Nursing Mile High Club Take 2

wierdflightattendants

Meliorism: The doctrine that the world, or society, may be improved and suffering alleviated through rightly directed human effort; a policy embodying this doctrine. (Source: OED) Meliorism, as in this statement by William James in his book (or really his collection of Gifford lectures given in Edinburgh) The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902): “The idea of a universal evolution lends itself to a doctrine of general meliorism and progress which fits the religious needs of the healthy-minded so well that it seems almost as if it might have been created for their use.” (p. 90) I recently re-read this book for an essay I am writing on science and religion, but it also has come in handy as I process the recent backsliding (yes, a religious term) in social justice progress in our country. Meliorism as a doctrine was, of course, dealt a serious blow with WWII and the Nazi atrocities as revealed during the Nuremberg Trials.

My own ‘belief’ in meliorism has been dealt a serious blow, but my resolve to work towards social justice is strengthened. And I look for evidence of progress wherever I can in order to bolster my resolve. Including in the somewhat dusty archives of this blog. “The Nursing Mile High Club” (originally published February 11, 2011) is one of my personal favorite blog posts to research and write. Re-reading it (and re-viewing the accompanying photo) makes me smile because it reminds me of how far nursing as a profession has come. Plus, it reminds me of how far my “real writing” career has come in the six years since I started this blog/website. Enjoy.

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Nurses are a lot like flight attendants. Imagine the modern hospital as a large flying spaceship. The physicians are the pilots, or perhaps they would contend that the administrators are the pilots. The hospital patients are mostly all the passengers packed into economy class, with perhaps a few VIP hospital patients in first class patient suites. So, of course, the nurses are the flight attendants of this hospital spaceship. They keep passengers comfortable by bringing them coffee, tea or soft-drinks, they help passengers in and out of bathrooms, they answer call bells, they ensure safety by keeping bed guardrails up, and they help to avoid a mass stampede of panicked passengers/patients running for the exits.

In fact, the first flight attendants were nurses. From 1930 to 1945 Boeing  Air/United Airlines hired nurses to be flight attendants—called stewardesses then. Nurses were hired to calm passengers’ nerves in the early days of flying, and to attend to their comfort by bringing passengers food and drink, and tucking them in at night on long flights. Perhaps they gave sedatives to really nervous passengers. They wore the iconic white nurses’ uniforms, replete with the winged nursing caps left over from the nunnery roots of nursing.

But ramping up after WWII, stewardesses were mainly hired for their sex appeal, and soon became one of the most sexualized female lines of work—even more sexualized than nursing. Until the mid-1960s and the Civil Rights movement, flight attendants were all women. They were all pretty, thin, young, unmarried and un-pregnant women. They wore designer uniforms ranging from hot pants with patent leather go-go boots, to futuristic spaceship suits. Euphemistically known as “tarts with carts,” “trolley dollies,” and ‘flying mattresses,” stewardesses regularly endured pats to their derrieres as they worked the aisles, and it was common for frequent flyer businessmen to marry a stewardess. National Airlines had an infamous and financially successful “Fly Me” TV ad campaign in the early 1970s, with sultry female flight attendants declaring “I’m going to fly you like you’ve never been flown before.” The feminist NOW organization picketed their headquarters.

Currently, about 30% of all US flight attendants are male, and the median age is 44. These changing demographics, coupled with more enlightened cultural mores, successful unions, and post 9-11 increased seriousness of air travel, have all helped to raise the professional status of US flight attendants. In other countries, most notably Asian countries, almost all flight attendants continue to be young attractive females, although an enterprising new Thai airline is recruiting and hiring ‘kathoeys,’ otherwise known as ‘ladyboys,’ “third sex” male transgender people.

Flight attendants and nurses are both service-oriented professions with roots in traditional female roles. Flight attendants have a history of being much more overtly sexualized than do nurses. So how have flight attendants managed to come so much further than nursing in terms of gender parity—and in only eighty years? As I mentioned in a previous post “More than a few good men needed in nursing,” currently only 7% of the US nursing workforce is male. Although I was not able to find specific data on attrition rates by gender and profession, my sense is that male nurses have much higher rates of leaving the profession than do male flight attendants. So it’s not just a matter of recruiting, educating, and hiring more male nurses in the US, we also need to do a better job at retaining male nurses. Otherwise, perhaps they will all go join the friendly skies.

See also:  “Tracing flight attendants’ path from nurse to model to professional” blog post by Aubrey Cohen 1-28-11,  Seattle-PI‘s Aerospace News, about Seattle’s Museum of Flight’s display of flight attendants’ uniforms over the years (“Style in the Aisle”).

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Note: 2016 statistics on gender parity for flight attendants is difficult to find, but most updated reliable sources seem to place male flight attendants at 25-30%. For nursing, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation January 2016 policy brief “The Changing Face of Nursing: Creating a Workforce for an Increasingly Diverse Nation” states that the 2014 RN workforce was 10% men. So at least for nursing in the US gender parity—and work attire—is improving.

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