Flight Attendants as Subjects of Desire


ctivists and scholars have demonstrated that the airline stewardesses of the mid-20th century were objects of desire. Tight designer dresses, stiletto-heeled go-go boots, hairpieces, and false eyelashes were presumably worn to arouse the fantasies of businessmen, whose ticket purchases were the foundation of the industry’s political economy. In her sharp DuBoisian analysis of airline culture, Historian Kathleen Barry demonstrates that the glamor associated with being an object of desire paid a psychological wage, one that was supposed to supplement the low pay and scant job security that defined stewardess labor before 1970 (Barry, 2007: 36-59; Vantoch, 2013). Barry shows that union activists built alliances with the women’s liberation movement to challenge the sexist appearance standards, age limits, and marriage restrictions that turned stewardesses into objects (Barry, 2007: 122-143). While I also illustrate how activists have contested objectifying practices, the participants in this author meets critics session argued that Deregulating Desire’s original contribution lies in my decision to reimagine flight attendants as subjects of desire. As Alan Sears put it, the book tells the story of a social movement built around “struggles for sexual subjectivity.” My work places desire at the center of that narrative, documenting how flight attendants mobilized to win the pleasures, the experiences, and the relationships that they wanted. Such desires became the fuel for workplace activism that, as Wieqiang Lin framed it during our conversation, sought to contest the “heteropatriarchal pathways and values” that big business and government have laid out.

My critics emphasized that flight attendants emerged as sexual subjects through the practice of making political demands. By the middle of the 1970s, flight attendants’ increasingly militant demands drew widespread media attention. Union leaders at TWA, for example, rejected what company negotiators called “the most lucrative contract settlement ever offered to flight attendants” in June 1976, pushing the company to provide more money. Continental Airlines flight attendants walked out on strike during the 1980 Christmas rush, insisting on an unprecedented 50% raise. As Caitlin Henry argues, these disputes are most important not because of the specific contents of flight attendants’ demands, but because of the political process of making demands. Henry draws on Kathi Weeks’ political theoretical critique The Problem with Work, which shows that on the one hand, demands offer new perspectives, creating cognitive maps for political positions that may not yet exist (2011: 127). Unpacking Mariarosa Dalla Costa and Selma James’ bid for wages for housework, Weeks claims that their demand denaturalized the relationship between family and work by seeking cash remuneration for care work that—previous to Dalla Costa and James’ intervention—was assumed to be part of women’s nature (130). But on the other hand, demands are also a provocation. For Weeks, walking the picket line and rejecting “the most lucrative contract offer ever made” (131) has a performative aspect, one that reiterates a bold insatiability that may elicit new collective formations and political hopes. Making demands, in other words, is productive in both ontological and epistemological terms, generating new subjects who may not have existed before the struggle began. Such subjects, Weeks argues, are constituted not in biological terms as they would be in mobilization around needs, or in juridical terms as they would be in mobilization around rights, but rather in terms of desire, as mobilization around demands rests on activists’ most important wants (134).

Caitlin Henry and Alan Sears argue that such wants make up the most pivotal moments in the book, those when subjects of desire come into being. Sears commented that TWA flight attendant Janet Lhuillier’s narration of a 1983 workplace victory is particularly illustrative of the political significance of desire. Despite management’s appeal for wage and benefit concessions, flight attendants demanded a 30% raise during bargaining for a new contract. Through a particularly shrewd use of mediated negotiations, activists won the raise. Lhuillier explained the importance of this advance by describing herself enjoying a cup of tea in a café on a Paris layover, looking out over the Champs Elysees on a sunny morning and thinking, “I am richer than shit right now!” Although her narrative about the pay hike undoubtedly reveals middle class aspirations, as she relished the prospect of home ownership and paying for her children’s college, Lhuillier framed this economic advance in terms of bodily pleasure. She recounted how the new contract allowed her to stroll through the streets of Paris and indulge in the sights, sounds, and tastes of the city. By putting the pleasures of looking and consuming at the center of her analysis, Lhuillier makes desire—and not her domestic responsibilities as a wife and a mother—the primary moral justification for a labor win.

Noting that many of the examples in Deregulating Desire took place prior to airline deregulation, Caitlin Henry invited me to reflect on the relevance of earlier decades’ performative demands to the current anti-worker environment. Contemporary flight attendant organizing demonstrates that although victories are rare, that insatiable demands can still translate into concrete political economic gains. Early next year, members of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA at United Airlines will begin working under a new contract that is the product of six years of tireless bargaining. Union activists outlasted the vigorously anti-union administration of United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek, who was sacked for his connection to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s corruption scandal in 2015. Flight attendants finally won a deal that includes time and a half pay for any worker who volunteers to fly on days when the airline is understaffed, a coveted pay incentive that remained elusive even at the high-water mark of the flight attendant union movement of the 1970s. In an era when Starbucks—a company touted for employee friendliness—forces baristas to either work sick or find a replacement to cover their shift, United flight attendants can call in sick, earn full sick pay, and leave it to management to find a replacement who will earn time and a half on a busy day. By refusing to yield to Smisek in a bargaining process that often felt interminable, activists won valuable new resources despite facing the most anti-union political environment in a century.

