The DC Women Streetcar Operators of World War II

20 Mar
Women Operators in Superintendent's Office: 1943

Women operators at the superintendent’s office in 1943.

By Craig Simpson

In December, 1942, the Capital Transit Company began a series of advertisements in wartime Washington, D.C. newspapers seeking women to operate the city’s streetcars and buses.

African Americans and their allies were demanding that the company end its Jim Crow practices and hire black operators, but the owners instead opened the door a crack to white women.

Women Workers Converge on D.C.

During the first year of World War II, many thousands of men left their jobs and entered the armed forces while tens of thousands of women moved into Washington to work in the rapidly expanding federal city and fill many jobs traditionally held by men.

The District was not a blue-collar town, but women quickly began turning out ships’ guns at the Naval Gun Factory and driving trucks. They also filled the jobs of store and bank clerks that had been traditionally held by men. But most of all, they came to join the federal government’s rapidly burgeoning clerical corps.

A Woman Operating DC Streetcar: 1943

Collecting a fare on a DC Streetcar in 1943.

The Capital Transit Company was desperate. The company adamantly refused to consider hiring African Americans, even though streetcars and buses lay idle in the barns and yards for lack of operators. While women had driven buses for some smaller suburban companies and operated streetcars in a few other cities, none had ever been employed as operators in the biggest transit company in the Washington area.

The same week that the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission issued a preliminary order to Capital Transit to hire African American operators, the company began its advertising for women workers.

Recruiting women, however, was going to be no easy matter. The new workers were required to work split shifts covering both rush hours and there were plenty of other help-wanted ads filling the newspapers.  The company also imposed other restrictions. The openly biased Washington Post wrote,

The last bastion of male drivers in the District has fallen before the assault of the gentler sex, but the hands that guide the trolleys down the track must not be too gentle. It’s Amazons, not Veronica Lakes, who’ll qualify according to the specifications. Applicants must be between 25 and 35 years old, at least 5 feet, 5 inches tall without shoes, and–listen to this, you dieters—must weigh at least 130 pounds or more.

First Women Hired

Betty Whitehurst and Dorothy Berlett became the first women trainees on January 6, 1943. Capital Transit’s plan was to first train them as conductors, then streetcar operators, and later, perhaps, on the buses.

At the same time, pressure was building on the company to provide adequate transportation in the federal city. Milton Diehl of the Office of Defense Transportation, said, “We want to keep the transportation system going here in Washington and I think it is awfully serious when 200 buses are idle because there are not enough men to operate them.”

Capital Transit President E. D. Merrill: 1940

Capital Transit president E. D. Merrill (far right)  in 1940. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Capital Transit president E. D. Merrill sought other means besides integration, and he called for draft deferrals for the men operating streetcars. He said up to 600 new workers would be needed to maintain the level of service the company was attempting to provide.

Plans to use women, however, were dealt a blow when both of the initial trainees quit only two weeks into the training program. Whitehurst dropped out when she and her husband, who was also an operator, decided one member of the family working odd hours was enough. Berlett’s Navy husband was transferred to New Orleans and the couple decided to relocate.

Company Renews Commitment

Capital Transit, under intense fire from advocacy groups and from the federal Fair Employment Practices Commission (FEPC) for its racial policies, was determined to make the women’s program work.

The Washington Post reported,

Undiscouraged by the recent defaulting of its two pioneer women bus drivers, the Capital Transit Co. is still training its Amazonian operators, a company official disclosed last night. As a matter of fact, two of the girl graduates are already getting experience as conductors on the Fourteenth Street streetcar lines during the afternoon rush hours while three others are immersed in the academic courses. Enrollment in the streetcar seminary is light, but the transit company still approves the idea and is welcoming possible freshmen to the ranks.

The company tried to entice women to apply for the jobs by offering Sundays off and prohibiting night work by women. This was in contrast to previous new hires who would be at the bottom of the seniority list and end up with the least desirable days off and hours.

