Youth and College
Shortly after Barbara “Dusty” Roads was born in 1928 in Cleveland, Ohio, Charles Lindbergh landed his airplane in her parent’s backyard. The event would shape the family’s lifelong passion for aviation. Dusty and her brother were Cleveland Air Races fans and both grew up wanting to become pilots. However, women could not become pilots after World War II. Instead, Dusty went to college and earned a B.A. in English Literature from the Flora Stone Mather College for Women (now Case Western Reserve University). She still wanted to fly, though, so after she graduated in 1950, she got a job as a stewardess for American Airlines. She had no idea that decision would eventually lead her to make history.
Discriminatory Work Policies
In 1953, American Airlines implemented a policy restricting the age of stewardesses’ continuing employment. At age 32, stewardesses hired after 1953 faced mandatory retirement. This was in addition to already existing rules requiring termination if they married. Male executives in 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 their job and wanted to make it a career.
Trailblazer Against Discrimination
The unfair and sexist policy outraged Dusty. After all, no male steward or pilot ever had the same demands made upon their employment. However, hired in 1950, she was retroactively exempt from the new rule. So, she realized she had nothing to lose by fighting it. Her Midwestern sense of fair play propelled her into action on behalf of her colleagues. She began working with union leaders to protest the rule and quickly became a union negotiator.
In 1958, the national union, ALSSA (Airline Stewards and Stewardesses Association), appointed Dusty their congressional representative to Washington, D.C. She got no extra pay for this position and had no choice but to perform her lobbying duties during her regular Los Angeles to Washington D.C. flight layovers. This was a time when there was a scarcity of female representatives and senators in Congress. But there were Congressmen eager to meet with the stewardess and listen to her story in their offices or over lunch. “I was the cheapest lobbyist in the world,” Dusty says. “Congressmen took me out to lunch.” She befriended Rep. Martha W. Griffiths (D-MI) and Sen. Margaret Chase Smith, who supported her cause. When a bill to repeal the age rule was dubbed “the old broads bill” by Congressmen and it failed by ridicule, Dusty realized they weren’t just fighting airline industry management but national gender discrimination against women.
An Old Bag at Thirty-two?
After ten years of FAA testimonies, lobbying and negotiating without any compromise by the airlines, Dusty knew she had to do something dramatic to bring national attention to the plight of the stewardesses. In April 1963, she organized a press conference at the Commodore Hotel in New York City where she challenged the gentlemen of the press to guess which of the eight stewardesses there were under thirty-two and which were over thirty-two. It wasn’t easy. She said, “A Lolita I’m not. But do I look like an old bag?” The other seven 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. But negotiations continued to stall.
An Uphill Battle for Civil Rights
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.
In 1965, Dusty and American Airlines stewardess, Jean Montague, who was about to be fired at age 32, were ready to take their fight for fairness to the newly created Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The EEOC was created as the government’s administrative agency responsible for enforcing the new federal employment discrimination laws. On the morning the EEOC opened its doors, the two stewardesses walked through them and became the first in the country to file a discrimination complaint. It would be the first time the staff at the EEOC recognized that discrimination came in the form of gender bias as well as racial discrimination. However, it would take three more years and the threat of a national stewardess strike before the EEOC made a decision on the issue in 1968. Stewardesses were finally allowed equality and protection against discriminatory actions 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 persistence and resolve to fight for fairness can win. Years later, in a conversation with Gloria Steinem at a fundraiser for the Women’s Center at Case Western University, she thanked Dusty and reminded her that her early work was the spark that ignited the Women’s Liberation Movement.
Dusty continues to promote the need for continuing vigilance and safeguarding of workplace protections. She sets an example for women, young and old, on the values of organized labor unions, personal economic independence, networking, and speaking up for their rights. She has enjoyed many radio and TV appearances and was featured in a segment of the 2013 Makers: 100 Women who Made America documentary. Later, Dusty’s place in women’s history was assured when she was chosen as one of the 2017 National Women’s History Month honorees for “Trailblazing Women in Labor and Business.”