Ada Brown Greenfield
Founder, Association of Flight Attendants
June 27, 1917 – March 12, 2002
We are deeply saddened by the death of Ada Brown on March 12, 2002. Our tremendous appreciation and admiration for all that she did for flight attendants and our profession will remain with us always.
In the very early days of our profession, flight attendants fit a very narrow description: young, single registered nurses who met height, weight and appearance requirements. One of those stewardesses was Ada Brown, who was hired by United Airlines in 1940.
In 1943, Brown spent a year working in management as Assistant and Chief Stewardess before she rejoined the line stewardesses in 1944. Brown recognized the widespread discrimination that stewardesses faced on the job, and how badly they needed to organize to improve their pay and working conditions.
"We hadn't had an increase in pay in 15 years," Brown explained later. "We had no rules or regulations about flight time. If a stewardess didn't show up to replace you on multi-stops across the country, the company would just say, ‘You have to continue flying.' And we had no grievance procedure."
Brown and a group of her flying partners signed up almost 300 women, and formed the world's first stewardess union at United, the Air Line Stewardess Association (ALSA). "I know management never thought we'd really do it," Brown recalled. "As far as I know, we were the first women to have negotiated a contract on our own."
ALSA was established on August 22, 1945 and Ada Brown was elected president. The first stewardess agreement was signed April 16, 1946. All future flight attendants at United now had a forum to negotiate for their rates of pay, rules, and working conditions.
Brown's commitment to organizing was legendary – and contagious. "We've already started organizing at several airlines," Brown explained at the time, "and I hope to start the others going very shortly. We want this to become a national association."
Today, thanks to Ada Brown, and other brave, forward-thinking women and men, flight attendants at United Airlines and 25 other carriers are represented by the union that grew from ALSA: The Association of Flight Attendants.
With seven years of seniority, Brown was forced to resign her career and union presidency when she married in 1947. Had she not been forced out by United's no-marriage rule, she would have continued to fly.
"Founding our union needed to be done," Brown said at an AFA Board of Directors meeting in 1995. "And I am proud that I was able to help get it going."