the job as you should. Pilots - men -- could be married, but it was different for a woman.

Q: What was the airlines' rationale for their rules about stewardesses?

Roads: The image of a stewardess was a young, single girl. The airlines wanted to perpetuate that image so that the male passenger could get on his flight and think, "I may have a date tonight." If he saw a wedding ring on her finger or if she was pregnant -- oh wow. As one of the airline officials said, "If a guy sees a dog, he's mad at the airline for a month." It was so bad -- this image of the young single girl was so prevalent -- that one time during hearings in Congress Martha Griffith stood up and said, "Sir, what are you running -- an airline or a whore house?" And that brought down the house.

Q: How did you try to change things?

Roads: Well, first I became a union officer based in LA. At first I was just interested in the LA flight attendants and then I became a national officer and I was interested in the American Airlines flight attendants. Then I went to conventions with all the other airlines and I was interested in all flight attendants. And then, finally, I was interested in all women. And now I'm interested in humanity.

Q: What was the reaction to accusations of sexual discrimination?

Roads: We had to lobby long and hard... the word sex was left out of the Civil Rights Act until Martha Griffiths in the House and then Margaret Chase Smith in the Senate inserted those words. When it was originally read, the House -- which consisted of 16 women and 400 some men -- laughed. Martha said, "You just don't realize how prevalent this is for women -- your father is nice to you but he's paternalistic and that is how the airline world is -- be nice but don't be smart. Be daddy's little girl." When they laughed, it just went through to her core. She fought to have it in and it stayed in, but they had no intention of enforcing it.

Q: When Johnson signed the civil rights act did you think the problem was solved?

Roads: I was naive. I thought, ho, ho, no problem now. And so we were the first case. The bill said that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission would begin operating on July 1st, 1965. We were on their doorstep. We walked in and looked around at a sea of black faces. Their typewriters were still in boxes. This woman came up to us, two blondes in stewardess uniforms, and she said, "What are you doing here?" And I said, well, we have a problem. She said, "You're white, you're free, and you're 21. What is it?" I said, "Honey, sit down, I got a long story to tell you." So we helped unpack the typewriters and she started typing away. Most of the women in the office were very intelligent, well-educated black ladies who figured that most of the discrimination was going to be against black women. What a big jolt this was for them. We sat down and told them the story of discrimination in the airline industry and they just, oh, they couldn't believe it.

I told her they don't fire the pursers. Oh, type, type, type. They don't fire the flight engineers. Oh, type, type, type. And they don't fire men in cabin service. We thought we had our case won on that because there were TWA pursers and there were Pan American pursers at the time and I think Northwest had some too and they weren't fired. Only the women were. So if that's not blatant, sexual discrimination...

Q: Did you expect to win immediately?

Roads: In my naiveté, yes. In my black and white ideal world, yes, I did. We had several meetings with the EEOC and the Congress and they just kept putting us off, they didn't care. The airlines had tremendous influence of course, and they filed a suit asking for an industry-wide exemption. We knew it was strictly economics. When you go to an insurance company and you say, hey, I have three thousand employees who will never be over 32, who will never get married and who will never have babies... Wow, your insurance costs go way down. And those people will never get up into the higher pay brackets and get pensions and need medical care.

Q: Did you consider yourself a feminist in this period?

Roads: No, I was just for fair play. That was the main thing. It wasn't fair. And the more I saw of the problem the more unfair I realized it was, and I knew it had to be changed by legislation. It could not be done by contract.

Q: Were you aware of the feminist movement and what they were doing?

Roads: They weren't doing anything. We started it. They were doing absolutely nothing. NOW wasn't even in existence. In fact, when NOW came along, they adopted our problem as one of their causes but we had started this thing. We were a little voice way out in the wilderness.

Q: How about male flight attendants -- how did they react to you?

Roads: There weren't any. There weren't any men then, not with American. Not until the Civil Rights Bill passed.

Q: Wasn't your union sympathetic?

Roads: Unfortunately, we were with the Transport Workers Union. They represented a lot of subway workers and mechanics in New York and those are men whose wives basically stayed at home. They had a hard time relating to a woman who wanted a career... they thought a career for a woman was taking care of them and their babies. This was not a big issue for them. The moral issue was important to us as well as the financial issue, but for them it was money. They couldn't relate to us at all. A lot of us were college-educated women; these guys were running the subways. It was two different worlds.

Q: What did it feel like when you finally won?

Roads: It was kind of scary how close we came to not winning. It was a close call. We were getting ready to go on strike at American Airlines; they had been hemming and hawing about the decision for so long. I called Martha and said, "We're getting to roll on a strike here. Frankly, I don't know if we can do it, but this is a big issue. If you know anybody on the Commission, tell them to make a decision one way or the other. Do it, do something." Well, the next day they made the decision.

Q: Do people ever thank you for what you've done?

