All-female streetcar crew celebrates ‘motorette’ history

Leah Harp, Barb Gacek, Linda Ridlehuber and Kathleen Graber worked together on Sept. 22 to lead what was likely the first all-female streetcar crew in the Twin Cities since the early 1950s. Photo by Zac Farber

Looking down the 1.5-mile-long track of the Como-Harriet Streetcar Line, Kathleen Graber yanked twice on a leather cord with a small wooden handle. Fifty feet behind her back, a bell clanged out on the rear platform’s ceiling, signaling conductor Leah Harp to prepare for departure. After Harp gave the “all clear” — two rings of the car’s forward bell — Graber eased the train into motion, disabling its spring-loaded brakes with her right hand and pulling its controller lever with her left. 

With a rhythmic metal whisper, the 26-ton, 111-year-old electric locomotive began to amble north through Linden Hills.

Of the 90 active volunteers who take turns clanging bells, pumping air brakes, sharing stories and selling tokens through the Minnesota Streetcar Museum, just 15 are women. And on Sept. 22, Graber and Harp joined Linda Ridlehuber and Barb Gacek in what was likely the first all-female crew assembled since the early 1950s. 

The four women were clad in the same dark trousers, gray button-downs and black ties that employees of Twin City Rapid Transit had worn before the company ended streetcar service in 1954. 

They had come together to celebrate the 464 female “motorettes” who were hired between 1943 and 1945 to keep the Twin Cities’ mass transit system running during World War II as male operators were sent to the front and rationing of gas and rubber caused streetcar ridership to nearly double.

Helen Murphy, a “motorette” hired during World War II, boards a streetcar in this 1946 photo. Twin City Rapid Transit hired 464 female streetcar operators during the war to keep the Twin Cities’ mass transit system running as male motormen were sent to the front and rationing of gas and rubber caused streetcar ridership to nearly double. Photo courtesy of Minnesota Streetcar Museum

Unlike their male counterparts, motorettes were required to show Twin City Lines proof that they had found day care for their children, but the company otherwise treated motorettes and motormen equally. 

“The motorettes and conductorettes were paid the same wage scale as the men they replaced,” Graber said. “That was pretty progressive for back in the ’40s and ’50s.”

Still, some passengers refused to ride a train driven by a woman, insisting on waiting for the next car to arrive. And in 1945, a female conductor was beaten by a drunk soldier who accused her of taking a man’s job.

After the war, many motorettes were laid off due to lack of seniority, and gender discrimination returned to the transit system’s hiring practices. From November 1945 until the early 1970s, not a single woman was hired to drive a city streetcar or a city bus. A handful of motorettes were able to keep their jobs, however, and the last of them, a woman named Ruby Peterson, retired as a bus driver in 1980. 

During what they hope will be the first annual Motorettes Historical Recognition Day, Graber, Harp, Ridlehuber and Gacek discussed how social pressures have created a climate where more men are fond of trains than women and why they happen to love the big, finicky machines.

“A lot of men who are trainheads do it because they grew up playing with trains, and this is about as close as you can get,” Graber said. “Mothers, teach your daughters to be streetcar conductors.”

Harp said she enjoys how operating a streetcar is entirely mechanical, “not digital.”

“It’s very archaic technology, which I find very charming and delightful,” she said. “I’m a social worker, and how often do I get to drive a 46,000-pound piece of machinery? I really feel I’m experiencing history in a very localized, granular way. It’s phenomenal to be able to touch a train — it’s not theoretical.”

Ridlehuber agreed. 

“Forty-six-thousand pounds of equipment, and you’re stopping with 100-year-old air brakes — I don’t know what could be more fun,” she said.