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Steam age Marias

Study retrace the difficult route of the first women who worked on the Northwest of Brazil railroad, in Bauru

REPRODUction from the book "MULHERES, TRENS E TRILHOS"Bookkeeping department staff with Northwest Brazil, in 1944REPRODUction from the book "MULHERES, TRENS E TRILHOS"

350 kilometers from the capital of the state of São Paulo and at the junction of three important railroads (Northwestern, Paulista , and Sorocabana), the country but effervescent city of Bauru, which had only recently left behind its capacity as “the door to the backlands”, saw the birth of a new kind of woman, who carried out her occupation in the public sphere, from 1918 onwards. Northwestern was the pioneer and the most important of the railroads to cross the city and had set up its headquarters there in 1905, opening up the west of São Paulo in the direction of the frontiers of Mato Grosso.

In March 1918, the railway hired its first female member of staff: Flordaliza Meira Monte, aged 16, born in Capivari, also in São Paulo, taken on as temporary worker at the job as a telegraphist, the profession that her father had on the railroad. Until then, from the stations and workshops to the offices, passing obviously through the coaches of the trains, the company was an exclusively male environment. Skirts were only to be seen there, when they were to be seen, on passengers of some train coming from the capital.

Or then in the cabarets and brothels, usually close to the railroad station, where – to use the language current at the time – one found the prototype of the public woman of those days, dancers and prostitutes, vulgarly called “tramps”. Therefore, it was that the recruitment of the future office clerk, who had landed the job of a lifetime (she was to retire, for illness, in 1942), inaugurates a new stage for the railroad: the age of the female railroad workers of Bauru, serious girls, unmarried, usually coming from various regions of São Paulo or from other states, with their ages ranging from 15 to 30.

Like the so-called “tramps”, with whom they were frequently mistaken, the female railroad workers were also public women. Public in the sense that they had opted, perhaps under the influence of the American cinema, for working outside the home, in the collective space of society, instead of staying restricted to the traditional roles of mother and housewife, carried out typically in the private sphere, in the heart of the home. “For the female imagination of the day, the railroad represented freedom”, says historian Lidia Maria Vianna Possas, of the State University of São Paulo (Unesp), of Marília, who tracked down fragments of the almost unknown career of the first female workers on the Northwestern, one of the most important railroads of the country.

Her book Mulheres, Trens e Trilhos [Women, Trains and Tracks] (Editora da Universidade do Sagrado Coração de Jesus), published at the end of 2001, is the result of years of research. To avoid undesirable flirtation at work and to disassociate their image from the slur of being prostitutes, the women who worked for the Northwestern adopted a deliberately humorless posture at work. Between 1918 and 1945, the period focused by the study, the researcher managed to find in the records of the Northwestern the passage of 250 women through the company, who followed a path similar to that of the pioneer Flordaliza. This was from amongst the 14,000 personal staff records of the railroad that Lidia rummaged through.

Among these two and a half hundreds of female railroad workers, the most educated, usually coming from the middle class, became telephone operator, typists or did all kinds of jobs in the office. The humbler women would dedicate themselves to toiling in the kitchen, laundry, cleaning and attending the public. In the second group of women, changing jobs was common, as they had difficulty in adapting themselves to the harsh working conditions. The women’s work was rarely directly connected with the company’s end purpose: making the trains move. Worse still: the image of the women, despite their being targets for constant attempts of sexual harassment, is practically ignored by the official history of the railroad.

Even many retired railroad workers quite often have difficulty remembering whether they had colleagues of the opposite sex among the company’s staff. “It is more or less as if there had been no women working there”, is the comment made by Lidia, a ‘carioca’, from Rio de Janeiro, who has been living in Bauru for 15 years. “The official history portrays, in a repetitive manner, the railroad as a vigorous instrument of progress, of the class struggle, and not as an agent that spurred changes in behavior and values.”

At that stage, in the 1920’s, with 20,000 inhabitants, integrated by the locomotives with capitalism and modernity, it is obvious that Bauru was now employing girls in its commerce, showing seamstresses in its ateliers, relying on female teachers in its schools, and guaranteeing the livelihood of secretaries for those of the liberal professions. These women, however, did not suffer so strongly the stigma, as was the case of the female employees of the Northwestern, of being a public woman, that is to say, of being compared with the dancers and whores who worked in the cabarets near the station.

After all, the climate in commerce was more family-like and less masculine than on the railroad. To ward off any malicious insinuation, the women railroad workers incorporated to the letter the discipline and formality that the Northwestern required of its members of staff. “They did not want to be mistaken for prostitutes”, explains Lidia. So much that they often neither married nor had children. From the 30’s on , some came to be interested in politics, in particular for integralism, the Brazilian version of fascism that won adepts amongst the Bauru railroad workers.

