Thank you, Mary Pat Laffey!

MN History Theatre - Stewardess
Tracey Maloney (far left) played Mary Pat Laffey, a Northwest Orient Airlines stewardess and civil rights activist, in the recent production of Stewardess! at the History Theatre in St. Paul. Photo courtesy of the History Theatre / Scott Pakudaitis

Of course, I had to see Stewardess! when it premiered at St. Paul’s History Theatre in February. Fact is, I lived the plot.

Northwest Orient Airlines hired 21-year-old Mary Pat Laffey as a stewardess in 1958, a time when her male counterparts were paid more simply because of their gender. Goaded by the unfairness, Laffey soon set out to initiate change. The play, which chronicles her David-versus-Goliath struggle with corporate giant Northwest Airlines, happened during my career, as I began as a Northwest stewardess just a couple years later in 1960.

Like Laffey, I was thrilled just to get hired. During that era, lured by the prospect of glamour and travel, women flooded the airlines with applications. Many gladly left behind other professions.

But unlike Laffey, sex discrimination was the last thing on my mind. I was excited about my new job. The times then were such that men held most positions of power. Because they “had families to support,” they were entitled to the higher salary.

Stewardesses were golden. We were on a par with models and movie stars, so of course our supervisors were strict concerning weight, grooming, etc. Glasses would have ruined the image; being older and married, as well. Hence we had to resign at age 32 or if we got married.

These rules didn’t apply to the men, but I didn’t care. I loved the job. Little, small-town-girl me — I was out there, seeing the world.

My social life was phenomenal; men were eager to date a “stew.” Comedian Shelley Berman gleefully wondered if the plural of stewardess was stewardii?

The best part was that I worked trips with an assortment of intelligent, interesting women. Although I’d never met Laffey until the night of the play (which she attended), she typified my excellent coworkers. Actress Tracey Maloney beautifully captured Laffey as she is today — unassuming, charming and polite.

Come the mid-1960s, change was in the air. Women’s cries of equal pay for equal work were sounded in other professions. Ms. magazine emerged and took up the cause. Black people were launching their struggle for equality, too.

My rosy attitude began to sour. Nearing the termination age of 32, I fully realized just how unfair Northwest’s rules were — and also how they had a part in creating the image of stewardesses as sex symbols. Our once-prestigious job was trashed in the demeaning book, Coffee, Tea or Me?

Actual change finally was set into motion when President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Title VII of the law barred employers from discriminating against employees on the basis of sex, race or religion. And, as they say … the rest is history.

In 1970, Laffey and other stewardesses (now generically renamed flight attendants) filed a federal class-action suit challenging airline rules that applied only to women. After slogging through the courts for 15 years, Northwest was ordered to pay them $59 million and give women equal footing with male flight attendants.

I kept my job. I received my share of the back pay. I wore glasses. I even got married!

I left the profession at age 51 after putting in 28 years in the air.

And so I say: Thank you, Mary Pat Laffey. Thank you!

Carol Hall lives in Woodbury. She’s a longtime freelance writer and a University of Minnesota graduate. Send comments and questions to [email protected].