Edith Lauterbach, United Stewardess Who Formed Union, Dies at 91

Edith Lauterbach, the last survivor among the quintet of female flight attendants who in the 1940s organized the first union to fight for equal rights in the sky, has died. She was 91.

She died on Feb. 4, according to the Washington-based Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the successor of that early union. She lived in San Francisco.

A United Airlines flight attendant for more than four decades until her retirement in 1986, Lauterbach saw her profession evolve from one emphasizing youth and beauty to one recognized for its grueling schedule and emergency preparedness.

“I had planned to fly one year and quit,” Lauterbach recalled, according to a 1985 article by Knight-Ridder News Service. “They wanted you to come and go fast. It was a male-dominated industry and they weren’t anxious to have women hang around.”

When Lauterbach joined United in 1944, female flight attendants were called “coeds” and were subject to dismissal if they got married, were deemed overweight or reached their early to mid-30s. With a monthly salary of $125 -- about $1,630 today, or less than $20,000 a year -- Lauterbach roomed with other “stewardesses” to get by, she told Knight-Ridder.

United, which hired the first “sky girl,” Ellen Church, in 1930, was the first to be challenged on its labor policies toward women, according to Kathleen Barry’s 2007 book, “Femininity in Flight: A History of Flight Attendants.”

Founding Treasurer

Lauterbach and three colleagues -- Frances Hall, Sally Thometz and Sally Watt -- backed Ada Brown, United’s chief stewardess, when she began organizing in 1944. The world’s first union for flight attendants, the Air Line Stewardesses Association, was founded on Aug. 22, 1945, with Lauterbach as treasurer.

It grew into today’s Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, the world’s largest union “organized by flight attendants for flight attendants,” according to its website. The group, part of the Communications Workers of America, represents almost 60,000 cabin-service personnel at 21 airlines.

Lauterbach “remembered her fellow stewardesses as mostly anti-union by upbringing,” Barry wrote. Ultimately, “organizers succeeded in mobilizing stewardesses’ investment in their mystique, as well as their discontent with the low pay and working conditions that accompanied it.”

New Title

Over the next few decades, airlines dropped their employment restrictions based on age, marital status and, except in rare circumstances, weight. Lauterbach played an “instrumental” role in ending United’s standard retirement age of 32 for stewardesses, according to a union statement Feb. 5.

Even the word “stewardess” gave way to the gender-neutral “flight attendant,” and high heels disappeared as part of the uniform.

“On behalf of the entire United family, we are deeply saddened by the loss of our former co-worker Edith Lauterbach,” Sam Risoli, United’s senior vice president of inflight services, said yesterday in an e-mail. “Edith was a pioneer at United and for the entire flight attendant industry. Edith leaves us with a lasting legacy that we are proud to carry on.”

Lauterbach was involved in negotiating five contracts for flight attendants during her career and was chosen to help test evacuation procedures in 1952 in a cooperative effort among United, the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board and Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

‘Our Friend’

“The evolution of the flight attendant profession and the legacy of Edith Lauterbach go hand in hand,” the union said. “Today, as we do every day, we pay tribute to our friend whose fearlessness and devotion to advancing rights at work paved the way for thousands of flight attendants.”

Edith Edna Lauterbach was born on Oct. 1, 1921, in Oxnard, California, according to a biography by the union’s historian, Georgia Nielsen. She grew up on a five-acre farm overseen by her father, a high school chemistry teacher, and her mother, who grew flowers and peanuts, according to a profile of her posted online last year by the residents’ association of her San Francisco neighborhood, Glen Park.

She graduated in 1942 from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in political science. United, now the world’s largest airline and a unit of Chicago-based United Continental Holdings Inc., hired her on May 11, 1944.

A career that lasted into the jet age spanned the arc of airlines’ evolution from unpressurized, piston-engine planes that had to stop every few hours to refuel.

Hard Duty

“After we flew for a while, we realized it wasn’t as glamorous as we thought,” Lauterbach recalled in 1995, upon the union’s 50th anniversary, according to a news release at the time. “We had to crawl on our hands and knees during rough weather and deliver meals in the turbulence, clean up after the passengers when they got sick and hold their hands when they were apprehensive. Those little planes were all over the sky in bad weather.”

In the interview with her neighborhood association, Lauterbach recalled her early years based in Denver and working bumpy routes on DC-3 propeller planes over the Rocky Mountains to destinations including Salt Lake City; Boise, Idaho; and Walla Walla, Washington.

“We learned and practiced how to handle cups of coffee and tea, that’s for sure,” she said.

She was based in New York City in the 1950s, then in San Francisco until the end of her career.

According to the interview, the final route she worked, between San Francisco and Monterey, California, was a benefit based on her seniority, a policy the union had won in its collective bargaining with United.

“The easy route was called the ‘grandma’s schedule,’” she said. “It was a flight for old ladies.”