In this age of virtual independence (and dependence), one can travel the world with the click of a button. Over the past year and a half, while the pandemic kept us lonely and sedentary, I’ve learned about virtual everything—tours of museums, concerts, stage play readings, classes, meetings, movie nights, weddings, cabarets—you name it. You can do it all from the comfort of your couch. It’s been a period of rest that my introverted heart has needed in a way. Yet that can only go so far. At this moment in my life, I often feel listless, overwhelmed, and yearning for something more. To get out and see the places and people I love again. I have family in Nebraska I haven’t been able to visit. Family vacations? What are those? And little by little, my gal pals have been seeking out new lives in new states, moving to places like Washington and Oregon. One of my childhood best friends recently moved clear across the country, from where I sit in sunny San Diego, California, to Salem, Massachusetts. I’ve learned the ancient practice of snail mail as a result. As the world has become more digital and comfortable with staying in one place, I decided to take a look into the past to relive the excitement, danger, mystery, and freedom we’ve had in the skies, if only to feel a bit more unshackled myself. In Julia Cooke’s Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am, we adventure into the lives of the stewardesses who worked for the international airline Pan Am in the 1960s and 1970s to learn how these women changed the world of flight that we continue to enjoy today.
Right from the start of the first chapter, we follow one of five stewardesses, Lynne Totten, into the towering Pan Am building for her first interview with the company. She takes in the waiting room, surveying her competition, and we get to hear from her perspective, her thoughts, and her feelings during this leap of faith: “There’s a whole world out there, she thought, and I need to get involved.” This is one of the highlights of the book, being able to relate to the history of Pan Am through the personal plights of these young women trying to make the world their own. Exposition about Pan Am’s R&R flights during the Vietnam War—a five-day getaway for the American soldiers on the ground—is juxtaposed with conversations these stewardesses had with said soldiers, the wounded they served, about the devastation they witnessed.
The initiative to create more diversity within stewardess hires in the 1970s is paired with the story of Hazel Bowie, one of the few African American stewardesses to serve during Pan Am’s heyday, including how she came to interview for the job, her excursions in Moscow, and her experience with racism in and out of flight. There are divorces and marriages amidst court cases, letters to families during wartime, and depictions of where each stewardess was and what she was feeling when the moon landing occurred. Not to mention the fantastic eight-page photo layout with pictures of all our leading ladies, advertisements of the day, and candid in-flight photographs. It’s immersive in the way every comprehensive narrative history should be. Cooke invites us into the women’s minds and hearts, allowing us to not only learn their history, but see a bit of ourselves in their longings and ambitions. And it’s no wonder she was able to be so specific. In her notes, she cites interviews with these women as far back as 2015. Some women, such as Tori Werner, the Norwegian stewardess, were interviewed for this book for upwards of four and a half years. Cooke came to know these women intimately, so that we, in turn, could know them too.
Not only did these women get to travel and see some incredible things while experiencing an abundance of cultures, but they were also intelligent, hardworking, and honest-to-god warrior women of the air. Their very lives were often threatened, depending on what territories they flew through, especially during the height of the Vietnam War:
“To every woman who crewed any airline into Vietnam, the U.S. government issued a slip of paper that designated her a second lieutenant in the U.S. Armed Forces. Every stewardess was to carry her Geneva Conventions identification card at all times in case she was captured by enemy forces; it ensured that she would be treated as a prisoner of war.”
These women proved fearless, able to defend and serve their country while protecting their autonomy in a society that said they would have to terminate their working contracts if they grew too old, married, or had children. Birth control was also hard to come by for single women. Many bars and restaurants were still closed to these women if they were not accompanied by a man. Their uniforms also caused controversy (not just Pan Am’s, but all airlines) because they had the tendency to cater to the male sexual fantasies of the day. But this is where the history becomes exciting, because when the unions representing the stewardesses took these issues to court, things began to change in the women’s favor:
“[T]he EEOC rolled into action at last. Age and marriage regulations applied only to female crewmates violated Title VII of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act, the commission decided in June 1968. Three separate cases soon confirmed the initial ruling.”
These court cases parallel some of the ongoing challenges we as women face in the workplace today, especially with regard to gender discrimination, sexual harassment, and maternity leave. I think it’s reasonable to believe that some of the advancements today in gender studies and equality would not have come about if these winged angels in flight suits had not been watching over us and standing up for themselves.
Some of the most successful and triumphant chapters in the book describe three stewardesses’ roles in President Ford’s Operation Babylift, an effort to airlift as many children orphaned in the war from South Vietnam to the United States as possible. Werner, Totten, and Karen Walker, stewardesses we have come to love and care about, are suddenly thrust onto a plane together with hundreds of small infants and children, many sick and traumatized, flying through a tense warzone. Even though they carried baby bottles instead of guns, their acts of heroism were just as large and as brave as any other soldier: “The stewardesses were quietly making do amid the overwhelming need. There was a perverse gorgeousness at work, Lynne thought as she looked around.” The story of this epic rescue is not to be missed, for it is truly a collective win for the stewardesses, a win for women, and a win for life.
Within the pages of Come Fly the World are tales of wanderlust, autonomy, and feminist power. Anyone looking for the inspiration to take hold of their life and steer it into the port of their dream destination will find it here. I haven’t felt this emotional about a nonfiction title since reading Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, and let me tell you, I am so ready for a movie or TV show adaptation of Come Fly the World. I crave more stories that empower me like this, and I want everyone to know about it. We need to know about the women in the ‘60s and ‘70s who weren’t just fashion icons, sex symbols, or film stars. We need to know and understand the activists, the veterans, the working women. These heroines exist inside all women, because we can be attractive and kick ass too, as these stewardesses prove. It feels as if I’ve stumbled upon another history lost to the ravages of male-driven time, and to see it exhumed from the earth, from the mouths of these spirited and beautiful women, to hold it in a hardback and know that it is undeniable and unerasable, fills me with hope and pride. I know when I next board a plane, I will be thinking of them, thanking them for making space for us in the sky.