B&o Museum Examines Images Of Railroad Women

September 29, 1991|By Patrick L. Hickerson | Patrick L. Hickerson,Staff writer

Women might not be prominently featured among the icons of the American railroad, but the Ellicott City B&O Museum is attempting to modify those images.

Its current exhibit, "Women in Railroad," is the creation of museum director Jack Mitchell. After culling hundreds of issues of B&O Magazine, he is presenting "women working on the railroad through the eyes of people who made a few notes of it in the magazine."

His labors chronicle the women who worked for the B&O from the days of the Civil War to the middle of the 20th century. These jobs took women from the rail yards at Mount Clare and occupations such as telegrapher, lawyer, water-tester for the steam engines and rail yard hand to loftier settings, including the office of the railroad president.

Olive W. Dennis became the first female professional engineer hired by the B&O Railroad in 1920. She brought with her impressive credentials, including a civil engineering degree from Cornell and bachelor and master of arts degrees from Columbia University.

When sheretired in the mid-1950s, Dennis could count among her accomplishments the streamlining of the Cincinnatian steam locomotives after WorldWar II, the design of a china pattern for the B&O dining cars and the editing of children's arithmetic books that were distributed by thecompany as a public service.

Through his years of research, Mitchell, who is in his fifth year as museum director, has found that mostwomen were hired during wars, which drained the number of men from the work force. Given the constraints of a rapidly expanding work force after a war, their employment was tenuous at best.

"It was national policy by the federal government at the end of World War II that any GI who was drafted would get their jobs back when they got home,"Mitchell said. "And the government didn't compensate those people that were fired to make room. Women were hired conditionally."

Therewere exceptions, and the employment of Margaret Talbot Stevens is one example. In 1915, she was hired as a World War I "defense replacement" clerk in the car service department and later was moved to the mine rating department. During this time, she submitted articles to thecompany magazine. By 1920, she was associate editor of B&O Magazine.As associate editor, she pushed for and established a family and children's page in the magazine.

Seven years later, she helped produce the B&O-sponsored "Fair of the Iron Horse" in Halethorpe, a $1 million extravaganza that celebrated the centennial of the race between the horse-drawn carriage and the steam-driven "Tom Thumb." Stevens wasalso the B&O's first research librarian.

Mitchell does not deny the fact that many of these displays, written at least 40 years ago, could be construed as sexist or demeaning to late 20th-century sensibilities. Using a group of World War II-era cartoons featuring women, Mitchell defends the decision to display this material.

"By today'sstandards, they're almost derogatory. But you can't look at them that way. You have to look at them at the times when they appeared," Mitchell said. "We have to share a certain amount of this without sayingwhether it was good or bad. Look at it historically."

Mitchell assesses the visitors' reaction to the exhibit as mostly positive. There are, however, some dissenters.

"I still find a lot of folks coming in with the attitude that (women) are nice to look at, but they'renot as capable," he said. "But as we start reading articles, we findwomen on the Russian railroads did the same jobs as men did apparently from the teens of this century on."

"Women in Railroad," which was scheduled to close at the end of September, has been held over torun through October.

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