An Uproar Ensues When Women Take Men’s Jobs In Wartime New York
1917 – Marie Bocinec Becomes The First Woman Streetcar Conductor In New York City. As New Doors To Working Women Were Opening, Everything Was About To Go All Wrong.
Recently while watching the movie Music For Millions (1944) on TCM I was reminded how great social shifts can subtly occur. In the movie filmed and set during World War II, June Allyson portrays a bass player in a New York symphony orchestra which has been filled with many women replacements. In the movie as in real life, as men were drafted into the armed services, the symphony orchestra had little alternative but to have skilled women become members in a profession that had been male dominated with few women in the ranks.
After World War II entree for women into orchestras became more accepted as women had proved every bit as adept as their male musical counterparts.
So when I came across this old news photograph of Marie Bocinec, the first woman streetcar conductor in New York City, it became apparent that it was also a war that nudged progress forward for women’s rights over some objections. But as it turned out that progress would be short-lived.
The United States entry into World War I in 1917 meant women would soon be filling jobs once held exclusively by men. Remember that women were not even allowed to vote in the United States until the 19th amendment was ratified more than two years later August 18, 1920.
The caption to this news photograph reads:
Photo of Miss Marie Bocinec
Clad in black taffeta caps trimmed with two bright golden braids more than forty pretty young girls have introduced an innovation in the daily life of New York and will soon be collecting nickels for railway companies throughout the country. Women street car conductors came to stay. They stood the test, and in many instances proved even superior to men in the discharge of their duties. No girl conductor is employed unless she is at least twenty-one years old and in good health. Miss Marie Bocinec, one of the prettiest girls among the women conductors, was the first to graduate and begin work as a conductor. Photo – NYH Service December 11, 1917
Marie Bocinec’s first practice run on December 7, 1917 took her from 146th Street and Lenox Avenue to the Battery without incident. Three days later on December 10, Marie was assigned to the Broadway line. Her wages? A six day work week for a ten hour workday with a two hour unpaid luncheon paid twenty seven cents an hour. On the bright side, if it can be called that, it was the same pay rate that the male conductors were getting.
On the same day Marie Bocinec began her job, the Unites States Post Office sent out ten women postal carriers in Manhattan. Though there had been a few women rural free delivery carriers, no woman had been employed as a postal carrier in a city like New York up to that time.
Of course the government and many people who believed in traditional roles for women did not embrace this trend even if it was a war measure. In May of 1918, Benjamin M. Squires an investigator for the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics concluded in a lengthy report that women should not hold the position of streetcar conductors for various reasons. Chief among these reasons were “that women were lured or forced into these undesirable positions” and “the long hours and irregularity of those hours.”
The report found from December 4, 1917 through February 15, 1918 the New York Railways Company hired 532 women as streetcar conductors. During that time 100 women left the company. From December 14, 1917 through February 15, 1918 the surface lines of the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (B.R.T.) hired 258 women conductors and 79 women left the service.
Mr. Squires pointed out with so many women quitting so quickly this indicated to the government that a high percentage of the women found the work disappointing.
Squires added, “On many cars the conductor is obliged to be on his feet constantly, and the principle has been clearly established that a woman cannot work at employment requiring constant standing without seriously endangering her health.”
Mr. Squires concluded that, “Lack of sufficient rest must very soon so lessen the vitality that the woman is not only unfit for street railway service but unable to resume her former place either in the home or industry. There should be added to this the consideration of the dangers to which a woman is conceivably exposed in having to go home unattended, sometimes through practically deserted streets, at hours of the night when police protection is least.”
Some men in the public realm chimed in that the “art of being a conductor was unquestionably a man’s job” and “women don’t need the jobs.” The men cherished the firm and unalterable conviction that women do not have to work but merely do so to provide themselves with candy and orchids.
At the time it was shown in surveys by various states and the United States Department of Labor that almost 80 percent of working women were supporting families – sisters, brothers, parents or children. The surveys also showed that the lowest annual income on which a family of five, consisting of three children and two parents, could decently live was $1,500 per year. The state of New York fixed that number at $1,800 per year. Yet nearly half of the working men in the country earned less than $600 per year.
Following the release of the report, the women conductors almost unanimously disagreed with its conclusions. Miss Mary Robinson, a conductor on the Eighth Avenue line said, “I like it fine. It’s the best job I ever had, and I have cared for children and done different things. This is healthy work.”
Mrs. J.E. Barry, a conductor on the Broadway line said, “There is no more reason why a woman shouldn’t stand on her feet than anyone else. I have to stand up every little while on these Broadway cars. Sitting all the time is not good for you; you don’t exercise your muscles.”
In a June 23, 1918 article, The New York Tribune praised the work of the women conductors and mocked those who wanted to deprive them of their job. The Tribune observed, “Those who would like to see the women conductors removed from office are looked upon with much the same scorn that marks the derisive laughter at the ‘cranks’ whose public expressions of disapproval on the subject of bloomers have added a minor discomfort to their daily and now skirted task.”
But women would be driven out of their jobs. The Lockwood-Caulfield Act passed in Albany in March 1919 which was intended to improve working conditions for women by limiting the number of hours a woman could work, ended up having a devastating effect on women’s jobs.
The Lockwood Act stated that women employees of transportation companies could not work more than nine consecutive hours per day between the hours of 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. and no more than six days each week.
By May 17, 1919 the B.R.T. had begun gradually releasing all of the 1,600 women conductors it had hired up to that time. The B.R.T. claimed they were merely following the Lockwood Act as they needed their conductors and ticket agents to work more hours than the bill provided for.
The following day the B.R.T. further explained they were firing the women because they were fulfilling their promise to re-hire the men who had gone into the service and were told their jobs would be waiting for them when they returned.
New York State Industrial Commissioner Frances Perkins released a bizarre statement that the women were not being let go because of the enacting of the new law; that the law was meant to give them the same protective rights in industry as men.
The women employees of the B.R.T., some of whom had been with the company over twenty years, not just the conductors, were released from their jobs. By October 1, 1919 only 32 women, mostly clerical workers remained employed by the B.R.T..
The New York Railways Company and the I.R.T. followed suit in firing all their women conductors.
The dismissed women hired a Brooklyn suffragette attorney Amy Wren to fight for their rights. A delegation of women lead by Miss Wren brought their appeal before Governor Alfred E. Smith and the legislature in Albany on June 16, 1919. Governor Smith rejected that any modifications be made to the Lockwood Act which would allow the women to remain in their jobs. His reasoning was, that it would require an amendment to the law which he was not prepared to do at the time. He made it clear that he agreed with the part of the law that women should not be employed during the night hours.
The outcry of unfairness from the public scared the politicians enough. A new Lockwood-Caulfield Bill was introduced to the legislature and signed into law one year later in April 1920 by Governor Smith repealing the limiting hours to women working on transit lines.
But the damage had been done. With the women’s numbers decimated and the men having returned from war, there were few positions for women to fill at the streetcar companies. With a strange sense of irony, the law enacted to protect women’s working rights in transportation, ensured they would be excluded from it. It would take many years for women to gain another foothold in New York’s transportation industry.