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
I’ve conveniently forgotten my reply. It wasn’t anything memorable; my best retorts always arrive the next morning, between sleep and waking. But until she made that statement, we were all merely offended and exasperated women, each in her own way. The switch throwing had been an unplanned and aimless act. We did, indeed, wish for a chance at the Washington jobs, but the situation seemed so complex that not one of the forty of us had a notion how to change it.
Now it occurred to me that if in truth there had been a choice offered the men between blacks and women, the situation was even worse than we thought. It was not merely a matter of throwing switches, carrying markers, and working baggage cars. It was simple bigotry. And we were not being used to fill a labor shortage at all but to permit men to profit from it. If black men had been hired instead of white women, refusing them seniority and recall rights might have caused a scandal. It was true we weren’t anxious to do the heavy work, but this wasn’t the crux of the matter. If the switches were oiled, we could throw them; if the eight-pound aluminum markers used on other railroads replaced the forty-pound markers the Pennsy flagmen struggled with, we could carry them; and adequate assistance for men in the baggage car would be adequate for us too. Somehow the men appeared to take pride in doing work that injured them. It seemed to me it would be more to their advantage to improve matters for themselves than to insist that we do as they did. That seemed purely stupid.
The effect of Peggy’s disclosure, however, was to so outrage everyone that it united the women, and at least tern porarily we were suddenly all out to get to Washington or bust.
You girls just got to join the union,” Carl Soyers shouted at us one night, over the roar of his engine. “Everything here runs through the unions. You got to get them to fight for you , not agin you.”
There were five of us in his cab. He was giving us a ride back to New York. It was after midnight, and we would otherwise have had to lay over at the junction until the next morning to deadhead home. There really was space in the cab only for one person besides the engineer and the fireman. With five of us, it was terrifying. We clutched one another and the grab irons as the locomotive took the curves at ninety. One inch this way and we could fall to the tracks; one inch that way and we’d be in the firebox. It was a very cold night; our faces froze, and our backs, against the fire, burned. Above the metal screech of wheels on rail Carl shouted his advice, not so much out of friendship for us as contempt for the passenger crews. He hated their starched collars and their gold watches. Engineers thought of themselves as the elite of the road. Carl himself was always so meticulous about his appearance that he did indeed look regal. His overalls had a special cut, and with them he always wore a natty black scarf around his neck. He carried a little black leather satchel full of tools, which he kept like jewels, cleaning and oiling them as he sat in the dispatcher’s shack at the junction.
We regarded ourselves as society did; we were transients, not serious breadwinners, people who might eventually be supported by men.
“The union won’t let us in!” Little Smokey cried.
“They said we weren’t allowed to join.”
“You didn’t apply.”
“It’s a waste of time.”
“If you were members, they’d have to represent you, don’t you see? Besides, you’d be doing them a favor. They can’t go giving away seniority like this! It’s all those dumbbells have got to hang onto themselves. Join the union, girls!”
In their previous lives most of the women had been casual nonunion labor—manicurists, nursemaids, typists, file clerks. One had been a nun. The fact is that we regarded ourselves as society did; we were transients, not serious breadwinners, people who might eventually be supported by men. We felt ourselves to be temporary in any work force, although most of us knew we’d be working at one thing or another all our lives. Still, we accepted these contradictory notions and did not feel indentured anywhere. We could always do something else, and there was always the chance that the Rider on the White Horse would come out of the mists and take us away from all silly, trivial employments. Feeling separate and outside the mainstream of the work world, isolated from the realities of social organization, why should we choose the underdog role? I think this is why we had not seriously tried to join the union.
But now, on our first try, all our applications for membership in the local lodge of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen were unanimously blackballed.
“We shouldn’t be downhearted,” said Little Smokey when we heard the news. “There are plenty of men out there who think we’re terrific. They sympathize with us. They’d help us.”
“Where are they?” Men who liked Smokey didn’t necessarily care about the rest of us.
“Well,” she said, putting a little spit on a run in her stocking, “I meet a lot of fellas from St. Louis—”
“ St. Louis ?”
“Deadheading,” she said primly.