This article belongs to the Women and Scottish Railway History Collection
During the First World War the railway network was a central part of the war effort. It was relied upon to transport medical supplies and military equipment, army personnel and horses, to the ports for export to the front. Women played a key role as they were charged with keeping the railways going, filling the gaps left by the 100,000 railwaymen who joined the war effort. Here you can read about some of the ways in which the growth in the employment of women in the railways impacted on that industry – and how in turn the railways impacted on women’s lives.
First World War: Challenging Gender Stereotypes
According to Helen Ashby at the National Museum of Transport in York (cited in Kasprzak, 2013), prior to this “the first women rail workers were level crossing gatekeepers as this was a role that fitted in with family life” – reflecting the prescribed role of women as wives and mothers first. In fact, in the pre-War era roughly 13,000 women were employed in the railways, but mainly in domestic positions, again connecting to wider societal stereotypes about the roles women were most suited for. Ashby goes on to note that “jobs were usually given to widows with children and came with either a small salary or a rent-free home” – a reflection of the need to provide opportunities for women to support their families in the absence of a breadwinner, thus keeping them from the workhouse.
That as many as 70,000 women worked in the railway sector alone by 1918 demonstrates the central role women played in many industries throughout the wartime period.There were exceptions though – for example, “by 1914 around 900 women worked in railway workshops, working as skilled trimmers, French polishers or sewing machinists producing the fine upholstery and polished hardwood interiors for the railway coaches”. While these positions would also have been regarded by some as ‘naturally fitting’ for women, given their primary responsibilities and the gendered expectations of that era, some were skilled roles, challenging the idea that women were suited only to menial tasks.
That as many as 70,000 women worked in the railway sector alone by 1918 demonstrates the central role women played in many industries throughout the wartime period. By 1918 the number of women carrying out clerical, telephone and telegraph duties had also risen greatly as had the number of unskilled women labourers in railway workshops, covering a wide range of roles from portering, varnishing and painting engines to sweeping, storekeeping and cleaning.
These figures also reflect the wider realities of society at this time – during the war over 1.6 million women took up work in what were traditionally defined as men’s occupations, including engineering, with over 100,000 of these working in different forms of transport (Kasprzak, 2013).
Opposition and the Struggle for Equality and Recognition
As Kasprzak (2013) notes, “women faced opposition as they took up their new roles, for example, some people disapproved of women calling out the station names describing it as ‘unfeminine and immodest’. They were also criticised for wearing men's breeches despite the fact some tasks were impossible and often dangerous to do in a long skirt”. “Porters in skirts!” gasped an article in the Daily Mirror of April 1915. Apparently, “this remarkable sight left a male porter staring ‘in helpless astonishment’ at women actually lifting heavy items of luggage” (History Wardrobe, 2014).
Throughout the war years women’s engagement with more highly paid and hazardous roles increased, challenging the idea that certain jobs were too dangerous for the fairer sex.According to Kasprzak (2013) “Until April 1915 women were paid two-thirds less than their male counterparts. This changed when the railway unions admitted women and the then National Union of Railwaymen demanded that companies pay women at least the minimum male wage for the job”.
Throughout the war years women’s engagement with more highly paid and hazardous roles increased, challenging the idea that certain jobs were too dangerous for the fairer sex. This is illustrated by the position of railway police officer which was opened to women in 1917. Heralded as an ‘interesting experiment’ by the press of the day, Margaret Hood was the first to be employed by the Great Eastern Railway Company at Liverpool Street Station in London, charged primarily with “apprehending female pickpockets” (McKay, 2018).
How widespread the practice of hiring women in this role was is not clear, but McKay (2018) argues that its main significance lies in the fact that they were given equivalent powers to their male counterparts, challenging powerful gender stereotypes and paving the way for wider changes in women’s employment. This included their promotion to senior positions, although progress was slow and halting. Although it was not until the mid-1990s that the gender-neutral term Police Constable was applied to all officers – suggesting that some distinction was still made between male and female officers up until then – women’s increased participation in all kinds of male-dominated work arguably fed into the changing of wider societal attitudes.
