The Lady Brakemen


One day one of the ladiest of the lady brakemen—a girl who loved her skirt and didn’t want to throw switches or join a union or work to Washington—fell off the train and broke her back. She had been standing, against the rules, on the platform between cars, counting her tickets as her train took the big curve at Asbury Park. The doors were open. She lost her footing and fell to the tracks. A company representative was Johnny-on-the-spot when she came to in the hospital, and she and her grateful, befuddied parents were persuaded to accept twelve thousand dollars for her injuries. As it turned out, she was going to be paralyzed for the rest of her life. She had no insurance coverage. Nobody realized, however, until Carl Soyer told us, that if she had had union insurance, she would have had all her bills paid. We didn’t comprehend until then that no matter how many safety rules we memorized, we were as vulnerable as the men to the railroad’s traditional dangers and that no commercial insurance company would underwrite the risks.

We had prepared a proper brief and I was delegated to write and present it. It was modeled on the Emancipation Proclamation.

The sudden fear of terrible accidents gave us a burst of renewed support right when the BRT’s president decided to look into the troubles of the women on the Pennsylvania Railroad and ordered a hearing. It was the eve of a threatened wartime strike on the railroads, and the union needed no extraneous bad publicity. Furthermore, there was always lurking in the minds of these old-time unionists the fear of the CIO and its militant attractions for disaffected members.

A. F. Whitney, the president, was a square-shaped, imperious old man, an absolute autocrat who strove to be enlightened yet, like the trainmaster, maintained a feudal relationship with those around him. He arrived for the hearing in New York accompanied by various aides, sycophants, messengers, and vice presidents. It was a Roman procession.

In the conference room a subdued and respectful Cahill sat at Whitney’s right hand, and Doc Sites sat in exile, far down at the farthest end of the table. We had prepared a proper brief, and I was delegated to write and present it. It was modeled on the Emancipation Proclamation and said many of the same things. How could they be better said? No union (nation) could foster (exist) discrimination (half slave) against any group of workers within its jurisdiction without harming itself and its own members (half free). I was rather carried away by it myself. But it also discussed more mundane matters, like work-saving innovations that would be profitable to men and women alike: oiling switches, using aluminum markers, and so on. We tried to put the problem where it really did belong: improved working conditions for all. Finally we offered a long list of main-line trains and dates—which all of us had been collecting —that had left their terminals undermanned while the lady brakemen on the Bay Head Extra List waited for job assignments, sometimes going two or three days without work.

At the conclusion one of the grievance chairmen turned to Cahill and said within my hearing, “What are they, some kind of Commies? Did you ever hear a natural woman talk like that?”

I was admitted to a brief audience with Whitney. In a regal gesture he extended his square hand. One knuckle was missing, lost in a long-ago switching accident.

“I want to assure you,” he said, “that we will give your case the consideration it deserves. Meanwhile, and regardless of what our final decision will be, I am sending out an order today, as a sign of my own personal distaste for discrimination against you ladies, that hereafter you shall be addressed as ‘brothers.’ I understand,” he said meaningfully, “that in Mike Quill’s union they discriminate against women by addressing them as ‘sisters.’”

Fortunately the rulings that came down were more what we had in mind: The constitution of the brotherhood was to be amended to delete the “white male” requirement for membership, opening the way for the employment of blacks as trainmen. Women were to have equal rights of recall, to hold regular jobs, and to receive equal pay for equal work. Smokey and I, along with two other women who had been vocal, were rewarded amid much fuss and fanfare with jobs as the first women organizers in the history of the BRT. It was surely meant to signal to intransigent men, perhaps tempted by the CIO, that the old slumberous brotherhood was taking on a new look. But that’s another story.

When the war was over, many of the women left the railroad, but they left of their own accord, not out of necessity. Others stayed on. Fifty years have gone by, and women brakemen on the railroads across the country are no longer a novelty. The queer thing is that women brakemen to whom I have talked, some of them now holding jobs in freight as well as in passenger service, have no idea of the seriocomic struggle that mothered their current rights. There having been no written history of it, it has passed into an oblivion shared with the earliest invention of the wheel.