Meet The Women Who Changed The World While Flying It

Meet The Women Who Changed The World While Flying It

Maligned as feminist sellouts, “stewardesses,” as they were called, knew different: they were on the frontlines of a battle to assert gender equality and transform the workplace. Directed by Sarah Colt and Helen Dobrowski, Fly With Me tells the story of the pioneering women flight attendants who changed the world while flying it. The film premieres on American Experience Tuesday, February 20, at 9pm on CET / ThinkTV16, the station livestreams and the PBS App.

At a time when single women were unable to order a drink or eat alone in a restaurant, forbidden to own a credit card or get a prescription for birth control, becoming a stewardess offered unheard-of opportunities for travel and independence. But the airline industry’s women navigated strict job requirements with sexist and racist work environments.

The airlines restricted stewardesses based on marriage status, age and appearance – from race to height and weight. They were expected to be young, single and attractive, which, in 1950s America, meant white. Fly With Me includes firsthand accounts and personal stories of the flight attendants who fought to break down these barriers.

Women such as Pat Banks, one of the first Black flight attendants in the U.S., and Barbara “Dusty” Roads, co-founder of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, demanded change. Hundreds of flight attendants filed complaints about gender and race discrimination in the industry. Some women even filed class action lawsuits and brought their cases to court as they searched for justice.

Fly With Me uncovers the exploitation, activism and pitched battles within the courtrooms of the United States. The documentary features over 20 flight attendants, legal advocates and scholars as they explore the neglected history of stewardesses.

“The women of Fly With Me broke barriers by becoming flight attendants in the first place, but what is so remarkable is that they were also on the vanguard of fighting for workplace equity,” said Fly With Me director Sarah Colt in a press release. “By exploring this history, we show the power of individuals to make change and how gender, race and class are critically intertwined.”

Learn more about some of the flight attendants featured in the film:

Patricia “Pat” Noisette Banks Edmiston became one of the first Black flight attendants in 1960, four years after filing a lawsuit with the New York State Commission on Discrimination. She retired after one year and went on to raise two children while working for the New York State Office of Alcohol and Substance Abuse. She was inducted into the Black Aviation Hall of Fame in 2010.

Celeste Lansdale Brodigan became a flight attendant at United Airlines in 1962. She was secretly married for four years before the airline found out and terminated her. Celeste filed a grievance with her union, brought her complaint to the EEOC, filed an injunction and lawsuit, and finally took her story to The Miami Herald. Celeste won her lawsuit and worked for United Airlines for 35 years, flying military air charters during the Vietnam and Gulf Wars.

Mary Pat Laffey Inman was an active leader in her union and fought to become the first woman hired as a purser by Northwest Airlines. In 1970, she organized her fellow flight attendants to file a class action lawsuit to demand equal pay and treatment for women working as flight attendants and pursers at the airline. After more than a decade of appeals by Northwest, in 1984 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the ruling in her favor.

Undra Mays was hired in 1970 by National Airlines where she faced workplace discrimination because she was Black. With no recourse within her company or union, she contacted The Southern Poverty Law Center. She was later chosen to participate in the “Fly Me” National ad campaign, one of only a few Black women featured. She retired in 2020 after 50 years of flying.

Barbara “Dusty” Roads (1928-2023) fought against American Airlines’ mandatory retirement age for women. She lobbied members of Congress on flights to Washington, DC, and staged press conferences to see if reporters could pick out the 32-year-old flight attendants in a lineup. In 1977, she co-founded the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which now represents over 26,000 people. Roads worked for American Airlines for 44 years.

Fly With Me premieres Tuesday, February 20, at 9pm on ThinkTV16. Learn more: https://www.thinktv.org/american-experience-fly-with-me/.