Social Change and Trade Union Membership
Women had previously been excluded from occupations such as guard and track maintenance platelayer and railway police officer, not least because the male-dominated railway trade unions had sought to protect their male members’ interests and the idea of family wages for male breadwinners. They argued that opening up these protected occupations to women would be detrimental to male railway workers’ wages. However, once they were admitted to these occupations and joined a union, their demands for equal pay were seen as a legitimate way of ensuring male wages for those jobs were not reduced. Strikes for equal pay occurred (Hayward, 2018). But opposition to women’s inclusion did continue from some quarters, including from some male workers who actively sought to prevent women from being trained in particular roles to the point of threatening to strike action in wartime (Hayward, 2018).
It was commonly assumed that “women were too weak” and lacked “the clear-sightedness and level-headedness required to work in the railways” (Hayward, 2018) – their participation would threaten the status of such jobs, and in turn the wages they attracted. However, while it was believed that women would be unable to cope in stressful situations, these baseless gender stereotypes were actively challenged during the war by the realities of women’s significant and valuable contributions.
As the war came to an end in 1918 the expectation was that women would leave their jobs as the men they had replaced returned. Some were dismissed but others continued with their railway work – war casualties meant positions remained open for some women. Half of the women in railway employment at this time were in uniform, carrying out manual roles that some years previously would have been considered inappropriate for women (Hayward, 2018).
Second World War
According to Major (2018), in 1941 Earnest Bevin, Minister of Labour, claimed that “for every 2 men away on service, three women would need to be employed”. Introducing in 1941 the Essential Work Order which identified jobs essential for supporting Britain’s war effort, and also in 1941 the second National Service Act, he acknowledged the need for women to engage in paid employment. But he was clearly sceptical about their abilities!
By 1944, 7 million women were engaged in such war-related work (IWM, nd). Younger, unmarried women and childless widows aged 21–30 were the main focus of the drive to fill vacancies. This was in recognition that married women, especially mothers, had other responsibilities. But, in reality, this was another period which saw women increasingly engaged in industry and transportation work, not least on Britain’s railways. They again occupied many more roles that had largely been seen as male domains. Once more the needs of the state and the national war effort trumped traditional ideas about women’s roles and abilities, ultimately leading Bevin to change his opinion on their worth and ability to match the efforts of men.
In Conclusion: The Enduring Legacies of the Past
These historical developments, spanning both world wars and arising initially out of national necessity, arguably played a role in paving the way for the diversification of women’s roles in contemporary society. On the railways this was eventually to lead to women breaking into other previously male-only occupations, including management and train driving (Kasprzak, 2013), as traditional patriarchal attitudes continued to be challenged, not least by women themselves who carried the fight to policymakers. Seeking a change in the law that would put an end to gender-based discrimination, the Sex Discrimination Act was eventually passed in 1975.
References, Sources and Further Reading
Hayward, V. (2018) ‘The History of Women in Rail’ (Long Read, 8 March). Available at: https://on-trac.co.uk/the-history-of-women-in-rail/
History Wardrobe (2014) ‘Railway women in WWI’ (5 February). Available at: https://historywardrobe.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/railway-women-in-ww1/
Imperial War Museum (IWM) (nd) ‘The workers that kept Britain going during the Second World Way’. Available at: https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/the-workers-that-kept-britain-going-during-the-second-world-war
Kasprzak, E. (2013) ‘Working on the railway: the women who kept Britain on track’, BBC News, 1 January. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-20709871
McKay, M. (2018) ‘Policewomen on the Railways 1917–2017’. Available at: https://www.btphg.org.uk/?page_id=6910 (1st appeared BTP Yearbook 2018)
Major, S. (2018) Female Railway Workers in World War II, Barnsley: Pen & Sword Transport
The National Railway Museum has a database containing details of 20,000 railway workers who died in World War I. Its detailed searchable list can be accessed at:
This article is part of the Women and Scottish Railway History Project on OpenLearn.