Woman in the vacancy of a mule
How did women manage to get work with the Northwestern? The manner of joining the company was not very clear and transparent until 1938, when public entrance exams were instituted, open to men and women over 18 years old. The first places in the tests were often taken by candidates wearing skirts. For a long time, however, a joke that used to go around among the railroad workers – not just those from Bauru, but from other places as well – trying to explain the origin of female workers in such a manly environment. The first woman was said to have been taken on for the vacancy left by a railroad mule, which had died. That is, exit the animal, enter the woman, paid from the budget previously used to feed the beast. The joke was tranquilizing: no man had given up a vacancy for a woman.

Even under contract, the women did not have the same labor rights as the men. Until 1928, according to the Unesp professor’s survey, a large part of them did not have a formal link with the Northwestern. Some of them were registered with the name of a man, usually a relative who had worked on the railroad, from whom they had sort of inherited the position at work. This situation was only to improve substantially with the adoption of public examinations for admission. The women railroad workers also had to prove constantly that they competent in their duties. “There was always that story (..) that women are weak. A woman cannot do this and that”, recalls Hermínia Malheiros de Oliveira, who worked as a telephone operator for the Northwestern, in a statement given in 1997, when she was 81 years old, for the book on the Northwestern railroad women.

Besides the demonstrations of the lack of professional recognition, the propositions at work, the repression of their own sexuality, the women railroad workers also had to face more humdrum inconvenience in the daily life with the Northwestern. They only won exclusive toilets, for example, in 1934, when the Northwestern’s new railroad station was built in Bauru. Until then, they had to obey previously established times to go to the toilet. One of the arguments of the bosses against toilets for women was that these places would become a spot for women to chat. As if men did not engage in conversation at work.

In spite of having found valuable documents and records in the archives of the Regional Memory Center, a museum in Bauru maintained by Unesp and the Federal Railroad Network (RFFSA), the historian had difficulties in following the tracks of the majority of the former female workers of the railroad, above all of those who carried out the less noble functions. The records contain details only up to the moment that the workers leave the railroad company – the humbler ones were precisely those who had most difficulty in adapting themselves to the inflexibility of the company and who often ended up quitting the job or were fired, sometimes without receiving due compensation.

Other hindrances were added to the scarcity of documents: many former women railroad workers had died, and among those still alive there were those who preferred to forget the past. “Many of these women felt like fish out of water, because of the countless times they had been slighted”, explains Lidia.

The study of the history of the first railroads comes to an end in 1945, when access to the public entrance exams to the Northwestern was practically denied to women, and they themselves began to aspire to other professional horizons. From the 50’s on , the country opted for automobiles instead of locomotives. Fortunately, there are still researchers like Lidia, an enthusiast for trains since she was a girl.

In her house in Bauru, she keeps a telephone with the shape of an old locomotive on top of her desk. A present from a friend, the device reproduces the sound of a steam locomotive drawing into a station, instead of the traditional ring. “My work is not to defend the women railroad workers”, Lidia says. “But to give their careers greater visibility, showing their social struggle”.

From “door to the backlands” to city of surprises

On a map of the then province (now state) of São Paulo from 1886, the last urban settlement to the northwest of São Paulo is Bauru, in those days a village with a reputation of being the “door to the backlands”. Everything to west of the hamlet is described as being “unknown territory peopled by Indians”, part of the wild country. Ten years later, this little village is raised to the condition of municipality. But the town, which had a little less than 8,000 inhabitants at the turn of the 19th century, only started to acquire a structure and to really grow when railroad tracks arrived.

The Northwestern Brazil, which set up its headquarters there, opened in 1905, the Paulista came in the following year, and the Sorocabana in 1910. With the help of the locomotives, Bauru, which lies at the geographical center of the state, is connected with the capital of the state – and with the world of modernity and of the country’s nascent capitalism, whose main figures were to be the coffee barons.

Quickly, almost all the habits, customs and fashions in force in the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are imported by the inhabitants of Bauru, in their majority outsiders, men and women without a settled family, who had migrated to the “entrance to the new Brazil”. In 1920, shortly after the first women were hired by the Northwestern, its population reached the 20,000 mark. In 1940, this number rises to 55,000. Commerce develops. Boarding houses and hotels are opened, taking advantage of its vocation as a passing point as the city with three railroads. Mundane life also develops.

Frenchified cabarets, like Maxim’s, open their doors near the railroad station. Brothels proliferate, like the House of Eny, which was to have make its name known all over the state. In the light of the movement of people coming from everywhere, avid for social ascension and entertainment, including illicit drugs, Rodrigues Alves the poet moved to the city in 1923 and became an employee of the local notary’s office. He described Bauru as the “City of Surprises”. In a passage from his poem Bauru, from the 30’s, Abreu makes an allusion to the vanguard and boundless spirit of Bauru society of the times: “I have now taken cocaine in your lowly suburbs, where there are Milonguitas (prostitutes) with droopy eyelids and shining eyes!”.