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The Lady Brakemen

June 2024
26min read

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

All the new lady brakemen on the Pennsylvania Railroad were put to work on what was officially known as the Jersey Coast Extra List. The crew dispatchers referred to it as the Women’s List, and the male brakemen, who had been consigned to it before the women were hired, called it the Garbage Run. It was also known as the meat—as opposed to the gravy, the cushy sit-down jobs on the main line Washington Express, which paid three times as much for about one-tenth the work. There were thirty-two stops on the Jersey Coast run, and it took three hours to make it, often in old cattle cars converted for commuter use. But in the beginning the women, not knowing better, loved it.


It was 1944, we were all fired up with wartime patriotism, and the notion of doing “a man’s job” was in those days thrilling. Besides, the want ad that appeared in The New York Times promised $7.11 a day for unskilled, pleasant railroad work that required no prior experience. That was far more than typing or clerking paid or any of the other jobs for “girls.” Forty young women, most in their early twenties, were hired. We were chosen, so far as I could tell, for eagerness, proper subservience, clean fingernails, neat hair, and sufficient evidence of ability to memorize and obey railroad rules. I myself had a gut sense that it would not do to confess that I was motivated by a romantic conception of railroads acquired from movies and novels. A literature major at Columbia University, I got most of my notions from books and very little from living. I said instead that I had a brother overseas and wanted to do my share. That was true; most of us new hires had relatives in the war, and that fact for some reason seemed to guarantee that we could be relied on to leave the railroad when the war was over. So I quit my job—my first since graduating—as a receptionist at 20th Century-Fox, which by comparison was neither wild nor daring and certainly didn’t pay as well.

It was 1944, and we were all fired up with wartime patriotism, and the notion of doing “a man’s job” was in those days thrilling.

It took us a remarkably long time to learn that while we were indeed earning $7.11 a day for hopping on and off station platforms sixty-four times in three hours going down the coast and sixty-four times again coming back, some men were collecting $21 a day for just sitting down four hours each way to and from Washington in plush, clean cars pulled by diesel engines. For one thing, information about the way things worked on the railroad was hard to come by. It wasn’t merely that the men were so curiously hostile and reticent but that the running of the road was such a complex affair that even old-timers didn’t always comprehend why things happened the way they did and couldn’t explain a lot of it even if they were willing. Many of the men assumed, as we did, that things happened that way because it was the only way they could. There were hundreds of rules, written down in thick books, governing every aspect of the operations, and they had to be memorized unquestioningly. The very thing that was most seductive about the road—the movement—was what had to be absolutely controlled. No move could be plotted that might violate any one of those seemingly endless and often conflicting regulations—federal, state, interstate, safety, labor, intra-union, insurance, and rules of other railroads sharing the same tracks: a staggeringly dense lot of logistics. And then the condition of the road, the equipment, the switching problems, the location of an extra car to be brought from a distant yard to make up a full train, and, of course, economy all had to be considered in making up and scheduling every train that went out. It’s not surprising that passengers were often regarded by railroaders as a superfluous nuisance. Ordering a crew was possibly the simplest part of that whole complicated system, but there were so many considerations governing hours, working conditions, and pay that what might seem the most obvious way might turn out to be the most expensive. The crews were entitled to different wage rates depending upon which terminal they originated at, how many miles they worked, how many hours they laid over, their rail time, and more.

So it was no wonder that it took us a little while to begin questioning the way things were ordered for us. Yet even after we understood that it was because we were women that we had been assigned the run where you worked the hardest and made the least money, we still loved being on the railroad. Nevertheless, the questions began to fester.

“Well, you know, you girls don’t do the work the fellows do—”

“They sit all the way to Washington! Once they’ve got the tickets out of Newark, there’s nothing for them to do!”

“Well, that’s true enough on those Washington expresses, but they’re ready to do things you girls just can’t do.”

“Like what?”

“Well, you don’t move baggage, do you?”


“Or carry the markers down to the trains?”


“Or throw switches?”


“Well, you see, you aren’t real brakemen at all. You’re just ticket takers.”

“We hired on as brakemen. The trainmaster says we’re brakemen.”

