Women born in the 19th century in the world of railways

Initially, often gatekeepers to assist their husbands, women entered SNCF workshops during the wars. Today, all positions are open to them.

On the occasion of the European Heritage Days in 2018, the National Center for SNCF Personnel Archives in Béziers assembled a unique archive exhibition showcasing the journeys in the railway world of women born in the 19th century, along with additional focuses.

For several years, SNCF has been taking various actions to promote gender diversity and professional equality and to recruit more women, especially in technical fields where they are still a minority. This demonstrates that the role of women is a crucial issue for the company. However, the history of women in the male-dominated railway world began with the creation of major railway companies in the 19th century. In 1866, women accounted for 7.4% of the workforce. The reluctance of companies to employ them had two main reasons: the belief that women should be homemakers and the desire to avoid disruptions in hierarchy and morals. For several years, SNCF has been taking various actions to promote gender diversity and professional equality and to recruit more women, especially in technical fields where they are still a minority. This demonstrates that the role of women is a crucial issue for the company. However, the history of women in the male-dominated railway world began with the creation of major railway companies in the 19th century. In 1866, women accounted for 7.4% of the workforce. The reluctance of companies to employ them had two main reasons: the belief that women should be homemakers and the desire to avoid disruptions in hierarchy and morals.

The oldest female professions

In the early days of railways, jobs were implicitly reserved for men for several reasons: the importance of physical labor, continuous work organized in alternating shifts, long-distance travel away from home, a concern for authority over subordinates and respectability in front of the public, and a fear of disorder that could result from the proximity and mixing of genders. Nevertheless, companies hired women for certain jobs, either due to the scarcity of male labor for unskilled jobs, to assist widows of employees, or to obtain a low-cost workforce. The oldest documents preserved by the National Center for Personnel Archives on female railway workers consist of service records of women born between the 1820s and 1850s who entered the railway industry between the 1860s and 1880s. They held positions such as stationmasters, gatekeepers, and very often, sanitation attendants responsible for the care and maintenance of facilities in the stations.

Many of these women were widows of employees who had died while on duty. Indeed, it was preferable in the eyes of the companies, as expressed by Frédéric Jacqmin, director of the Compagnie de l’Est in 1867, “to come to the aid of the widows and daughters of its former employees and to replace an always insufficient and difficult-to-receive charity with honorable work.

“Royal” Profession: Gatekeeper

With the expansion of railway lines, level crossings (known as “passages à niveau” or PN) multiplied. It was necessary to protect train traffic at intersections with roads and pathways. Employing the wives of track layers or track maintenance workers as gatekeepers offered several advantages to the railway companies: the husband could be freed up for track maintenance and protection, and the wife would receive a lower salary. Additionally, “single women” level crossings allowed for the hiring of widows of railway employees. Among the 12,576 female employees recorded in 1882, 91% were affiliated with the track and building services of the companies. These were gatekeepers and semaphore keepers. In 1914, out of 29,100 female employees, 26,117 were gatekeepers. The number of level crossings was estimated to be 30,000 in 1924, and at that time, level crossings were only open when necessary and then closed again. The automation of barriers, starting in the late 1940s, would eventually lead to the disappearance of this profession.

In this exhibition, the archetypal and age-old figures of gatekeepers and semaphore keepers are discussed, covering topics such as their recruitment, the strictness of the companies towards them, the varying realities from one level crossing to another, and the altercations with people who believed they were not opening the barriers quickly enough.

In the railway worker couple, the wife was often heavily dependent on her husband. The wage disparity between the husband and wife could be as much as 1 to 5 or even 1 to 10. Nevertheless, the documents clearly show the sense of jealousy that the gatekeepers and the “railway worker farming couples” inspired in others.

Female Railway Workers in Factories: Temporary Workers

During the Great War, the railways faced a shortage of labor due to high demand. Faced with significantly increased traffic, women became increasingly attractive to both railway companies and the government. In 1915, the Ministry of War requested assistance from the companies for manufacturing related to national defense. Women were then hired as day laborers in depots and workshops, mainly those with family ties to railway employees. They worked on shells in fitting workshops.

The number of female employees surged during the Great War. From 29,100 individuals on January 1, 1914, it increased to 50,900 on January 1, 1919, representing 16.7% of the regular personnel. However, with the end of the war and the return of men, many women returned to their homes. Female labor seemed to become burdensome for the railway companies, especially as they had to incorporate 75,000 volunteer reservists from the active army.

In 1919, resignations and layoffs of non-commissioned female staff multiplied. The outbreak of the May 1920 strike and the participation of female workers in the movement provided a good pretext for the companies to part ways with them.

During the interwar period, the rate of feminization returned to the pre-war average of 10%.

Permanent Female Workers

In the workshops and depots, many female railway workers with official status held the rank of “laborer,” the lowest level on the pay scale for female personnel according to the 1920 status.

What jobs are hidden behind this rank? Reading through the records, particularly the assessment forms, reveals that laborers were employed to do a bit of everything, but primarily in washing and cleaning tasks. The working conditions were tough, especially for those assigned to outdoor work at depots.

The railway companies closely monitored the performance of their employees, both men and women. In cases of low performance, doctors were consulted to determine if the individual’s health was compatible with the position held.