Roads: Flight attendants? Yes, some do. It's very interesting -- my own age group has been one of the biggest disappointments. But the younger ones have been very appreciative. Especially the young men. And it's so nice to see a composite face on the airplane. It was all so bland; we accepted this. Flight attendants were all white, Anglo Saxon Protestants but then, so were our passengers. Nowadays we have whites, blacks, Mexicans, Chinese, Japanese, gay men, straight men - it's a reflection of what this country is all about.

Q: You did a good job, didn't you?

Roads: I'm just now realizing what I did. It does make me feel good because I was scared; I could have been fired, you know. If somebody wants to get you, they can probably get you, so I tried to keep my nose as clean as possible and I did a good job in the air. I enjoyed my job. I had a good time when I went to work, I really did. I loved it.

I enjoyed flying with the Congressmen. I learned a lot from them and I knew who they all were and they knew me. There were some fun times... once we were at Friendship Field which was a long way from Washington. This was before Dulles. This one time I got a ride into the city with Dick Nixon. We got to the Shore Motel and Nixon got out and opened the door for me. And I said, "Thank you Mr. Nixon." He said, "Any time, Dusty."

Q: What kind of impact do you think the advent of the birth control pill had on women's lives?

Roads: Oh, a tremendous impact. That meant that women could look forward to a career. We had a choice and we could determine when and if we had babies. Oh, that made a tremendous difference... all those thing that give women economic clout are really the basis of women's independence.

Contraception controls your destiny. Timing is everything in life. Lots of gals did fly for five and six months after they got pregnant... we got that through too. They estimated at one time that about 30 percent of the stewardess corps were secretly married.

Q: Do you remember Roe v. Wade?

Roads: Oh yes, I was thrilled to death. I thought it was marvelous. It was a tremendous change. Up to that time only rich women could have abortions. Now everybody could afford abortion. And the rich women didn't have to go to Sweden to get them or have a rich boy friend that knew a doctor in Kansas City. It was available to all.

Q: What was your reaction to the Fly Me advertising campaign?

Roads: Oh, that was trash. Ooh, we just thought that was awful! Now we're not Doris Day any more, now they're trying to sell Madonna. But we hated it, hated it.

Q: How do you feel about actually having moved a mountain?

Roads: It was a pebble, I started a pebble rolling downhill... I gave it a big push. I was very fortunate because being a stewardess, being young and attractive. I had access to what a lot of other people didn't. I didn't play hard-nosed and I wasn't a bra burner. I think those things are fruitless. It's not the armor that you wear; it's your message. Oh, it has to be done over and over again but, but I helped, I helped.

No revolution is ever over. It's always two steps forward and then one step back. I think we're in one step back right now. Look at the crucifixion that Hillary Clinton is getting right now. I think that's a good example...

Q: Have you experienced anything that you would say was a back step for you?

Roads: A back step for me? No, I don't think so. I've been very fortunate. I've always been very positive in my attitude, so I don't think I close a lot of doors. Some of us had to carry on the battle for those who are not as self-assured or as self-confident as I've always been.

Q: Was flying glamorous?

Roads: Oh, it was very glamorous, it was wonderful. If you flew to New York all month you'd have a couple of tickets to a Broadway play and our layovers were long enough so that we could do things. Flying to Washington I got to go to inaugural balls and swearing in ceremonies and the Supreme Court and Tom Clark had me in to see Brown versus the Board of Education. There were wonderful things to see and do and we had time to talk to our passengers and the passengers weren't as busy; they weren't doing their computer work.

Q: What would you say was the best thing that happened to you as a woman during the 20th century?

Roads: Probably my retirement on July 1st of this year. What else can I say? The airline business has changed so very much... I used to look forward to going to work, I really did. And the last few years I flew international out of Dallas and just getting to work was a hassle for me. I loved flying to Europe and I loved flying to London but only European flying is worth it now. We're so estranged from the passengers now. There's such a different relationship than there was years ago. Years ago, we were all sharing this aluminum tube. We were basically at the same education level. They looked up to us. We looked up to them. We were sharing an adventure. Nowadays the American public is so angry at so many things that they get on the plane and they're mad.

Q: How would you compare your life to your mother's life?

Roads: Well, my mother was a very successful working woman. I don't think you can compare her to most women. My mother had gone to college so she was a great deal advanced. I just think that I got a lot of my spunk from her and from my grandmother. But for most women of her era you had to get married in order to live. Who was going to support you? The big trick wasn't getting married, but to marry well. There wasn't a choice. Nowadays women have a choice. If they do get married, their marriages will be better because they want to get married.

I think change has a long way to go but I could be a pilot now. I could be a pilot and young men have the chance to be in the cabin. I could be a doctor instead of a nurse, be a pilot instead of a flight attendant, be the senator instead of the secretary.

About the Series | Episodes | Timeline | Your Stories | Thematic Overview | Teacher's Guide

People's Century | WGBH | PBS Online | Search PBS | Feedback | Shop | ©