Women workers broke the “grease ceiling” of railroad work during both world wars. The millions of men who entered the armed services to fight overseas left jobs that the nation desperately needed to fill in order to sustain home front war efforts. Substantial increases in industrial production and transportation further exacerbated the employment situation for railroads and many other industries, leaving them no choice but to turn to women to fill traditionally male-dominated roles. During World War I, women employed by railroads peaked at almost 102,000, more than three times the number before the war. Nearly 113,000 women were working for railroads at the height of World War II in 1944, comprising almost 8 percent of the railroad workforce. Train Festival 2011
takes place this week in Rock Island, Ill., just 30 miles down the Mississippi River from Clinton, Iowa, one of the best-documented locations of women railroad workers during World War II. The Chicago & North Western Railway had a division point yard and roundhouse in Clinton where trains changed locomotives on its main line between Chicago and the West. The C&NW hired 17 women at Clinton as engine wipers to help maintain its steam locomotives. W. J. Whalen, foreman, was impressed with their work on the dirty locomotives. "When they go to work on them, they do the job with care and thoroughness that is difficult for a man to equal," he told the Clinton Herald
. C&NW also had women working at Chicago; Proviso, Ill.; Boone and Council Bluffs, Iowa; Milwaukee, Green Bay and Madison, Wis.
From late 1942 through mid-1943, photographer Jack Delano
was assigned to document the wartime role of the nation’s railroads for the Office of War Information. From his base in Chicago, Delano made multiple trips to Clinton, where he photographed the women engine wipers in both black-and-white and color. His innovative photographs capture the pride, determination, and grit of the railroads’ real-life "Rosie the Riveters."
When the wars ended, the railroads laid off many of their women employees so they could hire or re-hire the returning soldiers. Some women transitioned to more traditional positions at the railroads, but a few fought to keep the jobs they performed so admirably in a time of great need. (See Shirley Burman’s story
on one such case.)Through time and great effort, women have earned more permanent roles in the nation’s railroads. SCOTT LOTHES is the new executive director of the Center for Railroad Photography & Art. Meet him and president John Gruber, and view the Center’s two rotating photography exhibitions at its booth at Train Festival 2011 (Table 25 between 17th and 18th streets), including one of Delano’s portraits of the C&NW’s women engine wipers. In addition, the Center will showcase photography from the late Ryan Schoenfeldt, a young rail photographer who died this year.