Do you know what is significant about these women?
One of the challenges for me last month was ensuring that I focused on varied moments in time to create a far reaching defintion of black women’s herstory for African American history month. Part of history however is not just “the past” but also moments in time that are “groundbreaking” or unique. While the moment captured above was only a month ago, it holds up to both definitions. On February 12, 2009, Pilot Rachel Jones, First Officer Stephanie Grant, and flight attendants Diana Galloway and Robin Rogers became the first all black female crew to fly a commercial flight in North America. It is a moment that is all the more significant because it happened in February and because it took until 2009 to happen at all.
As I think on the import of such a flight for both women and African Americans, I am reminded of an episode of a show my father likes to watch. In it, a flight attendant is murdered and a female police officer look-a-like takes her place. For the rest of the show, which is set in the late 70s, both police officers and pilots make sexist jokes and sexually harassing come-ons to the “stews” (flight attendants). The entire episode highlights real, historical, gender inequities in N. American aviation which include both the assumption that pilots are men and that flight attendants have no right to bodily integrity. Though we have transitioned into a world in which flight attendants are not all white, young, or even female, we have not stepped out of either the sexism or racism that permeates the way we as a culture imagine the industry. One needs only look at gimmick airlines like the Hooters flights to see what I mean.
As an academic, I fly quit a bit. Female pilots on commercial flights remain a rarity in my observation and they are something that crews always notice, even if it is just a slight nod between the woman at the counter and the pilot on her way to the plane or the overly jovial way the male co-pilot welcomes her at the boarding gate. I have watched these moments with subtle disinterest noting how the enacting of gender shifts in regions of the U.S. as well as other countries and how the race, accents, and regionalism change as well. In all of my racialized moments in U.S. airports, where I’ve been yelled at like a dunce at check-ins or entrances or in between flights, shaken down or threatened for lingering too long near someone that has been racially profiled b/c I want to bear witness, or simply ogled or even hooted at as I rush between terminals, it has never occurred to me that I have never seen an all black crew in the U.S. In fact, I have never seen a non-white racially homogenous crew in the U.S in my whole life, though clearly I have seen them elsewhere. And the sexism that I experience in the airport is almost always mediated for me by the subtle sexism I witness between pilot and crew on the plane or the way that sexism often works to get me on my flight faster or through sexurity quicker (at least in the U.S.)
My thoughts are jumbled here, I know. But it is often these fleeting moments in history that remind me of how far we have come and how much we remain the same. They place my own jumbled memories and experiences within a larger context that only makes since in the bright light of these seemingly innocuous goings on. Other historians get caught up in the “Great Men” of history or the “great movements” or “great wars” all marked as important w/that infamous “great,” but I am people’s historian. I am moved by those moments, like hiccups in time, that shift things immensely and yet could go completely unnoticed. This is one of those and I mark it today as part of Women’s History Month.
htp Black on Campus