- Historic Sites
The Lady Brakemen
Consigned to the Pennsylvania Railroad’s “Garbage Run,” they fought their own war on the home front, and they helped shape a victory as surely as their brothers and husbands did overseas
July/August 1995 | Volume 46, Issue 4
“But you just admitted yourself you don’t do all the jobs a real brakeman does, so how can you expect—”
“But nobody asked us to. We were in training for two weeks, and nobody even told us we were supposed to do those things.”
“Probably figured you couldn’t do ‘em, so what was the use of asking? After all, you girls are ladies, don’t forget that. You wouldn’t want to do such things, would you?”
“I don’t know. It’s something to think about.”
“Well now, don’t think about it too much. No use bothering your head and fussing. After all, you girls won’t be here very long anyway. War’ll be over pretty soon, and you know when the fellows come back, you’ll be giving them back their jobs. You know that, don’t you?”
“You girls just don’t have any seniority, you see. Around here you gotta have seniority; the railroad’s no place for women. Now don’t take offense. I’m not saying you girls aren’t doing a damn fine job, because you are! Better than ninety percent of these no-good young sprats around here.”
That was the sort of discussion you could have with a “neutral” conductor, while you sat and counted tickets in the switching yard at the end of the run. It was the damnedest, most circular piece of reasoning I ever heard, and all the other girls got the same sort of jabber from every man who was willing to discuss the matter: The reason we averaged two-thirds less pay than the men and were limited to the Garbage Run was that we weren’t required to do all the work the men sometimes did. We were neither required nor permitted to do that work because it was assumed that we couldn’t or wouldn’t do it, yet if we did do it, we still couldn’t have the same chance at all the jobs because we were only temporary workers without seniority. But we could not have seniority because the railroad was no place for women.
Men who hired on after us—and before long there were about five hundred of them, all rejected by the Army—did have seniority, so that when the servicemen returned from the war and took their jobs, they eventually could get them back when there was more work. The forty girls never could.
Unavoidably, the trouble was that we were women. Until then almost every one of us had had the impression that men didn’t hold it against women for being women, so it was a surprise. But if the men had had better manners, or better arguments, most of us would have let the whole thing go, for not one of us was anxious to work a baggage car, carry markers, or throw switches.
One day I was working with a girl named Claire Fredericks who talked a conductor into letting us throw a switch. It was pure serendipity, for Mr. Keefer was about the only conductor on the Bay Head run who would have permitted it, Little Claire was the only one who could have asked, and I was one of the few girls, at first, who were willing to try.
Mr. Keefer was close to retirement and, because of that, didn’t care much one way or the other whether the women stayed on the road.
Claire was the only one of us whom the men honored with a real railroad sobriquet. They called her Little Smokey as a kind of grudging tribute to her stamina and her capacity for work. “Big Smokey” was a legend of the New York Division, famous for his ability to work while sleeping, or vice versa. We used to see him sitting on the bench in the crew dispatcher’s office, sleeping with his eyes open, waiting for someone to fail to show up for a job and hoping to get it at the last minute when the dispatcher got desperate. He would already have completed his daily maximum sixteen hours of rail time and not be legally entitled to another second. But if no one else was around, he’d get it anyway.
Little Smokey would sit there on the bench beside him. He never talked to her; he had no energy to waste. She was a very little girl, but she was strong and could work from one end of the day to the next, without sleep, and when the dispatcher wanted to shop her, she wheedled him into another day’s work. She was not pretty, but she was chipper, always freshly made up and ready to go. She kept two clean shirts in her locker at all times and changed automatically every eight hours. She was chronically good-humored and laughed off insults in a friendly way, and she settled herself on the bench beside Big Smokey and waited cheerfully and confidently for the dispatcher to give her the same illegal handouts he gave to Big Smokey. At first, of course, he wouldn’t.
“G’wan home, girlie, you’re shopped,” he would tell her. “You’ve had your sixteen hours.” It was a serious violation of a federal safety statute to work more than sixteen hours without eight hours of sleep, and the brakeman who got caught doing it was just as much in trouble as the dispatcher who permitted him to.