In the 1930s flying was exclusively a man’s world. Prohibited from becoming a commercial airline pilot, Ellen Church invented the “stewardess”.
When Ellen Church boldly walked into the San Francisco offices of B.A.T. (Boeing Air Transport) in February, 1930, she was determined to become a part of the fledgling commercial aviation industry one way or the other. A licensed pilot, she knew she didn’t have much of a chance getting hired in that capacity. In spite of the exploits of such women as Amelia Earhart, commercial aviation was still heavily dominated by men.
But Ellen, ever resourceful, had another idea to pitch—perhaps female nurses could take better care of passengers during flights, especially when they were often sick and scared of travelling by air.
Ellen Church’s Early Years
Ellen Church was born on September 22, 1904 on a farm near Cresco, Iowa. The story is told that she was fascinated by the early airplanes she saw as a child. In any event, she knew she did not want to become a farm wife, tending to kids and cows. She wanted a more adventurous life. She started her career by going to the University of Minnesota and obtaining a nursing degree in 1926. From there, she landed a position teaching nurses at French Hospital. For the next few years she stayed at the hospital, but took flying lessons and eventually became a licensed pilot.
Church becomes the First Stewardess/Flight Attendant
When Church went into the B.A.T. office that winter day in 1930 she met with manager Steve Stimpson and discussed her ideas. Most people still feared flying, and rightly so, because there were many crashes. The early commercial aircraft also flew at much lower altitudes than today—the Ford Trimotor’s ceiling, for example, was about 6,000 feet. This contrasts with today’s jet cruising altitudes of around 35,000 feet. That meant that the early airplanes flew through bad weather, not over it. Many passengers became violently airsick. And why not have a nurse in attendance? And the presence of women would steady nerves– if a “girl” could fly, so could a man.
Stimpson bought Church’s arguments and passed them along to his superiors. After an initial “no,” the execs changed their mind and agreed to a three-month trial. Stimpson and Church screened applicants, and by the late spring of 1930 there were a total of eight stewardesses in all (Church included) The experiment as a resounding success, and more you women were hired. Eventually B.A.T. merged with two other small companies to form United Airlines.
Ellen Church’s Later Years
Unfortunately Church’s career as a flight attendant/stewardess was relatively brief—only about 18 months. She was sidelined by an auto accident but had a distinguished career as a nurse in World War II. She served as a flight nurse in the Army Nurse Corps, and earned an air medal. She died in a tragic horseback riding accident in 1965.
See also: The First Flight Attendants, 1930-1940
- Kathleen M Berry, Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants (Duke University, 2007
- Birdie Bomar, Birdie:The Story of Delta’s First Stewardess (First Books, 2002)