Women railroaders share stories as part of International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day celebrates the achievements of women world-wide.

Diane Popplewell, Anita Wood, Michele Cole, Judy Barrett, Cheryl Chamberlain and Pam Doyle all gathered to celebrate International Women’s Day at the Revelstoke Railway Museum on Thursday, March 8. Photo: Melissa Jameson/Revelstoke Mountaineer.

The Revelstoke Railway Museum held its first women’s only Retired Railroaders Coffee Club to celebrate International Women’s Day. A small crowd of women gathered at the museum on Thursday, March 8, to share their stories. Some women shared stories about working for the railroad, while others shared stories and snippets of what it was like to be married to a railroader.

Here are the stories of two women and their first experiences working for railroad companies:

Cheryl Chamberlain

Cheryl Chamberlain began working for the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1979. She was 17 years old.

“I come from a railroading family. My grandfather was a conductor. My dad was a conductor. Out of high school I though ‘well, why not start.’

At the time only certain jobs were available for women. Chamberlain began working at the switch board and would eventually work as a crew caller, a senior crew clerk, and as a machine clerk.

“When I first started there weren’t too many women. I don’t know exactly when women started to join working running trades,” she said.

Most of Chamberlain’s work with CP was calling crews. She spent a total of 14 years doing that job and quickly learned she needed a thick skin if she was going to survive.

“Calling crews was very interesting because you could get some nice guys and you could get some really rude people, especially when you’re calling them early in the morning,” she said. “I was a quite little girl when I first started and after a week you had to toughen up.”

Anita Wood

As a young girl in Switzerland Anita Wood’s dream was to become a locomotive engineer. In 1965, at the age of 16 she wrote the Minister of Transport to see if they would allow a woman to become an engineer. They said yes and Wood’s next step was to call on the train companies to see if they would be interested in hiring a woman. She applied to three companies in Switzerland – two private and one public, the Federal Swiss Railroads.

“The private companies they were very polite telling me no I’m sorry we don’t hire women, but the federal railroad they wrote me a letter,” said Wood.

A translated version of the letter Anita Wood received from the Federal Swiss Railroads after writing the inquire about whether they would consider hiring a female locomotive engineer.

Wood did get work in the Swiss Railroad, but never as a locomotive engineer. Her first job, at age 19, was as the secretary to a director of a small railroad company.

“We had to go to a board meeting. One of the board members came to talk to my boss and my door was open. My boss said well [Anita] is going to take notes. This guy with a cigar hanging out said ‘I don’t want any women at that meeting.’ I was thinking, well what a start, I’m supposed to be taking notes and they don’t want me there,” she said.

Times have changed significantly since Wood and Chamberlain began their railroading careers. Women work in all types of jobs including as engineers, conductors, and running trades. Still, their stories serve as a reminder of how far women have come in the workplace in a short amount of time.

Sienna Kojfman and Christina Tsantsalis of Toronto took part in the International Women’s Day coffee club at the Revelstoke Railway Museum. Photo: Melissa Jameson/Revelstoke Mountaineer.