“But you just admitted yourself you don’t do all the jobs a real brakeman does, so how can you expect—”

“But nobody asked us to. We were in training for two weeks, and nobody even told us we were supposed to do those things.”

“Probably figured you couldn’t do ‘em, so what was the use of asking? After all, you girls are ladies, don’t forget that. You wouldn’t want to do such things, would you?”

“I don’t know. It’s something to think about.”

“Well now, don’t think about it too much. No use bothering your head and fussing. After all, you girls won’t be here very long anyway. War’ll be over pretty soon, and you know when the fellows come back, you’ll be giving them back their jobs. You know that, don’t you?”


“You girls just don’t have any seniority, you see. Around here you gotta have seniority; the railroad’s no place for women. Now don’t take offense. I’m not saying you girls aren’t doing a damn fine job, because you are! Better than ninety percent of these no-good young sprats around here.”

That was the sort of discussion you could have with a “neutral” conductor, while you sat and counted tickets in the switching yard at the end of the run. It was the damnedest, most circular piece of reasoning I ever heard, and all the other girls got the same sort of jabber from every man who was willing to discuss the matter: The reason we averaged two-thirds less pay than the men and were limited to the Garbage Run was that we weren’t required to do all the work the men sometimes did. We were neither required nor permitted to do that work because it was assumed that we couldn’t or wouldn’t do it, yet if we did do it, we still couldn’t have the same chance at all the jobs because we were only temporary workers without seniority. But we could not have seniority because the railroad was no place for women.

Men who hired on after us—and before long there were about five hundred of them, all rejected by the Army—did have seniority, so that when the servicemen returned from the war and took their jobs, they eventually could get them back when there was more work. The forty girls never could.

Unavoidably, the trouble was that we were women. Until then almost every one of us had had the impression that men didn’t hold it against women for being women, so it was a surprise. But if the men had had better manners, or better arguments, most of us would have let the whole thing go, for not one of us was anxious to work a baggage car, carry markers, or throw switches.

One day I was working with a girl named Claire Fredericks who talked a conductor into letting us throw a switch. It was pure serendipity, for Mr. Keefer was about the only conductor on the Bay Head run who would have permitted it, Little Claire was the only one who could have asked, and I was one of the few girls, at first, who were willing to try.

Mr. Keefer was close to retirement and, because of that, didn’t care much one way or the other whether the women stayed on the road.

Claire was the only one of us whom the men honored with a real railroad sobriquet. They called her Little Smokey as a kind of grudging tribute to her stamina and her capacity for work. “Big Smokey” was a legend of the New York Division, famous for his ability to work while sleeping, or vice versa. We used to see him sitting on the bench in the crew dispatcher’s office, sleeping with his eyes open, waiting for someone to fail to show up for a job and hoping to get it at the last minute when the dispatcher got desperate. He would already have completed his daily maximum sixteen hours of rail time and not be legally entitled to another second. But if no one else was around, he’d get it anyway.

Little Smokey would sit there on the bench beside him. He never talked to her; he had no energy to waste. She was a very little girl, but she was strong and could work from one end of the day to the next, without sleep, and when the dispatcher wanted to shop her, she wheedled him into another day’s work. She was not pretty, but she was chipper, always freshly made up and ready to go. She kept two clean shirts in her locker at all times and changed automatically every eight hours. She was chronically good-humored and laughed off insults in a friendly way, and she settled herself on the bench beside Big Smokey and waited cheerfully and confidently for the dispatcher to give her the same illegal handouts he gave to Big Smokey. At first, of course, he wouldn’t.

“G’wan home, girlie, you’re shopped,” he would tell her. “You’ve had your sixteen hours.” It was a serious violation of a federal safety statute to work more than sixteen hours without eight hours of sleep, and the brakeman who got caught doing it was just as much in trouble as the dispatcher who permitted him to.

Eventually the dispatcher mellowed and treated her as near to equal with Big Smokey as he could, considering that he could not send her on the big main liners or assign her to flagging or moving baggage. She had one goal in mind: money. She did not care for the adventure or the fun of the railroad, nor was she there out of any patriotic motive. She did not care whether the men liked her or didn’t, so long as she had a chance to make money. She was not rude or angry. She just wanted money. She had been a cosmetics demonstrator at Woolworth’s, and without doubt she had worked just as hard and determinedly there as she did on the railroad. But the store closed after eight hours, and the railroad went on and on, gloriously, forever, and she strung herself out as long as she could wheedle a job—twenty-four or even forty-eight hours without going home, napping on benches, on station platforms, or in deadhead cars.

