Sexism and the Airline Industry
Lee Perry, a local San Diegan who started working for PSA Airlines in the late 1960s, is quick to confirm the airline industry’s strict employment requirements with regard to women at the time. Perry recalls her experience with PSA Airlines like this:
They told us exactly what to weigh, and would check to see if we were tall enough. We couldn’t go 5 pounds over or under, or we could get suspended. They had a weight chart, and they decided among themselves if we were “light,” “medium,” or “heavy boned” … that might give us a couple-pound leeway.
We had to wear exactly the makeup they wanted for us. This meant some got Merle Norman if they had a bad complexion, and the rest of us got Clairol face makeup, which they don’t even make anymore. We had to wear the “PSA Green” eye shadow and the “PSA Orange” lipstick. I remember it as 24 Karat Orange by Clairol.
Our hairdos had to be approved by our supervisors, who were all ex-stewardesses, too. We had to wear false eyelashes — the more the better, they said. “We want to see lips and eyes from the back of the plane.” I wore three pair, one on top of each other. With my dyed black hair I looked like Marlo Thomas, but they called me “Cleopatra.”
We wore heavy-duty nylons because of the planes’ gravity — so we wouldn’t get varicose veins, they said. We had to wear bright orange “petty pants” under our mini skirts and they wanted us to show them off.
We couldn’t be married or have any children, and if we did and they found out we would be fired. They checked our teeth, and we had to do whatever they requested. I, for example, had to file down one of my bottom teeth because it was a bit higher than the others. Had to be even, they said.
They schooled us regularly on staying with them because they had invested a lot of money on us, and didn’t want us running off with someone as a result of the many proposals we would get just for being “PSA Stews.”
At first I thought they were nuts to say such a thing — but it happened regularly.
You couldn’t be just pretty, or just have a great figure; you had to be pretty, have a great figure and have a “bubbly” personality. Eventually, they went Union and over time the age and weight, and exact dress and makeup codes went out the window. But it also made the airlines just another job — not the extraordinary plane ride with the most beautiful women in the world, as the news and magazines often stated.
This is the only picture I have left of that time. It’s from the day they recognized me as Miss PSA for March of 1970. They put me through the ringer that day just to prove to everyone they hired ladies who were gracious girls with personality … I guess.
It started with having me answer a phone call in the stew lounge at 6:30 a.m. — and the phone was full of shaving cream which got all over my hair, a big deal because we had to look just perfect at all times. But it was my response they were after, and I just cracked up and then went to the restroom and wiped it off as best I could.
I was then called to the terminal’s ticket counter over the loudspeaker (all this happened at the Burbank Airport) where in front of crowds they put this ball and chain on my ankle and basically staked me out in front of all the passengers boarding, who, yes, asked many questions amid wild stares.
I still didn’t have any idea I had been voted Miss PSA for that month, so here I am wondering what’s going on and why, and then my sister shows up — a wonderful surprise, so I know something is happening, but still not sure as to what. My sister started acting like she was handicapped, just to throw some more humor into this mess. She mortified me with her perfect act as she had the general manager of the airport and the PSA muckity-mucks feeling sorry for me. I kept telling them she was really O.K., and they nodded at each other trying to be understanding, thinking I was pretending she was mentally healthy. (We laughed about this often until the day she died.)
Finally, they take me into the restaurant, and tell me what the occasion is and that they had never had such a good sport. They kept me in the ball and chain though, for a while, just to make sure all the photogs got their shot. Someone sent the above photo to me, or I wouldn’t have had any proof of the day at all.
Despite it all, it never occurred to us to feel abused. We were so grateful for being “chosen.” Many applied, few were chosen. As a matter of fact, it was only a few that were hired at the same time as me. Out of more than 1,500 girls who were interviewed in San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco combined, two came from little ol’ El Cajon High — me and Carol Twite, who became Carol Hill and was with PSA for years and years. She stayed with US Air for a while, then moved to Charlotte to become a flight attendant for famous race car drivers who have their own Lear jets.
She tried to get me to join her, just as my sister tried to get me to Hollywood with her, but I’m just a hometown, family-loving country girl.