First All-Female DC Streetcar Crew: 1943

Edna Cobb & Bessie Allison are the first all-female streetcar crew. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Women soon began going out unaccompanied by trainers on streetcar and bus lines. On April 8, 1943 two women left the Fourteenth Street barn and headed to the Bureau of Engraving as the first all-female trolley crew in the city. Bessie Allison piloted the vehicle while Edna Cobb served as conductor.

Allison came to Washington from Mullen, West Virginia, where she had been assistant manager of a dairy store. Cobb became a spokesperson for the women transit workers during the war years, attempting to recruit more women to the ranks.

Women’s Auxiliary Transit (WATS)

In May 1943, company president Merrill announced the formation of the Women’s Auxiliary Transit Service (WATS) and an ambitious plan to recruit 100 women a week to the group. The group was modeled after the initially civilian Army WAC and Navy WAVE programs and was designed to promote the idea of women temporarily serving in essential wartime transportation in the city.

Join Capital Transit WATS: 1943

WATS advertisement in June 1943.

When it was first formed, WATS was composed of seven streetcar operators, two bus operators, and five in training, plus 19 fare collectors at the Pentagon. Merrill began promoting his idea to recruit more women with regular advertisements in the city’s newspapers appealing to patriotism.

Before long, Merrill hired a women’s counselor to head the group and recruited a panel of Washington, D.C. business and professional women to form a “Women’s Committee to Sponsor the WATS.”

The Committee opened a lounge for the transit women at 4702 14th Street NW, across the street from the Northern streetcar and bus barn. It was dedicated with a housewarming party on July 13, 1943. By this time there were 16 women streetcar and bus operators and 19 conductors. All the women were assigned to the 14th Street streetcar line or the buses in that section of Northwest Washington that operated out of the Northern barn, although later they operated out of other locations as well.

Transit Women Between Shifts: 1943

Women operators between shifts in 1943.

The lounge was equipped with three rooms and a basement for the women’s exclusive use. The rooms contained easy chairs, a radio, a Ping-Pong table and reading material.

The women had the option to wear skirts or slacks at work. The slacks, skirts and blazers were navy blue, the shirts were grey and the ties were black. Operators’ caps had a visor whereas the fare collectors at the Pentagon wore foldable “overseas” caps.

The Women Operators and Conductors

Among these women was Ruth Rautio. She had been a homemaker until joining her husband who was already a streetcar operator. The two worked the same streetcar line, passing each other several times during the day.

Bus operator Elsie Stone reported few problems with customers who she said had grown used to seeing women on the trolleys and buses. “But once in Petworth a man ran real fast to catch the bus and backed right out when he saw me driving,” according to the Washington Post.

A Woman Conductor Washington DC: 1943

Hattie Sheehan in 1943.

Another was Hattie Sheehan, who had worked three months on the midnight shift at the Glen L. Martin Aircraft factory north of Baltimore. Sheehan decided day work was more appealing and moved to Washington to take a streetcar operator job. Sheehan’s sister, Eva Bennet, joined her on the job. The two were originally from Harrisonburg, Virginia.

The most senior operator was Bessie Allison, who had a strong West Virginia accent. “I’m a hillbilly and don’t mind who knows it. But I’m having a lot of fun running streetcars in Washington,” she said, according to the Washington Post.

A Woman Outside Her DC Streetcar: 1943

Frances Lewis in 1943.

Still another was Frances “Tennessee” Lewis, who came from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Valeria Schwalenberg hailed from Greensboro, N.C. She said operating a streetcar was “awfully exciting” compared with her life back home, according to the Post.

Sheehan, Allison, Lewis and Schwalenberg formed a quartet that sang songs learned from childhood. One song that everyone knew was “I’ve been working on the railroad,” according to Sheehan. She added, “It sure is a good theme song for us,” according to the Post.

African American Fired

Sarah Grayson was hired in September, 1943 and worked without incident as a streetcar operator on 14th Street NW until January 31, 1944, when she was summarily fired.

100 Women Operators Needed: 1943

Capital Transit refused to hire African American men or women and fired one woman after she had worked five months when they discovered she was black.

The company rejected the application of an African American neighbor of Grayson’s because of skin color. The applicant reportedly told the company representative, “I don’t see why you can’t hire me when you have a colored girl working for you,” according to the Afro American.

