Women’s History Month – Women and the Railroad Industry
In case you didn’t know, March is National Women’s History month! Since 1995, U.S. presidents have issued annual proclamations designating the month of March as Women’s History Month to promote equality efforts that had been acknowledged for many years through National Women’s History Day which then lead to National Women’s History Week celebrations since 1911. Interrail was recently WBE Certified for all three of our branches: Interrail Engineering, Interrail Signal and Interrail Power. We are proud of that fact and thought that in honor of our attainments and to celebrate Women’s History month, we would share some history about women’s triumphs in the railroad industry.
Before the 19th century the wives and mothers of previous generations had no rights to work for a living and certainly didn’t work on the railroad. During the Industrial Revolution, few women began taking positions outside the home and by 1838 Union Pacific Railroad had already introduced Registered Nurse-Stewardesses to their passenger trains, the first women to become part of an operating train crew.
Since that time, women’s rights have changed by leaps and bounds, beginning with the Women’s Rights Movement which started in 1848. In 1855, the B&O Railroad hired four women, who kept their station in Baltimore in top condition. Word caught on and quickly thereafter, women gained a place on the forefront of the railroad expansion. Women from the mid-west and east, looking for work and opportunity, grew in numbers. They were civilized and highly professional, bringing refinement to the west as well as to the railroad men that many of them would eventually marry. Women in the railroad industry worked hard to ensure that their jobs were done diligently and efficiently so that they would not be replaced by a man. The majority of women employed by the railroads worked in the clerical field. Some women did perform more labor intensive duties on the railroad, working as shop helpers, crane operators or air brake cleaners among other tasks.
The most important breakthrough for women in railroading came when women telegraphers earned responsible positions taking orders and keeping trains on track. During the Civil War, many female telegraph operators were asked to help the war effort and took over or assisted when men left for the war. By the 1890s, women were working on small railroads in various capacities and by the early part of the 20th century, women were railroad designers, depot architects, and bacteriologists studying refrigerator car efficiency.
Skipping forward to the end of World War I (1918), most women holding positions in male-dominated fields were laid off so that our returning soldiers could resume their jobs. Women working in the less-coveted and traditionally female identified clerical and domestic positions, however, were able to retain their posts. In this capacity, women in the industry continued to provide support services essential to the efficient and effective operation of the nation’s railroads even after the war.
In the 1920′s and 1930′s there was a major decline in railroad ridership and mileage due to the growing popularity of automobiles, airplanes and also due to the onset of the Great Depression. Railroad employment had decreased by 42% by 1932. Poverty swept the nation and people were losing their farms and being forced out of their homes. Men and women who heard about work hundreds of miles away , or even half a continent away, felt they had no choice but to leave their homes in search of work. Often the only way they could get there was by hopping on freight trains, illegally. More than two million men and approximately 8,000 women became train-hopping hoboes. Unlike today, many railroads crossed the country then, including the Santa Fe, the B & O, the L & N, the Southern Pacific, the Northern Pacific, the Pennsylvania, the Western and the Union railroads.
During the WWII years (1939-1945), the government’s war-related “get-women-to-work” campaigning opened the door to women in the workforce, setting off a key change for women’s civil rights and altering the demographics of the workforce in later years. At the end of December 1941, there were about 13 million women at work. ‘Rosie the Riveter’ and other campaigns helped to increase that number to 15 million in early 1943.
As with WWI , many of the jobs held by women during WWII were initially returned to men after the war ended, but the workforce would never be the same again. Women discovered a new sense of pride, dignity and independence in their work and their lives. Many realized their work was just as valuable as men’s. A number of women workers joined unions, gaining major new benefits from labor representation. Black and Hispanic women also gained entry to railroads, major industrial plants, factory and other jobs throughout the country. Many women decided to fight for their positions in the railroad business. Today, women are becoming an increasing presence and continue to pioneer all aspects of the railroad industry. Women today owe their jobs to the women of WWI and WWII, who sacrificed so much to join the battle on the home front to win.