The records kept at the National Center for Personnel Archives on women born between the 1870s and 1890s do not mention women holding the rank of workers (Fd-FD series of the 1920 status), nor do they mention women as assistant chiefs or chiefs of laborer brigades (Fe-FE series).

Women hired under the status working in the Equipment department are generally widows, wives of deceased railway workers, or war widows. There was typically nothing in their backgrounds that predisposed them to become railway workers, except for seamstresses.

Female Railway Workers at Stations. Les haltes

Station Managers. Ticket Clerks

In the article “The Employment of Women at the Old Dombes Company,” published in May 1885 in the Revue générale des chemins de fer, Félix Mangini, the director of the company, reported that in 1880, among the 93 station masters on all three lines of the company, there were 21 women. He mentioned, “We were satisfied with very basic education, but we were very particular about qualities of order and cleanliness. We sought intelligence, and we only accepted the women of employees with recognized integrity.” This approach yielded immediate benefits: “The public on our lines, almost entirely composed of peasants, liked its modest employees, with so few distinctions, always polite with them. One had to see the air of cleanliness that prevailed in some of these stations, which we often cited as an example to the chiefs of major stations…”

Originally, in small stations, station masters were responsible for ticket distribution. However, to free them from this task, which could prevent them from fulfilling their other duties, the companies called upon their wives or daughters.

Assistant Chief of Office Grade 1st Class (Scale 14)

Agent responsible for leading, organizing, and coordinating the administrative tasks of one or more groups.

Administrative Studies Chief 2nd Class (Scale 17)

Agent responsible for conducting significant and sensitive research and studies in administrative, commercial, or legal matters; may carry out these functions with the assistance of one or more agents whose work they oversee.

Divisional Inspector 1st Class (ISD1 – Scale 19)

Agent responsible for conducting particularly important and sensitive research and inspection missions, whether of a technical nature (railway, industrial, or scientific) or in administrative, commercial, or legal matters. They may also be tasked with overseeing and monitoring the overall operations of a group of establishments, a specific department, or a specialty.

Railway employees at major train stations

Ticket clerks. Clerks. Record-keeping clerks.

At major train stations, there can be up to 1,200 employees or even more. In contrast to small stations, the staff is specialized and distributed, often organized into offices or workgroups, and placed under the supervision of a ranking officer, such as an assistant stationmaster.

The role of ticket collectors was entrusted to special agents. ‘Almost everywhere we have been able to assign these positions to women, and we have only applauded the choices we made; we even believe that for the rapid issuance of tickets, calculating their value, and making change, women acquire an unmatched dexterity. In major stations such as Paris, Nancy, Metz, and Strasbourg, the ticket service is carried out by women, who alone are capable of ensuring a distribution that, on some days, has reached 60,000 tickets,’ said F. Jacqmin, director of the Eastern Railway Company in 1868.

If there is another area where the abilities of women are quickly recognized, it is in the field of ‘cashier and office work.’ Widows, as well as young women, attain the positions of record-keeping clerks and clerks, especially after the Great War, as the educational level of women has advanced.

Ticket collector

Specialized agent responsible for the continuous issuance and accounting of tickets, subscription cards, and other passenger journey documents.

Record-keeping clerk

Agent responsible for a mixed service without specialization involving tasks such as writing, labeling, recognition, handling, telephone duties, and passenger control.


Agent responsible for office work in the specialties of ‘Passenger Services,’ ‘Freight,’ ‘Secretariat,’ ‘Typewriting and Stenography,’ ‘Mechanography,’ ‘Customs,’ and ‘Telephone.

Senior Clerk

The head of an office specializing in fields that include 3 to 7 agents.

Photographic album of the staff at Toulouse-Matabiau train station-  CNAH (1272LM0001) CNAH (1272LM0001)

The Central Services: The Most Distinguished Careers

Upon reading the records, it becomes evident that women born in the 19th century who reached the highest pay scales in their careers were unmarried. Their career progression was attributed to their professional competence, leadership abilities, intelligence, and the fact that they worked in the central services in Paris. Out of the 12,576 female employees recorded in 1882, only 1% were affiliated with the central services of the companies.

Furthermore, all of them held educational qualifications higher than primary school certificates. They belonged to a still predominantly minority category of young women who continued their education beyond the mandatory primary school level.

The case of Blanche Le Thessier is even more remarkable, as she was the only senior female official at the SNCF (French National Railway Company) in 1953. Born in 1897, she was one of the first seven young women admitted to the École Centrale (Central School) in 1918.

At the beginning of the 20th century, among specialized schools with a medical and then medical-social orientation, there were schools of religious origin, secular philanthropic schools, and secular republican schools, including the School of Superintendents. Opened in 1917, the School of Factory and Social Services Superintendents trained professionals who specialized in industry-related issues, serving the workforce and working towards moral preservation and social peace. The State diploma of superintendent was created in 1932 and was recognized by the National Education system in 1938.

The female railway workers who perished due to the repression carried out by the Nazi authorities and the Vichy regime are included in the Memorial of Railway Workers Victims of Repression. The archives preserved by the Archives and Documentation Service were one of the main sources used for this book, particularly the career and pension records held by the National Center for Personnel Archives.