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Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania, a world class museum of railroad history in Strasburg, PA.

Women and Railroads During World War II

Patriotic Railroad Painting.The "war to end all wars" began when Hitler’s army invaded Poland on September 1, 1939 and the world found itself embroiled in a Second World War. At the beginning of the war, America was content to sit back and watch the Allied Forces battle the Axis Powers. Americans did not desire to enter another world war that would take the lives of its men and boys. After suffering through the Depression and World War I, peace was what they really wanted. Let the rest of the world solve its own problems.

As the Allies began losing more and more battles, and France fell under the weight of the German army, the United States government took notice, and rapidly accelerated their defense policy. The mobilization of troops and the economy had begun. Everything changed on December 7, 1941, the "day that shall live in infamy," when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The day after the attack, America declared war on the Axis Powers. Mobilization began in earnest as America readied itself for war.

The industry that would carry the lion’s share of responsibility for achieving war readiness was the railroads. One unrecognized group of people that greatly contributed to this mobilization effort by the railroads was the women of America. Women filled the gaps left in the workplace by the men who went off to fight. Women fulfilled their patriotic duty by fighting the war on the home front.

The involvement of the railroads in World War II started even before Pearl Harbor. On March 11, 1941, America implemented its Lend Lease program, in which equipment, including that of the railroads, was sent to the aid of the Allies. Russia alone received 1,900 steam engines and 50 diesel engines. After the declaration of war by the United States, the burden placed on the railroads grew. During mobilization, the railroads were called upon to transport the troops as well as military equipment heading overseas. They were also called upon to operate several small lines used on military bases and installations. By the end of the war, the railroads had moved 91% of all military freight within the country and 98% of all military personnel. In addition to the military, they also had to deal with growing civilian traffic, especially in the east. Due to the rationing of rubber and gasoline, civilians were using the railways for transportation instead of cars.

Railroad passenger traffic rose dramatically from 425,921,000 riders in 1940 to 910,295,000 in 1944. In addition to the passenger and military traffic, the railroads were handling burgeoning amounts of freight. More and more freight businesses turned to the railways because the presence of German submarines in the Atlantic had disrupted the flow of goods transported by ship through the Panama Canal and along coastal shipping lanes between Texas and New England. Because of the war, revenue freight tonnage on the railroads went from 1.8 billion tons in 1940 to 3 billion tons in 1943.

That the railroads would handle these increased demands was vital. What they could accomplish would affect both America's degree of readiness for the war, as well as its effectiveness. In the beginning, the railroads felt prepared for this heavy burden. Although railroad employees started to join the U. S. fighting forces in large numbers, the companies were initially not concerned. The Depression had left a large group of unemployed men they thought they could tap into. It was when these men also left for the war in large numbers that the railroad companies began to realize that they would have to draw on personnel resources seldom used before - women and ethnic minorities.

Even though by the end of the war, 351,000 of their employees had joined the war effort, the workforce of the railroad companies actually increased from 1,140,000 in 1941 to 1,420,000 in 1945 through the hiring of women and minorities. The hiring of women by the railroads was not unprecedented.

Woman telegraph operator.Susan Morningstar, working for the Baltimore & Ohio in 1855, is one of the first women on record employed by a railroad. At that time, the few women employed by the railroads were mostly delegated cleaning duties. A few were assigned clerical work. Women were also sometimes used in advertising campaigns for the railroads, such as the famous Phoebe Snow depicted in the Delaware & Lackawanna publicity posters. However, women were generally portrayed as railroad passengers, rarely as workers. Women were employed to some extent by the railroads during World War I to replace the men who had gone off to fight. The men returned to their railroad jobs after the war. It wasn't until World War II that the place of women in railroading would change.

One way in which World War II changed the status of women in railroading was that women were employed by the railroads in record numbers, not only in America but in England as well. Because women workers were not reported separately by the railroads before World War II, their pre-war number can only be estimated at about 40,000. The number of female employees increased rapidly during the war until 1945 when it is documented that about 116,000 women were working on the railroads. It is not surprising to find that companies like the Pennsylvania Railroad, serving highly industrialized areas, placed an unusually large number of women into jobs normally performed by men.

Wartime Ad.Before the United States joined the war, the PRR employed approximately 1,300 women. In July 1943, the number of PRR female employees was about 20,000. The railroads and other industries vigorously recruited large numbers of additional women workers from mid-1943 until nearly the end of the war. Patriotic advertisements were used showing women as "fighting" on the home front, helping their boys overseas. Women workers in America’s industries were nicknamed "Rosie the Riveter."

