A Clevelander, Retired Flight Attendant, And Women's Rights Pioneer

Barbara "Dusty" Roads (screenshots from makers.com)
Barbara "Dusty" Roads (screenshots from makers.com)
Featured Audio

In the last century the fight for women's rights has been fought on on many fronts, including in the air. Barbara "Dusty" Roads grew up in Cleveland, and is now 86 years old. She was a long-time flight attendant who in the 1960s, stood up to gender and age discrimination for her and her peers. Ideastream's Tony Ganzer spoke to her about her life, beginning with her youth in Cleveland.

ROADS: “It was the easiest place to grow up in the world, I think. We had no gangs, we had no tattoos, we had no drugs, and we didn’t have all this 20% of all college girls expect to be sexually harassed.”

GANZER: “We you brought up with self-confidence, being a young woman?”

ROADS: “Yes, my mother worked, and my father was an attorney. He graduated from Adelbert in 1912, and he was a captain in World War I, and my mother adored him. And it was a happy, happy family. My grandmother lived with us.”

GANZER: “You had a long career with the airlines, but maybe one of the most fiery portions of your career was when you stood up to them, and you said the rules for flight attendants, of when they had to retire, were not fair. Could you remind us of that story?”

ROADS: “I was with American Airlines, and I joined American as a stewardess—we were stewardesses then—in 1950. And in 1953 American Airlines so deemed, in a contract, that anyone that was hired by American after November 1953 would be fired at age 32, and also if you married you were fired.”

GANZER: “Really?”

ROADS: “Yes.”

GANZER: “Now one interesting thing you did was you used the press, and you brought your fellow flight attendants together.”

ROADS: “They used the press, and so did we. We had that wonderful news conference in 1963. Nothing happened that day, we were lucky, we didn’t go to war, no bad thing happened, and we hit all the papers. And it was amazing because stewardesses were glamorous, and.. ‘What do you mean they’re firing you at age 32?’”

GANZER: “What do you think you accomplished with that? Do you think you opened these people’s eyes?”

ROADS: “I don’t think we opened American Airlines’ eyes, because they knew it. And the airlines wanted that because it was cheaper. It was cheaper to have someone that’ll never get married, never have babies, never get pensions, never get the highest rate of pay, and never get 6 weeks vacation.”

GANZER: “Something I found interesting in your story, is that we may take about the Women’s Rights Movement, but this was part of the Civil Rights Movement in this country, more broadly.”

ROADS: “Yes it was. But it was also..I think…we had so much help from a congresswoman named Martha Griffiths, from Detroit. And Martha had been, pardon the expression, screwed, because she and her husband had graduated from Missouri, and they applied to Harvard Law School. He was accepted, and the Ivy Leagues did not take women in law school. So they went to Michigan, University of Michigan and they changed Michigan politics forever. And Martha was the woman who got the Equal Rights Amendment through the House after years and years of trying, and no one could do it then.”

GANZER: “You’ve told a story in the past about going into, just after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is founded, and you go into the office, and it’s mostly African-Americans there.”

ROADS: “We were the first ones there, they hadn’t even unpacked the typewriters. And they looked at us, white, dressed in our uniforms. And they asked us ‘what are you doing here? You’re free, white and 21.’ And I said Oh honey we’ve got a story to tell you. And they looked at us..they couldn’t believe. We came close to going on strike in August of 68. I knew we couldn’t get 22 year old girls to go on strike for 32 year old ladies, because they’ll never be 32. So I called Martha and said we’ve been worried about this, we may go on strike. And I said if you know anybody at the EEOC, call them, and make a decision one way or the other. And the next day American came in and said the age thing was out.”

GANZER: “I’ve heard before that there is hope in the younger generations, especially in young men, in how we look at women, and there’s more respect, I guess, general respect from a younger age. Do you see that, too?”

ROADS: “Well, I just saw on television where a young guy beat the hell out of his wife in an elevator, cold-cocked her, knocked her out. And she married him. He belongs in jail, and she belongs in an insane asylum.”

GANZER: “So you’re not optimistic for social change?”

ROADS: “Well, there’s been a lot of brutality. I don’t know whether the fathers are not teaching their sons how to treat women, or not. I don’t really know. But there’s a lot of sexual harassment in college that we never had. I don’t remember that. We just don’t know how to treat each other anymore. I think women are doing a lot…we have more women in Congress, but we have a long way to go. When I was growing up there’s was no such thing as a woman Supreme Court Justice, now we have three. Next year, the White House.”

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