The One who Started it All
Youth and College
Shortly after Barbara “Dusty” Roads was born in 1928 in Cleveland, Ohio, Charles Lindbergh landed his plane in her parent’s backyard and the fateful event shaped the family’s lifelong passion for aviation. Dusty and her brother were Cleveland Air Races fans and both grew up wanting to become pilots. Employment constraints on women after World War II, however, dashed those hopes for Dusty. Instead, she went to college and earned a B.A. in English Literature from the Flora Stone Mather College for Women (Case Western Reserve University) in 1950. She still wanted to fly so she started working as a stewardess for American Airlines after she graduated and little did she know, her job would lead her to make history.
Discriminatory Work Policies
In 1953, American Airlines implemented a policy restricting the age of stewardesses’ continuing employment. Women hired as stewardesses after 1953 would be forced to retire from passenger service, without benefits, when they reached their 32nd birthday. This was in addition to already existing rules requiring termination if they were found to be married and/or pregnant. Dusty knew this rule was essentially an economic decision by the airline but also, the social culture at the time was such that executives throughout the airline industry just assumed that stewardesses would end up meeting a man on board, marry him and leave by age thirty-two anyway. If they didn’t, the airlines thought there was something wrong with them. But many stewardesses loved traveling and wanted to make it a career.
An Old Bag at Thirty-two?
Dusty, who was not subject to the new age restriction since she was hired in 1950, was outraged at these unfair policies. She began working with union leaders to protest their implementation and became a union negotiator, legislative representative and seasoned labor organizer. By 1963, she knew she had to do something dramatic to bring national attention to the plight of the stewardesses and organized a press conference at the Commodore Hotel in New York City where she demanded to know “A Lolita I’m not. But do I look like an old bag?” and the other 7 stewardesses asked “What’s wrong with us at age thirty-two?” Every major newspaper in the country printed their story and Dusty became an overnight sensation.
In 1964, President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law. Title VII of that Act prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of sex, race and color, national origin, and religion. When, in 1965, the newly created Equal Employment Opportunities Commission opened its doors, Dusty and fellow American Airlines stewardess, Jean Montague, walked through them armed with their complaint and ready to fight for fairness. It would be three more years before stewardesses were finally allowed equality and protection in their profession under Title VII.
A Long-Term Professional Career
Dusty continued her career in flight, including flying commercially contracted Military Air Command flights transporting troops to and from the Vietnam War and, after that, other commercial overseas routes, until she retired at the age of sixty-six.
Protection Against Repeating History
Dusty’s life story is a poignant reminder of the cultural and social history of the 1950s that led to the women’s rights movement and demonstrates how women with resolve to intentionally and purposefully fight for fairness on the job, can win. Dusty shares her history, in part, to promote the continuing need for vigilance and safeguarding of workplace protections established by the dedication and hard won victories of herself and others. She continues to set an example for women, young and old, on the values of organized labor unions, personal economic independence, networking, and speaking up for their rights. Dusty was chosen as one of the 2017 National Women’s History Month honorees for “Trailblazing Women in Labor and Business.”
Interviews and speaking engagements with Dusty Roads and Elaine Rock can be arranged by sending an email via the Contact page.