Jessica Woods, a Museum Studies student in the College of Professional and Continuing Studies, has been hard at work creating a museum exhibit that features the often-untold lives of women in the rail industry. The “Vital to Victory” exhibit debuted in March 2017 at the Interurban Railway Museum in Plano, Texas and features women throughout history in incredible roles—from early streetcar drivers to modern locomotive engineers.
“Women were initially only granted entry to these jobs during World War I and World War II when male employees were drafted into service,” Woods said. “The women were ‘vital to victory’ in that many train companies would have had to shut down without finding suitable replacement employees, which would in turn severely decrease America’s production and efficiency in distributing provisions during a time of war. Once hired, these women proved themselves to be just as competent employees as the motormen.”
Woods’ exhibit features five panels with short interpretive paragraphs and historical images, as well as “reader rails” under each panel highlighting propaganda posters through the years. The panels feature important topics in motorwoman history: World War I, World War II, a motorwoman featurette on Maya Angelou, Texas motorwomen and, finally, modern women in the rail industry. The exhibit also features the tools a motorwoman would have used daily, like ticket punches and coin belts.
"I wanted to shed light on these unknown women who were brave enough to enter a male-dominated workforce in a region which had very traditional gender expectations and which shied away from publicly acknowledging their successes."
Woods said the project began as an assignment in the Museum Project course offered through PACS’ Museum Studies program. The course encourages students to partner with a local museum to create a tangible museum piece, and the coursework walks students through the process of creating museum content; this includes phases to collect research, develop a narrative and write interpretive text. When planning her project, Woods took it upon herself to construct an entire exhibit for display in the Interurban Railway Museum.
Her idea for “Vital to Victory” began with a realization she had while working at the North Texas museum: although the museum featured numerous photos of train drivers throughout Texas history, not one of them was female.
“I brought this topic to the museum co-director and we began preliminary research to see if it was a viable exhibit idea,” she said. “We planned a completion deadline of March 2017, knowing that the exhibit would be a prime attraction in tandem with Women’s History Month.”
The process involved months of research for Woods. She scoured state archives, old newspapers and articles she found online for any mention of motorwomen in Texas. She also worked with a designer to create beautiful, eye-catching panels made to look like the front pages of a giant newspaper, and multiple interns contributed their talents to help her find sources, revise text, plan exhibit layouts and create artifact labels.
“One thing that really stood out during the research process was that the northern and western states heavily documented the entry of women into the electric train workforce,” she noted. “Minneapolis-St. Paul and San Francisco had great photos and documentation of the first women to work on their lines. However, after a year of searching, I was only able to find one photo of a woman driving the historic streetcars in Texas. There seemed to be a disparity in the amount of publicity given to women’s ‘firsts’ in the south, compared to the amount of publicity they were given in other regions. I wanted to shed light on these unknown women who were brave enough to enter a male-dominated workforce in a region which had very traditional gender expectations and which shied away from publicly acknowledging their successes. Even today, we only have the names of the first Dallas motorwomen, no photos.”
Woods began her work on “Vital to Victory” in January 2016, and the exhibit was officially completed and ready for display on February 24, 2017. She credits her colleagues at the Interurban Railway Museum for her successful completion of the project, and she says the help and creative freedom they offered her was invaluable.
“Vital to Victory: How Motorwomen Challenged and Changed the World” is currently on display in the Interurban Railway Museum in Historic Downtown Plano, Texas, located at 901 E. 15th St., and it will be featured until the end of the year. Admission is free to all ages. More information about the museum and its exhibits can be found at www.interurbanrailwaymuseum.org or on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, where the museum has shared updates on the exhibit over the past year.