Perspectives: Women's History Month: Art imitates lifeand law.


Byline: Marshall H. Tanick

"I am woman, hear me roar."

Helen Reddy, "I Am Woman" (1971)

The Minnesota History Theatre's highly-acclaimed play "Stewardess" fittingly concluded its well-attended three-week run in the first weekend of this month.

The timing was appropriate for the first in a series of herstory dramas at the St. Paul facility because it heralded the beginning of Women's History Month, following high on the heels of Black History Month in February.

The play focused on the battle successfully fought by women stewardesses, now known as flight attendants, to overcome legendary discriminatory treatment in the airline industry, ranging from prohibitions on marriage, weight limits, 32 year-old age maximums, and unequal pay and promotion opportunities, among other indignities. Those fights were waged at many carriers, but centered on Minnesota's own Northwest Airlines, then known as Northwest Orient, and now part of Delta.

The drama's legal backdrop stems from the Civil Rights movement of the 1950's -1960's, which preceded a pair of civil lawsuits that transformed the frozen tundra of Minnesota into Ground-Zero in the fight for equality for women in the workplace, a topic of particular timeliness commemorating this month of Women's History.

Stewardess suit

The climax of the play was the lawsuit successfully challenging a number of Northwest practices, paralleling those throughout the industry, in Laffey v. Northwest Airlines, 567 F2d 459 (D. C. Cir. 1976), reh. denied (1977). The case was the outgrowth of a series of legal developments in administrative forums, collective bargaining, and the courts over a decade that set aside various inequities and restrictions imposed upon women stewardesses, such as the marital prohibition and 32-year-old age maximum.

The zenith was the Laffey ruling, largely affirming a lower court decision finding that the carrier violated two Federal laws, the Equal Pay Act and the gender discrimination provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, with respect to pay disparities and other improper differentials between the women and the overwhelmingly-male purser positions, essentially glorified stewardesses, who got higher pay, better flight schedules, more uniform stipends, and more lenient weight restrictions, among other matters.

The decision was handed down after an unusually long 13-month lapse following oral argument in Washington, D. C. It deemed the airline to have violated the law by "blocking the...

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