The Lady Brakemen


“What good are fellows from St. Louis going to do us?” There were no lady brakemen on that division.

“You’d be surprised.”

Sometimes Little Smokey did not seem very bright.

“I would be surprised.”

“One of them told me we should start up a petition. They’d sign it!”

It was an inspired idea. The railroad was a perfect place for a petition. You could give a friendly conductor the piece of paper in the morning, and by evening, when you got it back from him, it could have been all over the property from New York to St. Louis, from Jersey City to Harrisburg. Men who had never seen a lady brakeman and who didn’t feel threatened by one could calmly consider the issues.

It caught on fast. even the girls who didn’t want to throw switches or carry markers or work baggage cars took at least two petitions to pass around. Everyone preferred to ask the men’s help rather than fight them. And even those men who hated having women on the railroad were enlivened by the activity. There was a great buzz and stir all up and down the road. Arguments went on for days, so that by the time management and the union both forbade us to pass out any more petitions, our goal had been pretty well achieved; we had hundreds of signatures advocating membership for women in the union.

But the lodge would not acknowledge the petitions, which went into the wastebasket. “That ain’t the way you do business on the railroad,” explained one well-meaning conductor. “You got to do things the right way, go through channels.” But the channels seemed closed to us.

I went to see Mlke Quill, president of the fledgling CIO’s Transport Workers Union, which was making heavy inroads into craft unions like the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen (BRT). Railroad workers were separated into dozens of different unions according to craft, and they were often weakened in their struggles with management by intramural antagonisms, like the engineers and firemen despising the trainmen. The CIO sought to organize all workers in a trade into the same union to present a united bargaining unit. Quill’s union, which had a reputation for militancy, was then organizing furiously for all transportation workers. There were no color or sex bars to membership, and I imagined that the plight of the lady brakemen would appeal to him. He was charmed and astounded to meet a genuine lady brakeman from the Pennsy, and he invited me at once for a drink in a dark bar and listened to my tale. But even as I talked, he was shaking his head. He explained in his good Irish brogue how he wished he could help, but the fact was that he was interested, d’ye see, darrling, in organizing the railroad men, if he could get a lever, but it was plain as day that forty women were not that lever, given the men’s antagonism. It was plain as day. I understood what he meant. He wished us good luck.

At this juncture the trainmaster himself entered the picture. His road had government contracts, moved government troops and supplies, and could not afford a scandal. The scandal was that the critical wartime labor shortage that we had been hired to relieve continued on the main line, where troops and supplies were often held up while all the extra labor—the women—waited for work on the Jersey Coast runs. It’s possible that the trainmaster regretted having gone along with the union on the women’s working conditions, but I suppose at the time it all had seemed reasonable enough. The trainmaster was subject to the same influences as the rest of the men on the road. He was insular. He had lived with the unions, the conditions, the book of rules, the awkward bulk of outdated federal regulations governing railroad operations for his entire life. He came from a railroad family. His sons were on the road. Changes in the outside world filtered in only dimly. He sat at his big rolltop desk in a high-ceilinged, high-windowed, oak-paneled office and was subject to the same fantasies and prides as the men he supervised, and he ran his office as trainmasters always had, with feudal authority. He would not have liked his daughter on the road, and he did not respect the women who had come there.

The trainmaster now called a meeting, and the Women’s List was shut down. We all buzzed and stewed with excitement. What could be happening? Perhaps we had won something after all. But that was not the case. He sat there on the platform in the speaker’s chair, pale-eyed, thin-lipped, and austere, but he did not address us directly. He merely lent his presence while Peggy, through whom he spoke, translated his wishes. He would make sotto voce comments, which she repeated to the audience, as though being a man, he thought his language might be different from ours. The subject of the meeting was not working conditions. He wanted us to know that he had been thinking about the issue of pants versus skirts, and he was now ready to grant permission for pants. But once the decision was taken, everyone must abide by it. There would then be no more skirts.

No one had mentioned this matter of pants versus skirts since we’d arrived on the road, but it was still a lively issue. In retrospect it’s hard to explain how such a matter could successfully split the ranks of a group of women on the verge of winning historic rights in a male stronghold. But this is what happened.