The Nursing Mile High Club

Nurses are a lot like flight attendants. Imagine the modern hospital as a large flying spaceship. The physicians are the pilots, or perhaps they would contend that the administrators are the pilots. The hospital patients are mostly all the passengers packed into economy class, with perhaps a few VIP hospital patients in first class patient suites. So, of course, the nurses are the flight attendants of this hospital spaceship. They keep passengers comfortable by bringing them coffee, tea or soft-drinks, they help passengers in and out of bathrooms, they answer call bells, they ensure safety by keeping bed guardrails up, and they help to avoid a mass stampede of panicked passengers/patients running for the exits.

In fact, the first flight attendants were nurses. From 1930 to 1945 Boeing  Air/United Airlines hired nurses to be flight attendants—called stewardesses then. Nurses were hired to calm passengers’ nerves in the early days of flying, and to attend to their comfort by bringing passengers food and drink, and tucking them in at night on long flights. Perhaps they gave sedatives to really nervous passengers. They wore the iconic white nurses’ uniforms, replete with the winged nursing caps left over from the nunnery roots of nursing.

But ramping up after WWII, stewardesses were mainly hired for their sex appeal, and soon became one of the most sexualized female lines of work—even more sexualized than nursing. Until the mid-1960s and the Civil Rights movement, flight attendants were all women. They were all pretty, thin, young, unmarried and un-pregnant women. They wore designer uniforms ranging from hot pants with patent leather go-go boots, to futuristic spaceship suits. Euphemistically known as “tarts with carts,” “trolley dollies,” and ‘flying mattresses,” stewardesses regularly endured pats to their derrieres as they worked the aisles, and it was common for frequent flyer businessmen to marry a stewardess. National Airlines had an infamous and financially successful “Fly Me” TV ad campaign in the early 1970s, with sultry female flight attendants declaring “I’m going to fly you like you’ve never been flown before.” The feminist NOW organization picketed their headquarters.

Currently, about 30% of all US flight attendants are male, and the median age is 44. These changing demographics, coupled with more enlightened cultural mores, successful unions, and post 9-11 increased seriousness of air travel, have all helped to raise the professional status of US flight attendants. In other countries, most notably Asian countries, almost all flight attendants continue to be young attractive females, although an enterprising new Thai airline is recruiting and hiring ‘kathoeys,’ otherwise known as ‘ladyboys,’ “third sex” male transgender people.

Flight attendants and nurses are both service-oriented professions with roots in traditional female roles. Flight attendants have a history of being much more overtly sexualized than do nurses. So how have flight attendants managed to come so much further than nursing in terms of gender parity—and in only eighty years? As I mentioned in a previous post “More than a few good men needed in nursing,” currently only 7% of the US nursing workforce is male. Although I was not able to find specific data on attrition rates by gender and profession, my sense is that male nurses have much higher rates of leaving the profession than do male flight attendants. So it’s not just a matter of recruiting, educating, and hiring more male nurses in the US, we also need to do a better job at retaining male nurses. Otherwise, perhaps they will all go join the friendly skies.

See also:  “Tracing flight attendants’ path from nurse to model to professional” blog post by Aubrey Cohen 1-28-11,  Seattle-PI‘s Aerospace News, about Seattle’s Museum of Flight’s display of flight attendants’ uniforms over the years (“Style in the Aisle”).

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