Engineering women: Breaking through railroad’s gender barrier tough, at first

Jan 1st, 2014 | By | Category: Transportation
DEBBIE BRYCE/IDAHO STATE JOURNAL    Union Pacific’s first female engineers Brandy Howard, Leanne Lindauer, Cheryl McMasters, Sheila McAteer, Wilma Hawkes and Michelle Kordopatis are shown.

Union Pacific’s first female engineers Brandy Howard, Leanne Lindauer, Cheryl McMasters, Sheila McAteer, Wilma Hawkes and Michelle Kordopatis are shown.

For the Journal

POCATELLO — The job provided financial security to Union Pacific Railroad’s first female engineers, but in return the women, many who were single moms, made huge sacrifices to be part of an industry that did not immediately welcome them.


Wilma Hawkes started working as a brakeman and conductor for UP in 1979 — she started her career as an engineer two years later. Hawkes, who’s now retired, said the railroad was still not ready to accommodate its new female workers.


“I went on a trip to Green River. When I got there, I asked where the women’s restroom was, and the guy told me, ‘There shouldn’t be a women’s restroom. You don’t belong here,’” Hawkes said.


Shown is a Union Pacific freight train.

Shown is a Union Pacific freight train.

Sheila McAteer started as a clerk at UP in 1976. “When I started you had to be at a position for at least two years before you could be promoted,” McAteer said. “I graduated from high school in May and started with the railroad a month later.”


Michelle Kordopatis also went to work for the railroad straight out of high school. In 1973, she worked as a clerk in the UP office as well.


Cheryl McMasters started in 1972. McMasters, now an engineer, plans to retire in three months after working on the railroad for 42 years.


All four women said not all their male co-workers immediately welcomed them aboard the locomotives.


“We were on strike and stuck in Nampa and this guy started screaming at me,” McAteer said. “He said he’d been trying to get his son hired on for months and it was my fault that he didn’t get hired. But some of the other guys stuck up for me and eventually, the guy apologized and we got to be friends.”


McMasters said when women started working on the locomotives, most depots had communal showers for the train crews.


The Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action laws enacted in the 1960s compelled employers to hire minorities including women, but many industries took their time complying with the standard.


“The railroad was supposed to hire one woman for every 10 men, but they never did do that,” Kordopatis said.


While women were not well received in the maledominated railroad, females eventually won the cooperation, respect and in some cases, friendship of the male engineers.


“You had to prove yourself ,” Kordopatis said. “You couldn’t just do the job as good as the men, you had to do it better.”


McAteer agreed, but said once their male counterparts accustomed themselves to working alongside women, the situation improved.


“Once they could see that you were willing to learn and that you wanted to learn how to do the job, the men bent over backwards to help you,” McAteer said.


Leanne Lindauer started at UP in 1979 and was the first female engineer in the Utah division. She said filthy toilets on locomotives, depots without facilities for women and contention from male co-workers were commonplace.


“Back then, those guys could pretty much say whatever they wanted to you,” Lindauer said. “You just had to deal with it.”


In 1979, Hawkes made $32,000. Today, Union Pacific engineers earn about $80,000.


Train engineers are always on call and required to be on the train in as little as 90 minutes.


The job is physically demanding, dirty and stressful.


“My kids were on a rigid schedule because I didn’t have a schedule,” Hawkes said.


The women said they relied on family and nannies to help care for their children while they were on the road.


McAteer said the engineer has to be aware of the freight on the 15,000-foot train and the engineer also performs a safety check of the train before leaving the yard.


“The train does not drive itself,” McAteer said. “Each train is different, you kind of do it by the seat of your pants.”


The engineers operate the train with the assistance of a conductor. They are in a confined space, but continually moving.


“You are constantly busy once you’re on the train,” Kordopatis said.


Engineer Maryanne Hennessy started working for UP in 1998 and her daughter, Brandy Howard, signed on in 2004. She currently works as a conductor.


Hennessy and Howard said the early female railroad workers paved the way for them. The job isn’t any easier, but the benefits still outweigh the adversity. And their male co-workers have accepted women in the locomotives.


“Today they take us seriously,” Hennessy said. “It’s still a good job, I was able to take care of my family without going on welfare.”


Howard worked at a resort in Colorado before signing on with UP. But she said she was born into the railroad and the transition seemed only natural. Her grandfather, Ken Hennessy, retired from Union Pacific.


All of the women came from railroad families. Most followed their fathers onto the job and they said missing out family events, birthdays and holidays was the toughest part of their job.


“You’re not there and you miss a lot of firsts,” Kordopatis said. “You have no friends because you can’t plan anything. You really have no social life.”


McAteer said the life style is also tough on relationships and many marriages fail because of frequent, extensive separation.


But McMasters said you just make it work.


Hawkes agreed, but said once she adapted, it was not a bad life.


“That’s it,” Hawkes said. “It’s not a job, it’s a way of life.”


Unforgiving steel, heavy, greasy equipment, separation from family and friends, and long hours become part of their regular routine. But Hawkes said there is also an upside to the job.


“We were able to see some of the most beautiful sights, wildlife, sunsets, we saw it all,” Hawkes said. “Once we saw two bull elk fighting — you couldn’t see that anywhere else.”


Kordopatis agreed and said she’s seen the Northern lights twice from the front of her locomotive.


But the engineers have also witnessed horrendous events that they’ll carry with them for a lifetime.


On Mother’s Day 2013, a young woman committed suicide by walking in front of McMasters’ train in Nampa. There was no way and no time to stop the thousands of tons of steel before striking the girl.


McMasters said she was removed from the train and provided transport back to Pocatello following the incident.


Kordopatis experienced a similar event years ago when a man attempted to flag down the train, she couldn’t stop the locomotive and the man was struck and killed. Kordopatis also sustained injuries when the train she was operating struck a semitrailer on the tracks. By this time next year, McMasters’ career as an engineer will be behind her. Railroad workers are eligible for retirement at age 60, with 30 years of service.


“I can’t wait, I’m counting down the days,” Mc-Masters said. “But at the same time, I know I’ll miss it.”


But she’ll stay in contact with the women who joined the ranks of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers with her. The women meet every couple months to catch up and reminisce about their time on the railroad.


“We share an uncommon, common experience,” Lindauer said.


All seven women agreed and said they speak the same language.


“And it’s a language all its own,” Kordopatis said.

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2 Comments to “Engineering women: Breaking through railroad’s gender barrier tough, at first”

  1. matt posey says:

    my mother was also in this group of brave women. Rebecca Atkinson hired out around the same time as them and is three years from retiring so almost 40 years at this job is uncredable

  2. Haylee Brasseaux Saunders says:

    My mom was the first woman Locomotive Engineer on the Idaho Division. Marsha Goodman Freeman Brasseaux. She hired out in 1967 in Nampa, Idaho as a Telegrapher for Union Pacific as my grandmother was in Lima, Montana in 1946. In 1975 mom passed the tests and became a Locomotive Engineer in Pocatello, Idaho. She was the first engineer to be pregnant.( in the northwest) (with me in 1977)
    Mom worked for over 46 years retiring in Nov. 2013. She has many stories to tell from being a trail blazer among all men. Haylee Brasseaux Saunders

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