“Dusty Roads stood up for an entire class of women workers – then known as stewardesses – who were supposed to work hard while being decorative, and then be cast aside at 32. In so doing, she also transformed the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission into the first agency that protected women of all races; indeed, the first that addressed race as well as sex. Women and men need her example as a light on the path ahead.”
- Gloria Steinem.
Too Old at Age Thirty-two?
How would you respond if, after being hired for your dream job at age twenty-two, you were told by your company that you would be fired at age thirty-two because you’ll be too old by then to perform your duties? In 1953, American Airlines actually mandated the forced firing of stewardesses at age thirty-two presumably because they would be too old to fly. Like marriage restrictions, this rule soon became an industry-wide regulation and many stewardesses lived in fear of losing their jobs.
Barbara “Dusty” Roads, hired as an American Airlines stewardess in 1950, was retroactively protected from dismissal, but nevertheless felt that the termination rule was as arbitrary and sexist as other restrictive ones. After all, no male steward or commercial pilot ever had the same demands made upon their employment. Since she couldn’t be fired for growing old, she felt she had nothing to lose by fighting the rule and her Midwestern sense of fair play propelled her into action on behalf of her colleagues.
Trailblazer against Discrimination
Dusty believed that this rule was so unfair that she was determined to change it and other subjective glamour and working conditions. She joined her union, soon became a union negotiator and in 1958 was appointed and served as the national ALSSA (Airline Stewards and Stewardesses Association) Washington, D.C. legislative representative at a time when there was a scarcity of female representatives and senators in Congress. She wasn’t paid to be a lobbyist and would peform those duties on layovers during her regular Los Angeles to Washington D.C. flights. “I was the cheapest lobbyist in the world,” Dusty says. “Congressmen took me out to lunch.”
After ten years of lobbying and negotiating without compromise, Dusty organized a press conference in 1963 to bring public attention to and protest the retirement policy, which was a first in the Second Wave of the Woman’s Movement. She and her coworker, Jean Montague, were the first in the country to file a discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission when the doors opened in 1965 a year after the Civil Rights Act and Title VII were passed in 1964. It would be the first time that the EEOC recognized that discrimination came in the form of sex bias as well as racial discrimination.
An Uphill Battle
Dusty was eventually instrumental in overturning the retirement policy and other regulations and is known today as an aviation workplace discrimination pioneer. But, it was an uphill battle that took fifteen years to resolve. Learn more about the inspiring story of Dusty’s life at About Dusty.