Celebrating Women’s History Month: The First Women Transit Operators In Los Angeles, Which Led The Way As “Motormanettes”

Some of the first World War II "Motormanettes" at Division 4, circa 1942.

The first reported instance of a woman working on Los Angeles streetcars occured during World War I, in May of 1918.

She was recruited from the Los Angeles Railway’s office help, and worked as a conductor collecting fares and making change.

At that time, both a motorman and a conductor staffed streetcars.  But, the experiment of a female conductor was short-lived.  Privately run electric railway companies across the country adopted “only as a last resort” or “emergency only” policies when it came to hiring women.

The Amalgamated Association Of Street And Electric Railway Employees Of America openly stated that “it wasn’t time yet” and “streetcars were no place for women.”

However, union policy noted that if it did become necessary to hire women to replace men drafted into the military, women working on streetcars must have exactly the same entitlements, pay and treatment as the men they replaced.

It took until World War II for the door that opened just a crack in 1918 to finally open wide.

Motormanette operating "Type H" streetcar, circa 1943.

Beginning in September, 1942, the privately owned and operated Los Angeles Railway (1895-1945) began hiring women as streetcar and bus operators on a trial basis.

The test turned out to be so successful that they soon hired over 300 women as Motormen, Conductors and Coach Operators to replace men drafted during World War II.

They were called Motormanettes, Conductorettes, Coachettes and Driverettes.  The employment requirements:  age 21-40, weight 120-140, and height 5’3″ to 5’10”.

Initially, women worked out of just one Division.  Since women hadn’t previously been a regular part of the operating Division workforce, restroom facilities were not adequate.

With the success women showed as operators, the situation was quickly remedied.  They were trained and evaluated exactly the same as the men they replaced, and California State law was subsequently changed to eliminate certain employment restrictions on women.

Conductorette in uniform, circa 1942.

Los Angeles Railway was the lead transit agency that hired women as motormen.  San Diego Electric Railway followed soon after as did other transit properties across the country.

They had all been waiting to see how successful the Los Angeles Railway experiment would be.

C.E. Morgan, manager of Los Angeles Railway operations in 1942, was quoted as saying:

“We’ve been really amazed to see how well most women work into the mechanical phases of the job. Some of them actually master the (streetcar) controls faster than do men.  They operate smoothly and, in most cases, they’re very good from a safety standpoint.”

Women operators were featured as interview guests on Hollywood-based radio programs with Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and other radio entertainers.

Performing what had been traditionally men’s jobs was a novelty; many also saw working women as good for the country’s wartime morale.

Banquet celebrating newly hired Motormanettes, Conductorettes, Coachettes and Driverettes of Los Angeles Railway, circa 1942.

The first women hired by Los Angeles Railway were Helen Blevins, Lorena Weaver, Frances Tigert and Irene Stevens.

Two Bells, the Los Angeles Railway employee newsmagazine, saluted them in 1943 on their one-year anniversary as “pioneers in a brand new field” for women.

Additional resources:

Anderson, E. Frederick. The Development of Leadership and Organization Building in the Black Community of Los Angeles from 1900 through World War II (Saratoga, Calif. : Century Twenty One Publishing, 1980)

Electric Railway Journal. “Transportation News Notes”. Vol. 51, No. 11. May 4, 1918. p. 882

Electric Railway Journal. “Transportation News Notes”. Vol. 51, No. 18. June 8, 1918. p. 1117

Motormanette training, circa 1943.

Electric Railway Journal. “News of Electric Railways”. Vol. 52, No. 11. September 14, 1918. p. 470

Executive Order 8802 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, May 18, 2004, 1:05pm

Interviews with Philpott Family Members

Los Angeles Railway Payroll Record Book, 1945. Metro Transportation Library Archive

Mass Transportation. “Can We Use Women Operators?” Vol. 38, No. 11. November, 1942. p. 331-336

National Archives, Records of the Committee on Fair Employment Practices, Legal Division, 1940-1946, Record Group 228.4.1

National Women’s History Museum (The museum affirms the value of knowing Women’s History, illuminates the role of women in transforming society and encourages all people, women and men, to participate in democratic dialogue about our future. The museum, founded in 1996, is currently working to build a permanent home on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.)

Women’s History Month (A tribute from Library of Congress, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and U.S. National Archives and Records Administration)