Helena Wojtczak: Railwaywomen, Exploitation, betrayal and triumph in the workpace

When Helena Wojtczak mentioned to a fellow railway researcher that she was writing a book about railwaywomen, he said she was wasting her time and asserted that women had played no significant role in their history. Despite many similar put downs, Wojtczak perservered and was, of course, proved right. There was indeed, a fantastic book in the previously untold story of women in the railways even though she had to publish it herself.

The conventional wisdom is that women helped out a bit on the railways in the world wars, but otherwise the railways were a man’s world. The truth is very different. There is a rich history even if there never were any women train drivers in the age of steam and in peacetime women were mostly confined to certain well defined jobs – the three cs, as Wojtczak calls them: catering, clerical and crossing keepers.

The latter is the most unexpected finding: the first women crossing keepers were employed in the 1850 and from 1926 outnumbered men in that job. But of course they suffered blatant discrimination in both pay and conditions. In 1950, men were paid around £7 while women got just over half, between £3 11 shillings to £4 10 shillings. Moreover, while men were restricted by law to a 12 hour shift, women keepers could work 16 hours or more, being allowed only four hours ‘shopping leave’. It is sadly inevitable that crossing keepers had the lowest status of any job in the railways

Wojtczak’s meticulous research uncovers early women rail workers in all sorts of odd places. The first women were cleaners, ladies’ room attendants, catering workers and, more surprisingly, as early as the 1850s, crossing keepers. Wojtczak herself was one of the pioneers, becoming the first guard to be employed by British Rail in 1979.

This is true hidden history. What’s more it seems to have been almost malevolently forgotten by the inevitably male chroniclers of the railway. Time and again Wojtczak tells a story about a woman’s involvement in a railway incident but when the tale is written up in a railway history, the female dimension is completely omitted. For example, when porter Violet Wisdom helped with the chaotic scene after the 1942 bombing of Bramley station in Surrey, the male chronicler of the tale only mentioned the other railway worker to be first on the scene, the fireman of a train who ‘singlehandedly attended the injured’, although both received certificates for the way they handled the situation.

Wojtczak highlights, too, how Railnews , BR’s staff newspaper, perpetuated the myth that women had little place in the industry other than to decorate the calendars of suppliers. In the post Equal Rights Act era, it persisted in presenting women who broke through the glass barrier into new areas of railway employment as ‘pretty brunette’ or ‘curvy blonde’

The unions come out particularly badly. They were always more concerned with protecting the position of their male members rather than recognising that women had a right to a decent wage too. This meant that there was active discouragement of women taking on many jobs, policies that were often hidden behind patronising nonsense as ‘their busts would get in the way’ or ‘it would damage their health’. Even as recently as the 1960s, the unions themselves discriminated against women workers, paying female clerks half as much as their male counterparts.

While both world wars offered temporary opportunities for women, in peacetime they quickly lost much of the ground they gained. Wojtczak is particularly good at dispelling myths here, showing that it was not married women earning ‘pin money’ who took on these roles but those with no other source of support. Although many were war widows, they were ruthlessly culled from jobs they needed desperately so that male ‘breadwinners’ could take them back. The unions were deeply implicated in helping create a climate in which men’s needs were seen to be paramount.

Wojtczak’s effort to document all so much of her meticulous research occasionally makes the book into too much of a catalogue and recitation of tales of women in the industry, although that characteristic will make it an invaluable resource for researchers for years to come. Fortunately, she writes well enough to carry the reader along, helped by a great collection of photographs and drawings.

This is more than a history of women’s involvement in the railway. It is a carefully documented story of discrimination which at times is so wicked as to make one wince, and reminds us just that the whole idea of women working on equal terms with men is so novel. The Sex Discrimination Act came into force only 30 years ago and attitudes were slower to change than the law. Women were put off applying by a phalanx of middle managers who made sure that they were deterred from even trying, and by job titles that retained their sexist wording long after the passing of the act.

Wojtczak, however, celebrates the fact that ‘ultimately, railwaywomen have triumphed’ since they have equal pay and equal opportunities. Indeed, three women currently head train operating companies and another was in charge of the Scottish zone of Railtrack. Nevertheless, Neanderthals still stalk the railways. Keith Norman, the general secretary of ASLEF dismissed the book saying ‘I doubt anyone will read it, anyway’. Prove him wrong.

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