By Adam Robinson, Research and Interpretations Assistant
Cover photo sourced from WikiMedia
It is a common belief or, at least, a blurring or dismissal that women are rare or do not work within the framework of British railways’ and their history. The word ‘railwaymen’ appears far more than ‘railwaywomen’. Whether this is prejudice, lack of scholarship, intrigue, or knowing cannot be certain, but what is a fact is that women have always been employed within rail since its very beginning. Unfortunately, women in rail history is still a lacking area of research, but there is research material out there to read if you know where to look. Helena Wojtczak can perhaps lay claim to being a profound expert and has written extensively well-researched texts on the subject – some of which have been extremely useful in the writing of this article. Wojtczak also holds the highly commendable title of being British Rail’s first female guard appointed in 1979. It is not until 1977, two years prior, that the first female train driver, Karen Harrison, would be employed. It hits a note of joy to know that a female historian is doing the work of uncovering, like so many others like her in various historiographical fields, the histories that the ‘male gaze’ conveniently missed.
The railways, from the onset, liberated the travel and movement of women provided they could themselves pay for their fare. As prices were lowered and society’s permission for women to travel alone was granted, women could now attain the same mobility a man could. Previously, women would have had to rely on the company of a trusted escort or companion by horse-drawn coach and would not have the luxury of the rare ‘Ladies Only’ carriage until the mid to late nineteenth century. There can be no doubt that the freedom to travel allowed women to make their emancipation manifest exponentially.
‘Women’s work’ is an umbrella term used for labour, jobs, or skills that are considered suitable – relying on stereotypes, gendered binary roles, or political beliefs – for, and only for, females. Any labour conducted outside this feminine sphere contradicted the feminine ideal at the time and was deemed too arduous, too unsuitable, or impractical. These involve the usual slew of washing, caring, cooking, cleaning, submissive servitudes, or towards the more ‘white collar’ clerical assigned tasks that involve a secretarial or assistant type of employment. This is fundamentally still labour, regardless of the gendered lenses being used, and the difference of pay or rights is no excuse.
The history of women and labour was often an overlooked subject until their wartime industry’s efforts during the mid-twentieth century propelled them into such a light that it would be deliberately ignorant not to study their efforts. Even put quite simply, railways would not have survived without them during the World Wars. During wartimes, barriers that barred women from entering jobs were usually removed to meet the demand if no male replacements could be found quickly enough. The essentialism of the railways during war was paramount to the nation’s ability to continue to work at standard capacity.
However, this initial progress resumed back to the status quo when wars ended as ‘old’ sexist ways and employment practices were hard to break:
“In 18 months [during the First World War] 34,000 [women] were engaged, as clerks, carriage cleaners, porters, goods porters, ticket collectors, engine cleaners, electric truck drivers, horse-van drivers, number-takers, messengers, operators of lifts, cranes, and points, and in many other grades. [In response] They attracted considerable press attention, and the influx generated extensive debate among railwaymen.”
– (H. Wojtczak, p. 564).
Efforts were immediately made to safeguard men’s employment rights, in terms of pay and their return to work in their previous posts in rail, mostly. There seemed to be a begrudging attempt by the National Union of Railwaymen when they allowed women to join in 1915. In the subsequent years that followed on from this alarmist attitude, there was a continual protest by women, quite rightly, at the disparity of pay, hours, and rights; and some protests did occur by women employed in transport, but there was little to show for it in the end. The campaign for the right for women to vote and universal suffrage swallowed most of the arguments pertinent to industrial relations at the time.
Men, however, had extensive jurisdiction over what work women did, often in vile, unfair, demeaning and manipulative fashions. For example, the gap between male and female wages was monstrous and followed the usual patterns of anxieties from men fearing they will lose their positions to notably cheaper labour and female frustrations at the discrepancy of monetary gain. If married, women were instantly dismissed and, if pregnant, usually replaced – which was typical for most, if not all, industries before gender equality found its way into employment laws.
Within the context of rail, women were often employed as waiting room attendants, cleaners, receptionists, manageresses of lodging-houses, typists, copyists, on-board ladies’ attendants for female-only carriages, crossing-keepers, refreshment room staff, and surveyors/heads of these areas. They were employed in railway company hotels, workshops, printing presses, and other tertiary extensions of railway cooperations. In workshops, specifically, women could be machinists, painters, polishers, needlers, or general labourers. When technology was advanced, women were given the reigns of telephones, telegrams, and typing (but were still confined within these specific areas without possible advancement).