Well, when the train pulled into Bay Head Junction that day, it stopped as usual at the station to let off passengers and then it pulled into the yard, where it was switched to a siding for what my grandmother would have called “a lick and a spit” to ready it for the return journey.

The engineer stopped the train a short distance before the first switch. Mr. Keefer stood on the steps of the head car and watched us. The engineer, to our surprise, gave us a V sign as we walked past his cab. Smokey, on her stilt heels, teetered along three inches below my shoulder level. It was a big, heavy switch, and it was rusty. I tried to pull it up. Smokey tried. We tried pulling it together, my hands over hers. Then Smokey bent down and grabbed the switch with both hands, and I stood behind her and grabbed her at the waist. I pulled her, and she pulled the switch. We both fell over backward onto the track, but the switch had moved! A fraction. We went to the other side of the switch and tried kicking it up. I attempted to use my backside as a lever. It moved an inch. All the while we were groaning and grunting. Smokey lost her cap. I tore the shoulder seam of my jacket. Smokey took off her shoes. At last, kicking and pushing and pulling, we got the switch halfway up, then over the halfway mark. Smokey jumped on it. We both bounced on it. The switch went down, and we waited while the engineer moved the train ahead to the next one. He was grinning as he passed us. Mr. Keefer sent the flagman to throw the next switch. We were humiliated. We were surprised at how difficult it had been and were well aware that no one was going to let us throw switches like that as a regular thing.


“Why don’t they oil those switches?” I asked Mr. Keefer. “If they weren’t so rusty, we could throw them.” Mr. Keefer nodded agreeably. “Could be,” he said. “That could be.” But that was as far as he wanted to go with the matter.

“You’d think the men would want them oiled,” I said to Little Smokey as we counted our tickets.

“Not them,” she said good-humoredly. “They’re proud of their hernias. You got to have a hernia to be a real railroad man.”

There were two lady brakemen in the crew dispatcher’s shack. They had watched our moment of glory but were not impressed. “What do you think you’re doing anyway?” said one of them. “Next thing you know, we’ll all be working baggage! Who wants to throw switches anyway?”

Nevertheless, Little Smokey and I each bought a pocket-size can of 3-in-1 oil for the next opportunity—if it ever came.

The next day Peggy Sigafoos was waiting in the locker room at Penn Station. The railroad grapevine moves fast. Peggy was the trainmaster’s appointed lady’s rep. The men had union representation, but we were not permitted to join the union. We considered Peggy a gumshoe.

“Hear you and Smokey were having some fun at the junction,” she said, dimpling at me when I came in. She was fair-haired and square-jawed. She had a horseshoe-shaped mouth I did not like.

“Yes, it was fun.”

We went to the other side of the switch and tried kicking it up. I attempted to use my backside as a lever. It moved an inch.

“What’s up?”

“How do you mean?”

“You girls after something in particular?”

“They want to get to work the Washington trains,” said someone in the locker room who did not.

“That’s what it sounded like to me,” said Peggy. “But you know it can’t be done, don’t you?”

“Why not, if we can do the work?”

“You’re not allowed, that’s why. You’re only here temporarily. The men had a choice between working with Negroes and working with women, and they chose us. But they don’t want us here, and we can’t stay on indefinitely. That’s the way it is. Don’t rock the boat. I’m telling it to you straight: There’s nothing you can do about it, and you’ll get yourselves in trouble if you try. So quit throwing switches, got it?” She sucked in her dimples and looked older than her twenty-three years.

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.

“You tried?”

“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.

“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.