At the beginning of the war, women accounted for 25% of the total working population of the United States. In 1945, 36% of the American labor force consisted of females. The number of women employees of the railroads, and industry in general, dropped off as the war came to a close. The number of female employees reported for the third quarter 1944 on Class I railroads, decreased. However, because the total number of workers also declined, the percentage of women employed by the railroads actually rose a little, to 8.2%. As in World War I, when the troops returned home, many women quit or were laid off so the men could have their jobs back. Where the situation following World War II was different, however, was in the fact that many more women retained their jobs after the war ended.

The American Council of Railroad Women was established in 1944 to help the large number of women that were hired by the railroads. Women formed this group to provide mutual support and give women railroad workers a voice in the issues of the day. Over the years, the Council has grown into an international organization, reflecting the railroad industry's history and the women who helped make it. The American Council of Railroad Women today fulfills its original mission while promoting career development opportunities for women in the rail industry.

During the war, women were found in the majority of railroad positions. In addition to performing cleaning and clerical jobs, women were employed as telegraphers, yardmen, shop workers and trainmen, just to name a few. As the war continued on, women were entrusted with heavier and more sophisticated work. By April 24, 1943, the Pennsylvania Railroad had 20 women regularly employed as yard brakemen along the Philadelphia waterfront. Commuter lines especially relied on women workers during World War II. On the Long Island Railroad, the women who worked as trainmen were nicknamed "Wheels" by the New York commuters.

Women employees efficiently performed the reclamation of scrap and maintenance of way and structure tasks. In January 1943, there were 745 women employed in maintenance of way jobs by Class I railroads, their numbers increasing to 3,027 in October of that same year. Women were used for the first time as public address system announcers at Pennsylvania Station in New York. Many people considered women’s voices an improvement because they were an octave higher than men’s and their enunciation much clearer. In the words of a writer to the New York Times:

One thing I find, however, infinitely improved in railroad passenger operations because of the war and that is the loudspeaker announcement of trains by women. The clear, careful, syllable perfect announcements at the Pennsylvania Station nowadays are a cause for public satisfaction. One can only hope that the women will be kept on after the war in the name of public service and not dismissed out of any misguided sympathy for those word-swallowing, bored males of yesteryear whom they succeeded in the crisis.


Femle models were employed to advertise the virtues of passenger train travel in post-war 1950s.
Replacing men with women in the workplace during World War II changed a lot of things, including perceptions of women, railroading and work.  Before the war, it was not socially acceptable for married women to work, most especially in transportation. The railroad magazines published before the war mention female employees that married invariably left the workplace. During World War II, however, working married women were seen as fighting on the home front, helping their husbands and other men who were overseas. The war proved to many females, married or single, that they could hold down a fulltime job while fulfilling their responsibilities at home. It also proved what women could accomplish as railroad workers, performing the majority of jobs equally as well as men. In addition to improving women's job opportunities, World War II changed the basic age group of female employees. Before the war, unmarried females between the ages of 20 and 24 were most often employed. During the war, however, married women between the ages of 14 and 19, and above 45, were especially utilized.

World War II also changed the perceptions men held of women in the workplace and as railroad employees. As the war broke out and railroad workers started to leave their jobs, many companies were wary of hiring women to take the place of men. Company officials doubted whether women could do the jobs well enough to merit hiring them. Their worries, however, proved unfounded. Women performed extremely well and sometimes far above expectations. In the words of a Lackawanna Road official, "We had women in the roundhouses, in the yards and in the offices. They did [darn] good work." As women gradually became accepted on the job, so did the principle of equal pay. If a woman could do a job equally as well as a man, they ought to be paid the same amount. Railroad companies were still reluctant, however, to grant women seniority. They preferred to give the men returning from the war their jobs back.

Women contributed greatly to the war effort when they took the place of men in the railroads. In the end, it was the industrial might of the United States, safe from the ravages of fighting and with its railway network intact, that decided the victor of the Second World War. Women were a significant part of this nation’s industrial and railroad might.

Contemporary woman railroader.After the war, many women decided to stay in the railroading business. They laid the groundwork for successive women to find their own place in the railroads. Today, women are becoming an increasing presence on the railways and are making their positive mark in the industry. These women owe their jobs to the women of World War II who joined the battle on the home front, and won.

Women and Railroading Before World War II

Adapted from an article in Milepost, the Journal of the Friends of the Museum, in March 1999, by Michelle L. Styer.
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