While it can be easy to cast off the presupposition that women could only do these roles mentioned above, it would be foolish to say that there were no exceptions to these social formulae that supposedly dictated employment. Before World War One, over 13,000 women were employed in Britain’s railways compared to only 9,000 in 1984, both of which were the minority in the total workforce (H. Wojtczak, p. 564). This was, and still is, indicative of the dominant trend of perceiving railways as a homosocial male environment. Some stations were run by women as early as 1832, though whether they shirked off the stigma of a woman working remains to be seen (H. Wojtczak, p. 564). Some navvies were women and worked alongside the men who laboured intensively to set the U. K’s early rail infrastructure. A signalwoman or a female bridge keeper was rare but not outside the realms of possibility throughout rail history. In war, as aforementioned, women could attain nearly all of the same jobs men were entitled to but were dismissed shortly after they returned. By the Second World War, they could be guards, blacksmiths, welders, signal repairers or electricians, or many other roles that were stereotypically more masculine in their manual functions. In many cases, women rose to complex circumstances and often risked their lives to do so:
“The jobs women performed were infinitely more hazardous and stressful during wartime, when the railways were enemy bombing targets. Nearly 400 staff were killed and 2,500 were injured. In June 1941 the Great Western steamer St Patrick was bombed and sunk. Stewardess Elizabeth Owen repeatedly dived into submerged cabins to rescue passengers. She was awarded the George Medal and the Lloyd’s War Medal for bravery, the first woman railway employee ever given such accolades of Bramley, Southern Railway, witnessed a terrifying air attack on a nearby train. It was bombed and machine-gunned, killing the driver and guard and injuring passengers. Without hesitation, she ran to the wreckage and helped the dazed fireman to deal with the catastrophe. Isabella Gilder, a guard at Lennoxtown, near Glasgow, recalled: “The black-out was so horrible – not knowing where one was. Going out into strange yards, and listening to trains moving and not seeing them not knowing where the points were, and nobody to ask, is very alarming. My first run was to Clydebank. The station had been bombed and we went into another. We then had to shunt up the line. I had to get out of the van to change the rear lamp. There was hardly anything there but rubble I did not know where I was I had the greatest desire to run, but it seemed there was no place to run’.”
– H. Wojtczak, p. 565.
It is hardly unsurprising to discover Violet Wisdom had her achievements diminished by having her courageous deeds attributed to a man who was ‘singlehandedly’ also on the scene.
Some women, married or independent, retained their positions after the wars ended, sometimes even filling the places their fellow men did not return to. However, the vast majority were again, as ever, dismissed. The gazes of the ‘pin-up’ girl or spilt open magazine centre spread model staring vacantly out from their idealised plinths as the railwaywomen left their posts. The workforce fallout of both the World Wars still left a shortage of men to hand, and women were, once again, called upon to fill in these places though in a limited way. Women were often continually segregated from men in most circumstances, promotion wise and spatially until such segregation was made illegal. The workplace was not made for them, and there are often stories to be heard of no female staff toilets being available to railwaywomen. In the mid-century, things were starting to look up for progressive female equality. For example, by 1958, equal pay was established in British Railways, predating the first of the Equal Pay Acts. Some women propelled themselves into the manufacturing and technical sectors of the railway industry. Yet, this was still a progression of two steps forward and one step back as railwaymen continued to protest against the inclusion of women. Railway companies, similarly, did little to promote their employment opportunities to women with the hopes of a career. Discrimination continued, though the Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 was heralded as a dawn of new female emancipation, as it succeeded to enforce the Equality Act of 1970, which had previously only been interpreted as ‘optional’ to employers and institutions, despite women reaching the railway boards and national unions. A seminal government report by the Equal Opportunities Commission entitled Wanted: Railman (1986), however, did much to expose the push for true lacklustre diversity and equality in the industry, proving to start a discussion that enabled hundreds of women to have their voices finally heard. Even legislature tackling gender rights and equity, as history shows, often comes ‘too little and too late.’ Nowadays, it is, perhaps hopeful, to see that all hostility against female participation in railways has been illegal and that sexism in the workplace is utterly intolerable.
For further information, you can listen to memories and past lives of working railway women on the National Railway Museum’s National Archive of Railway Oral History page here. The selected sound bites of the interviews conducted with Betty Chalmers, Gladys Garlick, and Ann Henderson, and many more, are of particular interest to listen to and are, quite literally, a national treasure.
You can also read more about the work for improving diversity Women in Rail are doing here.
Simmons, Jack, ed. The Oxford Companion to British Railway History from 1603 to the 1990s. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.