In 1942, The Long Island Railroad (LIRR) took the unprecedented step of hiring women as engine cleaners. World War II’s labor shortages had opened new doors for women, especially in the transportation industry. The engine cleaners performed well, so the LIRR hired many more women for positions previously held only by men, dubbing them “trainwomen.” LIRR president M. W. Clement explained in a press release, “The substitution of inexperienced employees for the trained employees has been a problem so far well met, and many women are now in services that have generally been accepted as a man’s calling.”
Ivy Lee and Associates, the pioneering public relations company owned by Ivy Ledbetter Lee (Princeton University Class of 1898), represented the LIRR. As the LIRR began hiring women, Lee’s company sent out materials with text and images promoting this a positive move, not a threat to men currently fighting abroad. “Don’t worry about your jobs,” one said on a radio broadcast for troops in Australia and Great Britain, “We’ll hold the home front until you men come home. Then you can have your jobs back.” A press release about the broadcast praised this as evidence of “fine, whole hearted devotion to the cause of democracy” among women working for the railroad.
These jobs were not advertised for women, but several approached the yard offices to inquire about available work after hearing about openings by word of mouth. Many had relatives who had left positions with the railroad to join the military. Regis J. Conrad, the master mechanic in charge, interviewed female applicants. “At first,” he said, “I was frankly doubtful that women could do what for years had been strictly a man’s job. But they are doing it—and doing it well. One thing is certain; they aren’t lazy!” Jim Calisto supervised many of the women Conrad hired, and he agreed with Conrad. “It’s a pleasure to boss the ladies, God bless ’em!”
Press releases addressed concerns about the effect the jobs would have on femininity, acknowledging that the women dressed like their male counterparts at work, sometimes wearing their husbands’ clothes. Temporary sacrifice of femininity, the text argued, might be patriotic. “The task is hardest on their hands and faces. Their palms are calloused and their nails ragged. This is the price they pay for doing a man’s work—but it is a sacrifice they are only too willing to make in order to contribute their share to the war effort.”
The material Lee’s company sent out minimized the degree to which women were reaching beyond the boundaries of traditional gender norms, suggesting it was mostly appearance only that changed, and that only during the work day. Rose C. Penna is quoted: “Some of the men still tip their hats to me, even though I am wearing a pair of my husband’s old pants and a windbreaker.” A photograph of women in dresses and skirts leaving their LIRR jobs at the end of the day provided a visual cue that wearing pants was merely situational.
As noted above, the first group of female employees were engine cleaners. Cleaning was, the text of one press release claimed, a feminine pursuit. “They polish up the engines with a true housekeeper’s thoroughness.” When more women came on board to maintain LIRR lanterns, Ivy Lee & Associates emphasized the fact that railroad jargon called these lanterns “jewelry” and said the women were at work “polishing their jewelry.” Press across America followed the lead of the releases, linking cleaning locomotives to cleaning kitchens.
Photos in this gallery all by Roy Pitney, February 2, 1943, Ivy Ledbetter Lee Papers (MC085), Box 103, Folder 4.
The material Ivy Lee & Associates sent out also minimized just how demanding these jobs could be for the women who undertook them. Many still expended significant effort on more traditional female occupations. Ruth Mouzakes, married to a florist, had five sons, three living at home when she was cleaning engines for the Long Island Railroad. After putting in full-time hours of hard physical labor, Mouzakes would return home to clean and cook for her husband and children. A press release said reassuringly of the toll this took on women like Mouzakes, “it’s healthful, outdoor work; they eat heartily and sleep soundly.”
The public relations materials also have notable omissions. Though the LIRR was changing its employment practices in one way, it was maintaining another form of stratification of the workforce, though you won’t learn that from our holdings in the Ivy Ledbetter Lee Papers. Women’s work for the company was racially segregated. One will see no black women in the publicity photos Ivy Lee and Company sent out. African American women were not the public face of changing gender expectations, and the New York Amsterdam News reported that the LIRR refused to hire black women as office workers in favor of holding the jobs for white women in May 1943. Another example of the segregated female workforce: black women were not allowed to clean dining cars, only coaches.
Further, the women who went to work for the LIRR during World War II didn’t necessarily see themselves as the temporary employees the press releases indicated. Not all of the women gave their jobs up after the war, nor did they have that goal in mind when they began working. When Mouzakes appeared on the game show What’s My Line? in 1953, she was still a LIRR employee. Agnes Darnisik, who, like Mouzakes, was in her 40s and had three children at home during World War II, said she didn’t want to quit her LIRR job when the war ended. “If there is still room for me here I’ll keep the job, because this is the kind of work I like.”
According to the New York Daily News, female LIRR employees earned 56 cents per hour, about $8.17 in today’s dollars. This was likely equivalent to wages paid to men in similar jobs, and perhaps more than many could expect to be paid elsewhere. Though we may not have insights into all of the factors that contributed to the choices women or the railroads that employed them in wartime made about their employment afterward, one woman quoted in the Daily Worker in 1943 may have summed it up. “The most wonderful thing of all for me is the sense of power you get when you see that you can do the job as good as the next fellow, whether it’s a man or a maid.”
Ivy Ledbetter Lee Papers (MC085)