While my focus on flight attendants’ political demands provides an original optic for labor history, my respondents argue that in some cases I elide important dynamics from my analysis of desire, and I agree with that criticism. Most importantly, Caitlin Henry and Alan Sears note that while the epilogue thoroughly engages that category of race in the contemporary airline industry, the body chapters of the book often default to the context of whiteness without naming that analytical scope. As the mostly white flight attendant work group challenged the boundaries of suburban nuclear family in the 1970s, black and brown women were categorically denied access to traditional domesticity.1 In part because the jobs open to women of color had often forced them to work in the intimate spaces of white people’s offices, farms, and homes, black and brown women bore white people’s scorn for being too mobile, for lacking sexual self restraint, and for failing to commit to monogamy or defer to husbands’ authority. The physical and sexual mobility at the core of many white flight attendants’ liberationist agenda was thus simultaneously an explicit component of white people’s racism toward women of color. By failing to fully grapple with that tension, the book tends to use the particular dynamics of white women’s struggle against domesticity to explain flight attendants’ politics writ-large, which leaves flight attendants of color without a historical framework to understand their own position in the airline industry. Foregrounding the racialization of sexual regulation would have helped me make a stronger case for why the flight attendant union movement is particularly important to— rather irrelevant for—the struggles of women of color. At a moment when the third world and woman of color feminists of the 1970s were mobilizing for better jobs, less work, and higher pay, flight attendants were making the exact same demands, which could have been the basis for a deeper alliance between movements. Deregulating Desire’s historical approach sometimes overdetermins the book’s intersectional aims, as a tight focus on what was among a group of mostly white workers distracted me from leveling a more systematic political theoretical critique of what could have been.

While Henry and Sears advocate for a more comprehensive approach to the book’s primary analytical categories, Weiqiang Lin raises a provocative question about the spatial scale of the project. Why, Lin asks, when the airline industry operates in global financial markets and cultural networks, does Deregulating Desire make the nation state its principle focus? International competition has undoubtedly diminished the stature of the major U.S. carriers, and has reduced the number of coveted long-haul flying jobs for their flight attendants. With new firms such as Emirates, Etihad Airlines, and Air Asia flourishing, Delhi, Bangkok, Hong Kong, and other once-profitable global cities are much more difficult for U.S. carriers to serve. And as Lin points out, since many of these new companies recruit flight attendants from Eastern Europe, India, Malaysia, and the Philippines who work on short term contracts and send remittances home to their loved ones, airline labor dynamics have reconfigured the family on a global basis and not just within the U.S.2

Despite the importance of the transnational optic that Lin proposes, I purposely focus on the national scale to foreground how cultural and economic forces within the Global North have perpetuated workers’ dispossession. In an era when the Trump Administration blames Mexican and Chinese workers for stealing U.S. manufacturing jobs, my book shows how a particular set of U.S. state and managerial practices have been far more damaging to airline employees than competition from the Global South. Those practices include the introduction of new technology that reduces the demand for labor, managerial deployment of ideas about race, class, sex, and the family that make it more difficult for workers to build broad-based coalitions, judicial repression of union organizing tactics, and aggressive corporate political mobilization against the social safety net. While some U.S. airline jobs have been transferred to lower paid workers in Kuala Lumpur and Dubai, managers take greater advantage of the precarity of poor whites and poor people of color within the U.S. who use subcontracted, low-wage, non-union airline work as one of many strategies to survive gentrification, mass incarceration, welfare cutbacks, and the elimination of living wage jobs. The processes of uneven spatial development and state repression within the Global North that are the focus of Deregulating Desire help explain why perhaps the greatest economic threat to today’s major U.S. airlines is not a company from Qatar or India or Taiwan, but rather is Norwegian Air Shuttle. The Oslo-based discount carrier exploits the liberalization of European transport and labor policy to hire lower-wage Irish workers to undercut United, American, Air France, Lufthansa, and other unionized firms on the highest-profile transatlantic routes.

Lin’s commentary reveals that by restricting its scope to one industry and one national context, Deregulating Desire inevitably raises as many questions as it answers. I thank David Seitz for organizing a roundtable that engaged those questions in such a generative manner. While our conversation centered on flight attendants, we recognized that many people have made political claims as subjects of desire. Scholars and activists have rightly pointed out that neoliberal reforms—privatization, deunionization, welfare rollbacks, and the criminalization of poverty, among many others—deeply constrained most people’s mobility, aspirations, and standard of living in the years after 1970. Nevertheless, activists built an increasingly bold political agenda around their wants and not just their needs during the same time period. The welfare rights movement, for example, insisted that poor women, and especially poor women of color, deserve the resources and the autonomy to live on their own terms, and not on the terms of social scientists, clergy, or bureaucrats. Although the racist and sexist counterattack against welfare has been the subject of widespread analysis, welfare benefits exist in part because young, poor women politicized their own desires. Focusing on pleasures and wants by no means minimizes the devastating impact of welfare cuts, deregulation, or financialization. Instead, and as our roundtable demonstrated, it provides a critical tool for understanding the dynamics that motivate activists to struggle for economic justice. Notes[1] Grace Hong’s analysis of Fordist political economy at its intersection with the racialization of domesticity does a sharp job of framing these divergent histories. See: Grace Kyungwon Hong, The Ruptures of American Captial: Women of Color Feminism and the Ruptures of American Labor (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006) 67-106.[2] Weiqiang Lin suggested Christine Yano’s book as a text that engages the transformation of the family through airline labor. See: Christine Yano, Airborne Dreams: “Nisei” Stewardesses and Pan American World Airways (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).


Barry KM (2007) Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 36-59.
Vantoch V (2013) The Jet Sex: Airline Stewardesses and the Making of an American Icon. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
Weeks K (2011) The Problem with Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.