Volume 52, Issue 2: Summer 2018

#MeToo: Fighting sexism through labour activism

Photo from Public Domain

Since the revelations of rampant sexual abuse and harassment in Hollywood last year, issues of gender, sex, power, and work have been front and centre in the news and on social media. Thanks in large part to the courageous survivors who have come forward to share their stories, we have learned much about the widespread and systemic nature of gender discrimination and sexual harassment in many workplaces, though celebrity stories have gained more attention than the everyday reality of workers in service, white- and blue-collar jobs.

Feminists, however, are quick to point out that the existence of gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace is neither new nor surprising. The first Canadian book to sound feminist alarm bells on harassment, The Secret Oppression, by Constance Backhouse and Leah Cohen, came out 39 years ago. These issues have long existed, and women have long fought back through a variety of means, including, in the case of unionized workers, collective bargaining and grievances.

Yet unionization and collective labour activism have largely been absent from the #MeToo conversation. This is unfortunate. Although not without flaws, unions and labour organizations are powerful tools that working people have used to challenge power and inequality at work and in society.

The effort of flight attendants to combat sexism in the airline industry is a case in point. A closer look at the history of female flight attendant (FA) activism in Canada reveals that these workers have grappled with issues of discrimination and harassment since the dawn of the commercial airline industry in the 1930s. Over the course of the 20th century, flight attendants used their union to push back against sexist and restrictive policies and practices in the airline industry and to secure significant improvements in their working conditions. Their experiences offer valuable lessons about the power of collective action and how workers might challenge sexism and discrimination today.

Originally called stewards (male) and stewardesses (female), flight attendants have always been a crucial part of the Canadian airline industry. In addition to serving as safety and customer-service professionals, female FAs in particular have often been used to market air travel. To this end, in the 1930s and 1940s, airlines developed strict regulations regarding female flight attendants’ appearance and grooming, covering everything from height, weight and personality to makeup, hair length and undergarments. Although Canadian airlines did not adopt the overtly racist policies of their American counterparts, and did employ women of colour for certain international routes, archival photos and advertisements demonstrate that the ideal flight attendant was still unmistakeably white. Airlines also required female flight attendants to resign upon marriage and barred them from flying while pregnant.

Regulation of female FAs was always more overt, paternalistic, and demeaning; however, companies also policed the appearance of male flight attendants. Management disciplined workers who wore their hair too long, grew beards, or, in one case from the 1980s, wore an earring.

Challenging sexism

Though some flight attendants enjoyed and traded on the idealized image of the FA, by the early 1970s, workers were openly challenging companies’ sexist policies. Some engaged in individual acts of covert resistance (such as removing wedding rings and wearing loose uniforms to hide marriages and pregnancies). As well, many FAs turned to their union, the Canadian Air Line Flight Attendants Association (CALFAA, integrated into CUPE in 1986). Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, CALFAA used the grievance system and collective bargaining to address gender discrimination and policies that required female FAs to smile more, maintain a certain weight and don sexually suggestive uniforms.

Flight attendants also filed a number of complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission. In 1983, a female FA successfully challenged her employer’s policy that barred flight attendants from wearing eyeglasses on the job. CALFAA subsequently used her case against other airlines that refused to hire FAs who wore glasses or contact lenses.

Support from feminists and labour organizations also helped flight attendants to challenge sexist and demeaning policies. In 1971, feminists picketed the Vancouver office of Pacific Western Airlines in support of two flight attendants who had been fired for refusing to wear the company’s new Stampeder uniform (which consisted of a blouse, vest, cowboy hat and boots, and a fringed skirt short enough to reveal the red bloomers underneath) after being groped during a flight. The women who grieved their dismissal were reinstated with back pay, and flight attendants were no longer required to wear the offending uniform.

By the end of the 20th century, flight attendants had successfully challenged a number of sexist policies and practices in the airline industry. Worker and union militancy was key, as was support from allies.

Still, the struggle continues. Earlier this year, CUPE filed a complaint with the Canadian Human Rights Commission on behalf of 8,500 flight attendants working at Air Canada, alleging “rampant sexual harassment and discrimination.” The union claims that the company forced FAs to participate in a “sexualized fashion show” to display new uniforms and dictated what kind of undergarments and makeup they must wear.

Labour history shows us that working people can make great gains when they come together to challenge the power of capital. But it also reminds us that workers and the labour movement must be vigilant and militant. They must continue to resist rollbacks of hard-won rights and protections, and they must continue to push for new victories.

The history of labour struggles over issues related to gender discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace holds important lessons that we can incorporate into our discussions of how to tackle these issues today.

Joan Sangster teaches Gender and Women’s Studies and is the director of the Frost Centre for Canadian Studies and Indigenous Studies at Trent University. Julia Smith is a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of History at Rutgers University.

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