Grayson, who had light skin and blue eyes, told the Afro, “I made no effort to conceal my identity.  The question just never came up.” Grayson had previously been a clerk at a People’s Drug Store.

Grayson told the Afro that it was amusing when her male coworkers would try to chat her up while making derogatory remarks about African Americans [See an image of Grayson: click on “browse this newspaper” and navigate to the February 5, 1944 edition, page 11].

Shortages Continue to Occur

The operator shortages continued to occur throughout 1944 with the company delaying, making excuses, but not outright refusing to hire African Americans. Throughout this time, the FEPC never acted to enforce an order to desegregate transit in Washington.

Appeal for More Women Operators: 1943

Operator Edna Cobb (center) often acted as a recruiter of women. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Apparently believing they could recruit more (white) women by a makeover of the current operators, Capital Transit opened a “charm school” in May, 1944, for the 55 women streetcar and bus operators. Classes taught make-up, hair styling and skin care. Hannah Sherman, school director, said, “We don’t want any you-hooing on buses and streetcars, but we want to make the girls feel pretty and important,” according to the Post.

By February of 1945, the company had 150 buses idled for lack of drivers and was 450 operators short. Still refusing to hire African-Americans, the company began advertising for both men and women part-time operators. The number of women peaked at about 70 after the introduction of part-time employment.

Post World War II

The war in Europe ended in May and in Japan in September.  Post-war propaganda had already begun calling for women to “return to the home.” Merrill estimated that only 25 women remained as operators or conductors at the end of 1945.

Operator Speaks Out at Union Meeting: 1945

Streetcar operator Thelma Hodges speaks at a union meeting during a 1945 strike. Courtesy of the DC Public Library Washington Star Collection © Washington Post.

Wages had been held down during the war and the pent up demand resulted in two unauthorized strikes by Capital Transit workers in November 1945. Thelma Hodges, a streetcar operator, told co-workers at the Turner Arena during a strike meeting that “The men ought to make enough pay so their wives could stay home.”

No additional women were hired after World War II ended. By 1948 there were only ten remaining women operators. When streetcar operator Harriet Smith died in September, six of the remaining women acted as pallbearers wearing their Capital Transit uniforms. The six were Bernice Harding, Elizabeth Mann, Martha Blanton, Ethel Drake, Katherine Snyder and Mary Small.

Last of the DC Streetcar Women Operators: 1961

Last of the D.C. WW2 women streetcar operators (2nd row) in 1961. From ATU Local 689.

In 1955, Capital Transit finally desegregated its operator ranks. The company was sold after a two-month strike later in 1955 and it was renamed D.C. Transit.

Two women can be seen in a 1961 group photo of D.C. Transit operators in front of the U.S. Capitol, but by 1962 streetcar service had ended in the nation’s capital–and with it, women transit operators.  By one account, the few remaining women streetcar operators were offered the choice of clerical jobs or retirement.

First Female Bus Operator for DC Transit: 1967

Sarah Owens, first African American woman bus operator hired by D.C. Transit is shown in a screen capture of a 2007 ATU Local 689 video.

After a six-year interlude, the next woman employed as an operator by the D.C. Transit system was Sarah B. Owens, an African American. Owens was turned away at the company employment office in 1966, but filed a complaint with the District government. A year later Owens began her career as a bus operator in June 1967. Owens went on to operate the Metrorail trains as well after that service began in 1976.

This time, employment of women in the D.C. transit industry grew rapidly.  Today hundreds of women operate buses and trains for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the successor company to the D.C. Transit and Capital Transit companies.


Want to see and read more?

For more images related to the World War II era D.C. women transit operators.

For an article on the desegregation of the Capital Transit Company.

Do you know more about these women? Comment below or e-mail us at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com


Author’s Notes:

Sources include The Washington Daily News, The Washington Star, the Washington Post, The Afro American, and Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689.


Craig Simpson is a former Secretary-Treasurer of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 and has a BA in labor studies from the National Labor College. He can be contacted by email at washington_area_spark@yahoo.com.


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