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Meet the motorettes

Hennepin County Libraries
The title motorman was inappropriate for a woman running a streetcar, so the term motorette was coined.

Before World War II, operating streetcars was considered a man’s job. A 1916 Twin City Rapid Transit (TCRT) report shows sixty-eight female employees out of a workforce of 4,300, and those few were telephone operators and clerical office workers.

Twin Cities streetcar ridership grew from 105 million in 1940 to almost 194 million in 1945, owing to World War II gas and rubber rationing and to a surging wartime economy. At the same time, hundreds of public-transportation employees were entering military service. Like so many other industries and businesses during the war, TCRT turned to women to fill the jobs. The company placed ads in newspapers and began hiring women in July 1943. That year, forty-seven worked as car cleaners and seven as bus drivers, plus an unknown number in other jobs, including mechanics.

However, the majority of the female employees ran streetcars. The title motorman was inappropriate, so the term motorette was coined. Between July 1943 and November 1945, the TCRT hired 381 motorettes. Even though this was an era when many women did not drive, a driver’s license was not required to run a streetcar.

Streetcars had been modified in the 1930s so that a single person—the motorman or motorette — could operate them and also collect fares. On those streetcars that still required a two-person crew, the conductor collected fares at the rear platform. The war and retirement sufficiently reduced the conductor ranks so that from April 1944 to October 1945, 126 “conductorettes” were hired to assist the drivers.

Although generally well received by their coworkers, the public wasn’t always so accepting of these female employees. When interviewed, several motorettes told of passengers refusing to ride with a woman and waiting for the next car. One conductorette was beaten by a drunken returning serviceman who accused her of taking a job from a man.

TCRT initially designed a women’s uniform, which consisted of a tailored jacket, vest, and trousers and a hat with braided band that was softer and smaller in diameter than a man’s hat. The initials TCL (for Twin City Lines) were intertwined to form a new logo that was displayed on the cap and coat lapels. Later photos show women wearing the same uniform as the men. They often provided their own trousers but never wore skirts.

Up to 183 women were employed by TCRT at any one time during the war years. Most worked less than one year and left soon after the war ended, in September 1945. By the end of 1946, only thirty-seven remained. Of those remaining, a few switched to bus driving. Ruby Peterson was the last one, working on the Selby-Lake route for many years before retiring in 1980.

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