A SPECIAL DESIGNER HAD BEEN hired to make an acceptable uniform for the women. No airline-stewardess chic, however. The object was to disguise the female anatomy and deflatter what could not be concealed. The jacket was long enough to cover the hips and shaped to flatten the breasts. A man’s shirt with a stiffly starched male collar and a black necktie were worn under it, while a man’s hat—the trainman’s own peaked cap with the inscription “Trainman” in gold braid across the peak—sat deep on the forehead, covered the ears, and made a mess of any woman’s hair. Short hair stuck out like Raggedy Ann fringes; long hair looked grotesque and in any case was not permitted. Some girls stuffed all their hair under the cap so that they did, in fact, look like men in skirts, for although the uniform was meant to make us as unprovocative as possible, we had to wear skirts because they were ladylike. They blew up in the draft as we walked between cars or stood in the spring breeze on the platform. Our legs froze in winter, and in the rain and snow all the pleating came undone. Sensible, comfortable shoes looked terrible with those skirts, but high heels were impractical—that is, for anyone but Smokey. Even so, after an initial plea for pants had been refused, we put up with the skirts; by now many of the Uncle Toms among us were devoted to them. They were ladies, as we were so often reminded, and they didn’t want to be indistinguishable from the men.

After a moment of stupefaction a torrent of argument broke loose, and Peggy, with her square-jawed, dimpled smile, gaveled for order.

It was a great ploy. Women who had been sore at the men were now sore at one another. There was a split between those who regarded themselves as “ladies” and those who regarded themselves as “women.” Those who wanted to be ladies and thought that throwing switches was unladylike did want to keep the skirts, but there were also many among them who wanted equal work and equal rights who thought their hips or thighs were too heavy and did not want to wear pants; they fought with the girls who had good legs and did want pants, even though they, too, were for seniority rights. It was a mess.


The trainmaster, with his pale eyes, watched with satisfaction. The issue was not then resolved, and for a long time it divided our attention and consumed energy and heat that had been directed at other matters.

“Smokey giggled, stretched herself out on the bed. ‘We want some of that there senior-ority thing, Mr. Cahill, and brother, we need it!’”

One summer evening, returning to the locker room after a murderously busy weekend job, I saw Smokey standing outside talking to two big fellows with cigars and powdered jowls. She wore her fresh shirt and fresh makeup. Her cap sat precariously, as usual, atop her upswept hairdo. She was chuckling and batting her eyes, as was her habit with men. She grabbed my elbow as I made for the locker-room door.

“I want you to meet some friends ” she said, so meaningfully that both men laughed. I myself was feeling slow, if not altogether numb, after twenty-two hours of rail time.

“These two gentlemen,” Smokey went on, “are from the Grand Lodge of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen; they are vice presidents . The president sent them to find out what’s going on down here, and they want to talk to us .”

The two men—Joe Cahill and Boyce Eidson—had rooms in the hotel across from the station. We went to Cahill’s room, where Smokey promptly made herself comfortable on one of the twin beds. The men were visibly affected by this. Cahill quietly opened the hotelroom door and wedged a doorstop under it, which only created even more of a feeling of embarrassment. I myself sat primly on a straight-backed chair, but only because if I’d relaxed at all, I’d have collapsed. Cahill called room service and ordered a couple of bottles of whiskey and soda, catching Eidson’s eye as he did so.

“That what you girls drink?” he barked. He was a barker and a grumbler, a chunky, florid, silver-haired gent with ruddy face and stubby fingers. His face looked scrubbed, polished, massaged, and powdered, and there was an expression in it—impetuous and boyish—that I found attractive. His suit was of the silkiest worsted, beautifully tailored and of a shade that matched his tousled silver hair. Boyce Eidson—much less colorful—called him Little Snake. Since there was nothing snaky in his appearance, I assumed it referred to his character, although he looked to me entirely forthright. He sounded rough and tough; he hustled and made other displays of vigor, but his eyes were intelligent, grave, and even soft behind steel-rimmed spectacles. Much later I discovered that the trainmen’s union people referred to the switchmen’s union people as snakes, and once in the long ago Cahill had been one of them.

“Sweet Tom Collins for me,” said Smokey. “Two cherries please.” She chuckled at him. He glared toward me.

“Wine,” I said. “Red, please.”

Wine ?” He seemed paralyzed at the idea.

“Give the orders, Little Snake,” said Eidson, puffing at his cigar.

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.”

“That so?”

“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.”

“Try again.”

“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.

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.

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