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Women in Aviation Week - Ada Brown

Date: March 12, 2021

“We came to work for the adventure, but after a while it became clear that we wanted to make it our career.  When we organized (what became AFA), we put ourselves on equal footing with the pilots.  We were more than Sky Girls.  We were partners in the cabin.” 

- ADA Brown

Last week, we recognized that our Flight Attendant profession began when Ellen Church approached Boeing Air Transport Company while seeking an airline job and became the world’s first stewardess which became then known as “sky girls”.  As a result of the success of this original test from Boeing Air Transport Company, customer demand for “sky girls” became a powerful business consideration and the Flight Attendant profession was thus, born in 1930.

Today, as we celebrate Women in Aviation week, many of us may not realize the history, hard work and sacrifice that lead to our privileges, rights, and benefits we have as Union organized Flight Attendants. 

Years ago, once you reached the age of 30, you became “too old to fly.” If you put on a few extra pounds and did not pass the weight, or worse, girdle check. You were not eligible to work and did not receive pay.  Those who wanted to marry or have children, were forced into a “retirement” immediately. 

Back then, there were no Unions to fight for the rights of better pay and working conditions - there was no voice for the “sky girls”.

In 1945, a small group of those early “sky girls,” lead by Ada Brown, changed all that. Together with Frances Hall, Sally Thornetz, Edith Lauterbach, Sally Watt they organized the first stewardess Union in the United States to fight for equal rights and fair representation.

During World War II, the profession had been “established with more emphasis on passenger comfort,” but now, these “sky girls” grew tired of being treated like “minors, closely supervised and scrutinized” and began to collectively desire improvements in pay, status and working conditions. 

The leader, Ada Brown, joined United Airlines in 1940 and quickly climbed the ranks to the role of Chief Stewardess. She and her colleagues began to question the low earnings that had not increased, and in some cases even decreased, from the ‘original eight’ stewardesses pay in 1930 as well as the general working conditions and regulations which were not keeping pace with the changing airline industry. Brown was frustrated by lack of progress and state, “we were always promised things from the company, but nothing was ever done—except to throw parties for the stewardesses.”  

Unimpressed with their environment she decided to establish some sort of “movement” to form her fellow stewardesses into one collective voice. Looking to secure better wages and greater job protections she began to set up a labor Union under the provision of the Railway Labor Act of 1926.

Her task was a formidable one. While most of her co-workers approved of the goals, many were scared to have a voice, because at that time Unions were mainly serving blue-collar workers, and the idea of joining an actual Union as equals was terrifying for some.

However, Ada Brown persisted and in 1944 signed up almost 75 percent of United crews.  Having signed “authorization” cards, elections were held. Ada Brown became president; Frances Hall, vice president; Sally Watt, secretary; Edith Lauterbach, treasurer and Sally Thometz, Confree. 

The first stewardess agreement was signed April 16, 1946 and gave the stewardesses at United raises in monthly pay, limited duty hours, established rest periods and a grievance procedure. A constitution and bylaws was written, which officially established the group as the Air Line Stewards Association (ALSA) on August 22, 1945 under the leadership of President Ada Brown. Unfortunately, in 1947, Ada Brown Greenfield married and became a victim of United’s rule against marriage, which wouldn’t be eliminated by the Union for many years to come, and forced her to resign from both her work and the Union.

It’s difficult to believe that the Contract we have today has many of its original roots in concepts that originated with Ada and other earlier pioneers.  Issues such as safety, rest, improved working conditions, pay and a grievance system resonate with us as priorities in our daily life as well.

Today, we stand on the shoulders of these amazing women, led by Ada Brown Greenfield, who started the union which was organized, run, and controlled by courageous women who we celebrate and honor this week and this month as our very own Women in Aviation.

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