Review of Railwaywomen: Exploitation, Betrayal and Triumph in the Workplace
By Helena Wojtczak
Reviews page 1
Reviewed by JANET BELL CRAWFORD of St Mary's University, Nova Scotia, Canada, July 2008
In the postscript of Helena Wojtczak's book, Murray Hughes, editor of Railway Gazette International, declined to promote Railwaywomen: Exploitation, Betrayal and Triumph in the Workplace on the basis of his opinion that readers would not be interested in the subject of women working in the British railway industry. While I am not a subscriber to the Railway Gazette International and therefore cannot comment on the interests of its readership, although I am sure a percentage of subscribers are women, Hughes' attitude reflects the premise of this book that women's participation in and contribution to the railway has been largely ignored by railway historians. Wojtczak remedies this omission with a highly detailed and complete account of women working in the railway dating from pre-World War I to current time. She moves between macro and micro perspectives, from reviewing the railway industry, its hierarchy, unionization, mergers, and privatization to job tasks, working conditions, and uniform details. In addition, the book contains numerous quotations, photographs, cartoons, notices, advertisements, and tables which serve to create a robust historiography. Because the author was herself a railwaywoman, the book has an enthographic, participatory, and reflexive quality which adds a sense of authenticity, insight and depth.
Chapter one provides a background of the railway industry, the role women played, and the social context which women occupied in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This chapter provides the historical background, or foundation, upon which the experience of women in the railway was built. Chapters two through four focus on the role of women in the railway during World War I and World War II. These chapters are particularly interesting in terms of illustrating the multiple and conflicting discourses concerning women, railway work and the war effort. Although women served to fill labour shortages resulting from the recruitment of men into military service, issues regarding wages, job categories and post war activities continued to disadvantage railwaywomen during and after their service. Chapter five looks at the postwar period to 1974. Chapter six reviews Railnews, a railway publication for employees. It is both rewarding and frustrating to see how women are portrayed in this organizational publication. While on one page women's accomplishments are lauded, on the next, a female worker's physical attributes are praised. Chapter seven describes the period of 1975 to current times. The issue of privatization and the role of unions, and the impact on female workers are most notable in this chapter. Chapter eight offers ten personal histories or narratives by former and current railwaywomen - icing on the cake as far as this reviewer is concerned. Chapter nine describes the preserved railways or living museums within Britain. This chapter illustrates how the history of the railway is being preserved and the important role women are playing in preserving that history which appears ironic given their absence from railway history. Chapter ten contains the author's final comments that attempt to pull together the themes of exploitation, betrayal, and triumph - a hefty task, given the detail of the text and complexity of the context.
In Railwaywomen: Exploitation, Betrayal and Triumph in the Workplace Wojtczak provides a definitive textbook of the history of women in the British railway. Although at times one can get lost in the denseness of the details, since Wojtczak is engaged in filling an historical gap, one can tolerate the drier sections as they are followed by interesting descriptions of policies, relationships and attitudes. For example, throughout the book, Wojtczak gives accounts of blatant sex discrimination. This reviewer found the descriptions of union decisions most interesting because although its role was to represent the railway worker, that railway worker that the union represented was male. This resulted many times in illogical arguments and policy decisions that specifically affected, and in some cases, targeted railwaywomen. In addition to accounts of sex discrimination there are accounts of sexual harassment.
Interestingly, sexual harassment became more prevalent after World War II and as more women progressed into higher ranked positions. Reporting incidents of sexual harassment or sex discrimination produced mixed reactions, none of which ended well for the railwaywomen involved. Wojtczak portrays the pride railwaywomen had of their work and their dedication to the railway. From the detailed descriptions of their work and working conditions we learn that these railwaywomen performed physically demanding and difficult labour, yet found the challenge rewarding despite the discrimination, harassment, unfair work practices and unjust treatment.
Many women were from railway families and the railway was a kind of tradition. Others were attracted to the railway as a part of the national infrastructure and some were drawn to the railway because it was more financially lucrative than stereotypical female work and offered the flexibility required for childrearing. Several women whom Wojtczak interviewed had long careers with the railway. By the end of the book while we see that railwaywomen have made progress in this male-dominated industry, we are left with the sense that railwaywomen still have a long way to go.
Railwaywomen: Exploitation, Betrayal and Triumph in the Workplace is an important book for several reasons. Firstly, Wojtczak corrects a significant omission regarding the history of the British railway by focusing on railwaywomen. Secondly, she has brought into the light a piece of women's history that has been left in the dark. Thirdly, this book adds to the accumulated records of women's experience in male-dominated industries; the progress we have made and the challenges that still remain. There are books written about women's experience in the airline industry and the military, and the themes in these accounts are repeated in Railwaywomen. These historical accounts provide feminist organizational theorists with the historical foundation upon which to build theories of change. Mr Hughes was wrong. This book was interesting and could be used as a starting point for further in-depth study into the experience of women within organizations.
Published in Gender, Work & Organization
Volume 15 Issue 4
Page 415-417, July 2008