- 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
Cahill did so. “Well,” he said, turning to Smokey, not me, “let’s get on with this thing. What’s troubling you girls?”
Smokey giggled, stretched herself out on the bed. We want some of that there senior-ority thing, Mr. Cahill, and brother, we need it!”
“We want to join the brotherhood,” I told him. “They blackballed all of us.”
“You girls knew when you hired on what the score was.”
“No. It’s true we signed a paper, but we didn’t understand it at all. We didn’t know its significance. We didn’t know anything about railroads. We didn’t understand how important seniority was.”
“That so?” Cahill was very tough. We were silent. Then Smokey pulled what she thought was our ace in the hole. “The men want us to be in the union.”
“You tell him.” She turned to me. “She can talk better.”
The truth is, I could not talk. I forgot the beginning of a sentence before I got to the end. I got flustered, hemmed, hawed, worried about appearing intelligent, having been taught that men needed to feel superior and that if I wished to be loved, I had to be a simpleton. That was all coming a bit undone on the railroad. There they didn’t love us even as simpletons.
I related the details, as best I could, of how we worked, what we were paid, how we were treated, and how, finally, “some of us” had even talked to Mike Quill when the New York lodge blackballed our membership applications. Cahill perked up at that. I didn’t say how many “some of us” was or that Mike Quill had been plainly uninterested.
“Well, you girls can’t ask no favors,” Cahill said. “If you want equal rights, you got to do equal work, and if you want to join the union, you got to go through channels like everybody else. You don’t go making no revolutions at the drop of a hat.”
“We went through channels, Mr. Cahill,” said Smokey, sitting up to spear a cherry in her drink. “Didn’t you hear? They blackballed us.”
“What’s the use? It’s just wasting our time.”
“Thought you said the men was all dying for you to be in the union.”
“Well,” said Smokey, “men we don’t know, men who work on other divisions, want us. The men we work with hate us!”
Cahill and his friend laughed. “Now you do what I say! I’m going to have me a little talk with ol’ Doc Sites.”
Doc Sites was the grievance chairman for the Eastern Division of the Pennsylvania Railroad, a most powerful job in the union hierarchy. It was under his jurisdiction that our working arrangements had been invented.
We did as Cahill suggested. Soon thereafter we each received a letter from Doc Sites advising us that the Philadelphia lodge of the BRT would be pleased to accept us as “Special Members” for the duration of our employment. Evidently the New York lodge, where we belonged, was intransigent.
“It’s not what you’d call an unqualified win,” Smokey said.
But twenty-seven of us rode down to Philadelphia for the first meeting. It was a busy night on the road, and the crew dispatcher had threatened to turn us all in for doing so, but we went anyway.
The meeting room was in an old fraternal building, the Elks or the Lions or the Masons. It reminded me of the trainmaster’s office—the same vintage and ambience. Musty, high-ceilinged, oak-paneled, dimly lit male rooms. Outside the door the sergeant at arms sat at a little table, checking credentials. Beside him stood Doc Sites himself, ostensibly to make a courteous show of welcome to the women, but more likely to keep the men from mayhem. They were not overjoyed to have us; they had simply been ordered to take us in. It was all the sergeant at arms could do to nod civilly as the twenty-seven of us breached the door. We were still in uniforms, looking as much like men-in-skirts as possible.
We occupied two rows of seats near the front of the room and waited for the men to assemble. No one sat within a row of us. Everyone waited in silence. By nearly an hour after the scheduled meeting time, only seventeen men had come; it was their idea of a protest against our presence. But as it dawned on us that we outnumbered them at the meeting, we offered two resolutions at once: that the lodge go on record in favor of calling for a revision of the constitution of the BRT to delete the “male white” requirement for membership forever and that BRT representatives meet immediately with management to abrogate all discriminatory agreements governing the women’s work conditions and rights.
The motion passed twenty-seven to seventeen, with no discussion whatever. It was glorious, but it was too easy. At the next meeting the men got some sense and turned out in droves to overturn both motions on a point of order.